1. Don’t be defined by impeachment. Bill Clinton delivered his 1998 State of the Union address exactly one week after the Drudge Report posted the sensational news of his affair with a White House intern. In his lengthy address, he did not reference the scandal at all. At intervals during the following year, Clinton made statements about major turning points in the scandal—for instance, his grand-jury testimony. But most of the time, the president took pains to show himself as engaged in anything and everything else. Message: The Republicans are obsessed with my sex life; I am focused on my job.
2. Express contrition for proven wrongdoing. After Clinton’s early denials of a relationship with the intern Monica Lewinsky were exposed as false, he expressed contrition for his offenses while arguing that impeachment represented an excessive response. “I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned,” he declared at the White House prayer breakfast on September 11, 1998. “It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine: first and most important, my family; also my friends, my staff, my Cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness.”
3. Leave no fingerprints on any countermeasures. Through 1998, one Clinton accuser after another was felled or tainted by damaging revelations of sexual scandal: House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his would-be successor, Robert Livingston; House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. Perhaps others in Congress were kept in line by fears that something similar might befall them. The counterattacks came from people like the Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Despite ample speculation that the White House political operation was somehow involved, nobody could ever prove a link.
4. Persuade the waverers. Clinton had a base, too, of course—those ready to believe that, at the least, there was plenty of blame to spread around. Maureen Dowd led the media pack, calling Lewinsky “a ditsy, predatory White House intern” and mocking her weight and appearance. But the Clinton impeachment strategy was not focused on his superfans. It was focused on that famous 1990s demographic bloc, the soccer moms: women who disapproved of Clinton’s character, but liked Clinton’s economy. The strategy for 1998 and ’99 always kept these waverers uppermost in mind, again and again offering them a middle way: Condemn Clinton and move on.
5. Never read the stage directions aloud. As the House of Representatives neared the end of its impeachment debate, December 16, Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, the largest U.S. air strike since the Gulf War of 1990. Clinton skeptics wondered whether the timing was a coincidence. White House officials insisted otherwise, and not a word was ever said or written to prove them wrong. Clinton held the upper hand by that point, but any suggestion that he had subordinated national security to his political needs could have upended everything for him.