Bill Clinton's nearly forgotten 1992 sex scandal

Story highlights

  • Scandals often wreck presidential campaigns, but Bill Clinton survived one in 1992 about an alleged affair
  • Clinton's response after Gennifer Flowers went public shows how times were changing
  • Scandals of the 1992 Clinton-Bush campaign are detailed in CNN's Original Series "Race for the White House"

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Go behind the scenes of the most dramatic elections on CNN's "Race for the White House," narrated by Kevin Spacey, Sundays at 9p.

(CNN)Scandals are an integral part of the American political tradition.

Since the founding of the republic, presidential candidates have often engaged in brutal attacks against one another, digging up the dirt about sex, corruption or other kinds of allegations with the aim of tarnishing their character.
    All the way back when opponents of Andrew Jackson spread rumors that he had slept with his wife, Rachel, while she was still technically married to another man to the infamous discovery of an affair that brought down Colorado Democrat Gary Hart in 1987, scandals are as much a part of our elections as voting and rallies.
    Not all scandals are about sex. Revelations in 1972 that Democrat George McGovern's running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had undergone electrical shock therapy for depression, for example, turned into a full-blown crisis that led to his stepping down from the race.
    This year is no different. GOP candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz recently unloaded a blistering series of attacks against each other linked to their wives and unconfirmed reports in the tabloid newspaper The National Enquirer.

    The sticky factor

    Yet not all scandals stick, and this is one of the most fascinating aspects of this phenomenon: There's no clear rhyme or reason as to what kinds of scandals will bring down a candidate and which kind of politician can survive.
    Sometimes we've seen one candidate do the same thing and continue with their campaign. The lesson is that not all scandals are equal and sometimes the failure of an incident to uproot a candidate tells us a great deal about the changing political moment in which they're running.
    This was the case in 1992 with Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
    Clinton had been the come-from-nowhere candidate who put together a formidable campaign that centered on economics and battling a tough recession. Clinton was a blend of traditional Democratic politics and the then-new Democratic Leadership Council, which had pushed for more centrist approach. His wife, Hillary Clinton, a talented lawyer with political experience, was also the emblem of the modern two-career family who would bring additional assets into the White House.
    Then the scandal broke that seemed like it could end his candidacy.
    Clinton had a well-known reputation for womanizing. Right before the New Hampshire primary, a supermarket tabloid called The Star broke a story about Gennifer Flowers, who worked for the state of Arkansas and had been a cabaret dancer. Flowers said she had engaged in a 12-year sexual relationship with Clinton. The two had met in the 1970s when she was a local reporter.
    The story was based on legal documents from a lawsuit that a former state employee had filed against Clinton in which he claimed that the governor had used state resources for a series of affairs. The Star reportedly paid Flowers over $100,000 to confirm the story.
    At first, some in the media ignored the story given the outlet that published the first take. "This is what I think of the story," said the executive producer of CBS News, before throwing the tabloid in the garbage.
    But soon he had to take another look. Within five days, the feeding frenzy was in full swing and everyone wanted to know more about Flowers.
    Hillary Clinton staunchly defended her husband. She told reporters "It's not true" and then added: "We just have to trust the American voter to make up his or her mind."

    The response

    Clinton responded in Clinton fashion. He didn't hide, he responded.
    He decided to go on "60 Minutes" on January 26, in the broadcast that came right after the Super Bowl, and admit there had been challenges in their relationship but that they had moved beyond them and this should not be part of the campaign.
    "I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage," he told CBS reporter Steve Kroft. Both he and Hillary denied that he had an affair with Flowers. The interview received immense coverage. Democrats were surprised and impressed by how he was able to keep his composure throughout this crisis.
    Upon seeing the interview, Flowers was livid. "I saw a side of Bill that I have never seen before," she said, "He is absolutely lying."
    Soon after the 42-year old Flowers released suggestive, but highly garbled, tapes of phone conversations discussing with her how to respond when questioned by reporters.
    Flowers was not the most credible witness. The fact she was paid for the story raised suspicions, while the phone tapes didn't exactly confirm what she had said. She would also accept money from Penthouse for a story with a pictorial to go along with it. A year earlier, she had also threatened to sue a radio station for airing the accusations.
    Six years later, while under oath during a deposition in a sexual harassment case, Clinton again denied the allegations of a long-running affair with Flowers, but he did admit they had a sexual encounter.
    Besides surviving the scandal, Clinton performed masterfully in New Hampshire, inspiring crowds by demonstrating his appealing personality and impressive command of policy. He also bought extensive airtime so that he could communicate directly to voters with town hall events.
    Clinton went on to win the primaries and the scandal. In New Hampshire he did well, coming in a strong second to Paul Tsongas. And the scandal, though never deemed wrong, did not end Clinton's candidacy. After New Hampshire, the "Comeback Kid" said that he felt "liberated." He defeated President George H.W. Bush in November.

    Clinton's strategy and changing times

    In the end, the scandal fizzled. Why was this?
    Part of this has to do with Clinton and his strategy. This is where the individual mattered. He understood that in the modern era of politics, candidates had to be aggressive when attacked -- he established what his people called a war room -- and not allow their opponents to define them.
    Yet another part of the story had to do something bigger, a change that was taking place in American politics that would remain relevant in decades to come.
    Though cultural conservatives such as Patrick Buchanan, the Richard Nixon speechwriter and political television commentator who challenged the incumbent President in the 1992 primaries, were still fighting the culture wars -- trying to defend some image of nostalgic values -- the truth was that much of the nation had continued to move to the left when it came to society and culture.
    The Age of Aquarius had a much more lasting impact than conservatives understood.
    Americans were more comfortable with the complexities of sexual relations and cultural choices, in red states and blue. They watched MTV, with all of its sexuality, all over the country and they saw movies and television shows that were a far cry from "Leave It to Beaver."
    The truth is that many Americans didn't really care about the personal peccadilloes of politicians as long as their private actions didn't fundamentally clash with the political positions for which they stood. The times, they were a-changin'.
    Bill Clinton never pretended to be some kind of cultural conservative who claimed that everyone should live by certain personal standards. Nor was he a politician who wanted some kinds of regulations on the ways in which other Americans lived their lives.
    The fact this did not bring him down revealed the zeitgeist had changed pretty dramatically.
    Even in the age of Ronald Reagan, America had kept moving to the left on social and cultural issues. Republicans would pay the price for missing these lessons when they tried to impeach Clinton later in his presidency based on a sexual relationship with an intern, Monica Lewinsky.
    What they learned, once again, was the public didn't want these sorts of issues to dominate their politics and in the end, the backlash from the impeachment proceedings against Clinton went against the GOP, not the President.
    In the 2016 election, we are seeing once again that the public is more interested in the need to fix the economy and Washington than they are with the personal lives of most of the candidates in this campaign, at least those who don't claim any kind of special personal virtue.