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National Meaning of "Is" Day

On August 17, 1998, President Bill Clinton became the first president to testify before the Office of Independent Council, and the first president to testify before a grand jury as part of an investigation into his (or her) conduct. During his questioning, which dealt with his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton uttered the phrase, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," when asked about sexual relations with Lewinsky. Today we remember this political scandal and galvanizing moment in history, where President Clinton was eventually impeached by the House of Representatives, but ultimately acquitted by the Senate.

The investigation into Clinton's affair with Lewinsky was part of a larger four-year investigation into scandals surrounding Bill and Hillary Clinton, conducted by independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr. These investigations included looking into possible cronyism with the firing of White House travel-agency personnel; possible illegal real estate deals in Arkansas, known as Whitewater; and sexual harassment accusations. During the investigation into a sexual harassment suit made by Paula Jones, Starr uncovered Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton began his affair with Lewinksy in November 1995, and they had close to a dozen sexual encounters in the White House over about a year and a half period. After Lewinsky transferred to the Pentagon in 1996, she began confiding in a coworker, Linda Tripp, about the affair. Tripp eventually secretly recorded their conversations.

In December 1997, Paula Jones's lawyers subpoenaed Lewinsky. On January 8, 1998, Lewinsky signed an affidavit saying that she never had a sexual relationship with Clinton. Less than a week later, Tripp contacted Starr and told him about the tapes she had recorded. The following day, Tripp wore a wire and met with Lewinsky. FBI agents then took Lewinsky to a hotel and offered her immunity if she agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. The story of the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky began showing up in the press as early as January 19. On January 26, Clinton vehemently denied the affair, and uttered one of his most memorable lines from the ordeal, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."

The August 17 testimony was precipitated by charges of perjury and obstruction of justice that Starr had leveled at Clinton, which stemmed from testimony he gave on January 17, during a deposition in the Paula Jones case. Then, Clinton was asked if he had had any sexual relations with Lewinsky, and he had denied it. Starr subpoenaed Clinton for the August testimony, but withdrew the subpoena after Clinton agreed to voluntarily testify as long as a few conditions were met: The testimony was to take place at the White House, not at a courthouse; prosecutors would only have four hours; Clinton could have his personal lawyers and the White House lawyers in the room with him, which was not usually allowed during grand jury proceedings; and the grand jury would watch the proceedings from closed-circuit television.

On August 17, 1998—the first National Meaning of "Is" Day—the 42nd President of the United States gave testimony to prosecutors of the Office of the Independent Council from the Map Room of the White House. The grand jury watched on television from a nearby federal courthouse. Early on, President Clinton read a statement in which he acknowledged taking part in conduct that was wrong, but said that it hadn't consisted of sexual intercourse. In an attempt to defend his truthfulness at the Paula Jones deposition, he said, "They did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined at my January 17, 1998 deposition. But they did involve, inappropriate intimate contact." He said he wouldn't go into further specifics about what took place. Later in his testimony, he continued to ardently defend his truthfulness at the January deposition: "My goal in this deposition was to be truthful, but not particularly helpful…but I was determined to walk through the minefield of this deposition without violating the law and I believe I did." In the end, by acknowledging his extramarital affair in his testimony, he showed that he had lied at the January deposition.

The name of today's holiday, National Meaning of "Is" Day, stems from President Clinton's testimony, in which he said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." The following exchange between Solomon Wisenberg, who was one of the prosecutors, and President Clinton, gives context to the "is" phrase:

MR. WISENBERG: Mr. President, I want to, before I go into a new subject area, briefly go over something you were talking about with Mr. Bittman. The statement of your attorney, Mr. Bennett, at Paula Jones deposition, "Counsel is fully aware" – it's page 54, line 5 – "Counsel is fully aware that Ms. Lewinsky has filed, has an affidavit which they are in possession of saying that there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton". That statement is made by your attorney in front of Judge Susan Webber Wright, correct?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: That's correct.

MR. WISENBERG: That statement is a completely false statement. Whether or not Mr. Bennett knew of your relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, the statement that there was "no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton," was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is. If the – if he – if "is" means is and never has been that is not – that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. But, as I have testified, and I'd like to testify again, this is – it is somewhat unusual for a client to be asked about his lawyer's statements, instead of the other way around. I was not paying a great deal of attention to this exchange. I was focusing on my own testimony. And if you go back and look at the sequence of this, you will see that the Jones lawyers decided that this was going to be the Lewinsky deposition, not the Jones deposition. And, given the facts of their case, I can understand why they made that decision. But that is not how I prepared for it. That is not how I was thinking about it. And I am not sure, Mr. Wisenberg, as I sit here today, that I sat there and followed all these interchanges between the lawyers. I'm quite sure that I didn't follow all the interchanges between the lawyers all that carefully. And I don't really believe, therefore, that I can say Mr. Bennett's testimony or statement is testimony and is imputable to me. I didn't – I don't know that I was even paying that much attention to it.

Essentially, President Clinton said that when his lawyer said there was "absolutely no sex," he was being truthful if he was speaking in the present tense because there was no sex going on at the time. Clinton then went on to say that he hadn't really paid much attention to the exact words his lawyer was saying here.

During his August 17 testimony, President Clinton could have invoked the Fifth Amendment. Starr said that Clinton continued to lie as he had at his January deposition. The Clinton team said Starr didn't show that Clinton had knowingly given false testimony, said that some questions asked him during the testimony were ambiguous, and said that even if some of Clinton's answers were misleading, they didn't consist of perjury.

Later in the evening, following his testimony, President Clinton addressed the nation with a four-minute speech, from the same room he had testified in earlier in the day. He admitted to an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky and expressed regret for misleading his wife and the country. He said his answers had been "legally accurate," and that he had never asked anyone to "lie, hide or destroy evidence or to take any unlawful action." During the second half of his speech, he went on the offensive against Starr for his investigation.

Clinton's four-hour testimony was given to the House of Representatives, they eventually released it, and it was televised on September 21. The Starr Report was submitted to the House of Representatives on September 9, and it was released to the public two days later. It detailed eleven grounds on which the president could be impeached, including perjury, obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and witness-tampering. Explicit details of the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky were also included in the report.

Congress grappled with if they should impeach Clinton. Democrats favored censure, while many Republicans loudly called for impeachment, saying Clinton was unfit to run the country. An impeachment inquiry began on October 8. On December 19, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton on two articles: obstruction of justice and lying under oath to a federal grand jury (perjury). His trial began in the Senate on January 7, 1999. On February 12, Clinton was acquitted on both counts. The two-thirds majority that was needed for a conviction was not reached: The vote for perjury was 45 for and 55 against; the vote for obstruction of justice was a 50-50 split. Polls showed that the American people disapproved of Clinton's actions, but didn't think they warranted impeachment. Clinton finished out his term, and today we have National Meaning of "Is" Day to remember one of the biggest political scandals in American history.

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