In November 1995, Newt Gingrich gave President Bill Clinton an ultimatum: approve cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other programs, or he would shut down the government. The ensuing shutdowns were a public embarrassment for Gingrich and a victory for Clinton, but the president’s behavior during those shutdowns hurt his presidency in the long-term.
That’s because it was then, while most government employees were out of the office on furlough, that Clinton began an affair with a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
Gingrich, who was the Republican speaker of the House, triggered the shutdown by sending Clinton a bill that he knew he wouldn’t sign because it raised Medicare premiums and cut environmental regulations. Clinton’s veto shut down most of the government between November 14 and 19, and Gingrich hoped Clinton would shoulder most of the blame. But Gingrich’s bizarre explanation for why he triggered the shutdown ensured this didn’t happen.
When asked about the standoff at a press breakfast on November 15, Gingrich complained about something seemingly unrelated. He said that Clinton hadn’t talked to him on an Air Force One trip in early November to attend the funeral for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. And furthermore, he’d had to exit from the back of the plane.
“This is petty,” Gingrich said, according to The Washington Post. “[But] you land at Andrews [Air Force Base] and you've been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp… You just wonder, where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?”
Gingrich said that the fact that the president didn’t speak to him during the trip was “part of why you ended up with us sending down a tougher” interim spending bill. “It's petty…but I think it's human.”
Indeed. The next day, the New York tabloid Daily News ran the front-page headline “CRY BABY” with a cartoon of Gingrich crying in a diaper and holding a bottle. “NEWT’S TANTRUM: He closed down the government because Clinton made him sit at back of plane,” the front page stated.
Polls showed that Americans blamed Congressional Republicans more than Clinton for the standoff. And it also didn’t help that a few weeks later, in mid-December, Gingrich triggered another shutdown that lasted for 21 days—the longest government shutdown on record. Overall, these shutdowns were a political victory for Clinton. But Clinton also made his own missteps during the November shutdown that would damage his presidency in the long term.
“When the government shutdown happened, instead of 450 normal employees who staffed the White House on a regular day, there was a skeletal crew of 90,” says Monica Lewinsky in the A&E docu-series The Clinton Affair. “So all of the interns, not being employees of the government, stepped in.”
Lewinsky was actually supposed to start a staff job in the White House’s East Wing around this time, but the shutdown put that on hold. She ended up being sent to the West Wing to help answer thousands of phone calls that were overwhelming White House operators.
“Many of us found ourselves in parts of the White House and surrounded by people that we normally never interacted with,” Lewinsky contines. This included Clinton, who didn’t really have anything to do while the government was on hiatus, and began socializing with a lot of staff and interns he didn’t usually see very often.
While Lewinsky was walking to her desk on the evening of November 15, Clinton motioned her into the empty office of George Stephanopoulos, his senior advisor. He asked her several questions about herself, and Lewinsky ended up telling him that she had a little crush on him. Clinton then asked Lewinsky, an unpaid intern who worked for him, if she wanted to go into his private office with him—actions that many now regard as an abuse of power.
The affair that he began with Lewinsky that day would come to define his presidency. His actions led to his impeachment, influenced how people viewed First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and have come under increasing scrutiny with the #MeToo movement. So although Clinton was the victor in his public standoff with Gingrich, his private behavior that week in 1995 ended up doing his presidency lasting harm.