Hillary Clinton was campaigning for her husband in January 1992 when she learned of the race’s newest flare-up: Gennifer Flowers had just released tapes of phone calls with Bill Clinton to back up her claim they had had an affair.
Other candidates had been driven out of races by accusations of infidelity. But now, at a cold, dark airfield in South Dakota, Hillary Clinton was questioning campaign aides by phone and vowing to fight back on behalf of her husband.
“Who’s tracking down all the research on Gennifer?” she asked, according to a journalist traveling with her at the time.
The enduring image of Hillary Clinton from that campaign was a “60 Minutes” interview in which she told the country she was not blindly supporting her husband out of wifely duty. “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she said.
But stand by she did, holding any pain or doubts in check as the campaign battled to keep the Clintons’ political aspirations alive.
Last week, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, criticized Hillary Clinton over Bill Clinton’s affairs and her response to them, and said he might talk more about the issue in the final weeks before the election.
That could be a treacherous strategy for Trump, given his own infidelity and questionable treatment of women. Many voters, particularly women, might see Hillary Clinton being blamed for her husband’s conduct.
It could also remind voters of a searing period in American history, and in Hillary Clinton’s life.
Confronting a spouse’s unfaithfulness is painful under any circumstance. For Hillary Clinton, it happened repeatedly and in the most public of ways, unfolding at the dawn of the 24/7 news cycle, and later in impeachment proceedings that convulsed the nation.
Outwardly, she remained stoic and defiant, defending her husband as a progression of women and well-funded conservative operatives accused Bill Clinton of behavior unbecoming the leader of the free world.
But privately, she embraced the Clinton campaign’s aggressive strategy of counterattack: Women who claimed to have had sexual encounters with Bill Clinton would become targets of digging and discrediting — tactics that women’s rights advocates frequently denounce.
The campaign hired a private investigator with a bare-knuckles reputation who embarked on a mission, as he put it in a memo, to impugn Flowers’ “character and veracity until she is destroyed beyond all recognition.”
In a pattern that would later be repeated with other women, the investigator’s staff scoured Arkansas and beyond, collecting disparaging accounts from ex-boyfriends, employers and others who claimed to know Flowers, accounts that the campaign then disseminated to the news media.
By the time Bill Clinton finally admitted to “sexual relations” with Flowers years later, Clinton aides had used stories collected by the private investigator to brand her as a “bimbo” and “pathological liar.”
Hillary Clinton’s level of involvement in that effort, as described in interviews, internal campaign records and archives, is still the subject of debate. By some accounts, she gave the green light and was a motivating force; by others, her support was no more than tacit assent.
What is clear is that Hillary Clinton was in a difficult spot. She was aware that her husband had cheated earlier in their marriage, but by her telling, she also believed him when he denied the accusations levied by Flowers and others.
Mickey Kantor, the chairman of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, said Hillary Clinton wanted to separate fact from fiction and to size up the women making the claims.
“Let’s say the woman has some not-helpful things that she has done in the past,” Kantor said. “Wouldn’t you want to know that, and evaluate it?”
At the same time, a growing cadre of conservative groups and media outlets had begun focusing on the issue. Hillary Clinton, those close to her said, viewed the attacks as a political crusade that demanded a stiff political response.
And that determination to fight back inspired others in the campaign to do the same.
“She’s the firefighter running to the fire,” Kantor said, “not away from it.”
Neutralizing the Whispers
Four years after Gary Hart fled a presidential race amid speculation about an affair, every accusation of womanizing was viewed as a mortal threat to Bill Clinton’s campaign.
Stanley Greenberg, a pollster for the campaign who had strategized with the Clintons in fall 1991 about how to handle the rumors of infidelity, recalled Hillary Clinton’s acknowledgment that her husband had strayed.
“It was an uncomfortable meeting,” Greenberg said in an interview for an oral history of Bill Clinton’s presidency conducted by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. “I remember Hillary saying that, ‘obviously, if I could say no to this question, we would say no, and therefore, there is an issue.’”
Weeks later, their first taste of trouble came in a Penthouse magazine story by a rock groupie named Connie Hamzy, who claimed Bill Clinton had once propositioned her at a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Bill Clinton brushed off the story, saying Hamzy had made a sexual advance toward him, George Stephanopoulos, communications director of the 1992 campaign, recalled in his book, “All Too Human.”
But Hillary Clinton demanded action.
“We have to destroy her story,” she said, according to Stephanopoulos.
In what became a common tactic, affidavits were collected, from an aide and two others who stated they were with Bill Clinton at the hotel and that Hamzy’s story was false. (Contacted recently, Hamzy said she stood by her account.)
When the work was done, both Clintons called Stephanopoulos, together, to offer their thanks.
An Explosive Accusation
The Gennifer Flowers story landed like a bomb weeks before the New Hampshire primary.
Flowers, a lounge singer and Arkansas state employee at the time, sold Star magazine her story claiming an affair with Bill Clinton that had lasted more than 10 years.
In a meeting with aides, the Clintons scripted a unified defense that they delivered in the interview on “60 Minutes.”
With Hillary Clinton nodding agreement, Bill Clinton admitted to the TV audience to “causing pain in my marriage,” but denied an affair with Flowers. Hillary Clinton professed sympathy for Flowers, saying she had been caught up in rumors through no fault of her own.
But at a news conference the next day, Flowers reasserted her claims, playing excerpts from her calls with Bill Clinton. The two could be heard discussing the attention the rumors were getting, and she joked about his sexual talents.
Glimpsing the news conference in South Dakota, Hillary Clinton directed an aide to get Bill Clinton on the phone, Gail Sheehy, a journalist traveling with her, recalled in a recent interview.
“It was a reaction of no surprise, but immediate anger and action,” said Sheehy, who also described her observations in a Vanity Fair article that year. “Not anger at Bill, but at Flowers, the press and Republicans.”
Back on a plane that night, Hillary Clinton told Sheehy that if she were to question Flowers in front of a jury, “I would crucify her.”
The Digging Begins
Weeks later, a small group of campaign aides, along with Hillary Clinton, met at the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, and they made a pivotal decision: They would hire Jack Palladino, a private investigator known for tactics such as making surreptitious recordings and deploying attractive women to extract information.
An aide to the campaign, who declined to be publicly identified because the aide had not been authorized to speak for the Clintons, said Hillary Clinton was among those who had discussed and approved the hiring, which shifted the campaign to a more aggressive posture.
Kantor, the campaign chairman, said he did not know whether Hillary Clinton had specifically approved Palladino’s employment as the other aide recalled. But he said she had seen a need for outside help.
“She believed we had to deal with the issue directly,” Kantor said.
Palladino, who did not respond to requests for an interview, reported to James Lyons, a lawyer working for the campaign. In a memo that he addressed to Lyons on March 30, Palladino proposed a full-court press on Flowers.
“Every acquaintance, employer, and past lover should be located and interviewed,” Palladino wrote. “She is now a shining icon — telling lies that so far have proved all benefit and no cost — for any other opportunist who may be considering making Clinton a target.”
Soon, Flowers heard from ex-boyfriends and others who said they had been contacted by a private investigator.
“They would say that he would try to manipulate them,” Flowers recalled, “or get them to say things like I was sexually active.”
Karen Steele, who had worked with Flowers at the Roy Clark Celebrity Theater in Branson, Missouri, was among those who received a visit. “I remember I got questioned about brothers Gennifer and I once dated,” she said. “It wasn’t warm and fuzzy.”
Going on Offense
The information gathered by Palladino was given to Betsey Wright, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton in Arkansas who, with Hillary Clinton’s support, was put in charge of dealing with accusations of infidelity.
“Betsey Wright was handling whatever those issues were,” Susan Thomases, a friend of the Clintons who had served in the campaign, told the oral history project. “And it had been very comfortable because Hillary had let her do it.”
Through Wright, the digging into Flowers and other women would be passed on to reporters.
Wright declined to be interviewed, saying in an email, “It is reprehensible that The New York Times is joining The National Enquirer and Donald Trump by dredging up irrelevant slime from the past.”
At the time, Wright boasted to The Washington Post of Palladino’s success in countering what she memorably called “bimbo eruptions,” and in defusing two dozen accusations of affairs, which she contended were false.
In the cover story of an issue of Penthouse in which Flowers posed nude — she would earn at least $500,000 selling her story to media outlets — Wright pushed allegations about her gathered by Palladino, including “résumé hype, attempted blackmail, manufacturing a self-styled 12-year affair with Clinton to salvage a flopola singing career.”
Wright read to the Penthouse reporter a statement, taken by Palladino, that “when the richest of her many lovers would not leave his wife, or come across with more money, she staged a suicide attempt with wine and Valium.”
Hillary Clinton herself took aim at Flowers in a June 1992 appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” better remembered for Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing. Hall asked Hillary Clinton about Flowers: “You know what her problem is?”
“She’s got lots of problems,” Hillary Clinton said.
Flowers denied the accusations about her, calling the suicide story, in particular, “false and cruel.”
Bill Clinton later admitted, during a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, that he had sex with Flowers once.
“You’ve got to believe that Hillary Clinton wanted to protect her husband and thought he was being unfairly charged,” Kantor said. “Does she know more today than she did then? Of course.”