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The Story Behind Bill Clinton's Infamous Denial

Jan 26, 2015

It was on this day in 1998 that President Bill Clinton (as seen around 6:18 in the video above) uttered 11 words that would go down in history: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky."

Though the definition of "sexual relations" — and other phrases — may be questioned, even in hindsight, Clinton did eventually end up admitting to an affair.

So why did he say those 11 words in the first place?

One possible explanation can be found in the Feb. 9, 1998, TIME special report that explored the impact of that speech:

While Starr was trying to make his case, Clinton's job last week was to persuade the American people to reserve judgment, let the investigation proceed and bear with the Great Explainer's refusal to explain much of anything. So after days of watery nondenials and rumors of resignation, last Monday Clinton finally gave voters who wanted to believe in him an excuse to do so. In the Roosevelt Room of the White House Monday morning, with Hillary beside him, he stared into the camera and narrowed his eyes. "I want you to listen to me," he said. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never."

It was an enormous gamble, the result of a fierce White House battle. While Clinton had for days been urged by adviser Mickey Kantor and others to toughen his denial, the Monday morning statement was finally worked out in a post-midnight strategy session with former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and Hollywood imagineer Harry Thomason. Ickes, the street-smart infighter who had steered Clinton's re-election campaign only to be bumped out of a second-term job, flew in from California and went straight to the White House. Ickes' prescription for the President: Look the people straight in the eye and, to the extent you and your lawyer are confident, say, "I didn't do it." Only a loud, unambiguous denial would "stanch the wound," Ickes said. Thomason, meanwhile, helped the President rehearse the stern, reproving body language, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

It was the first of several turning points, and it worked. That afternoon, when Hillary arrived in Harlem to visit an after-school program, the crowd was jeering reporters, chanting, "Leave Bill alone!"

Read more about the semantics of the statement, here in the TIME Vault: When Is Sex Not 'Sexual Relations'?

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