During the current season of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, we’ll have our resident political science professor, Matthew DeSantis, recapping the episodes and providing analysis of the real-life Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Come back every Wednesday for new recaps.
This week’s Impeachment: American Crime Story grapples with timely concepts such as the changing nature of the press, the denigration of the presidency, and the tension between the establishment and the revolutionaries. As a result, the viewer realizes how remarkably similar our debates are today, yet there is a distinction in the tone with which these ideas are discussed. In 1997 you see the dismissive arrogance of the traditional print media who thumb their nose at internet blog sites whereas today we see the print media chasing to keep up with the more salacious sites for scoops and headlines. You see Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) in 1997 warning about how the office of the presidency will become a haven for conmen and degenerates if Bill Clinton is not held accountable for his behavior while Ann Coulter from 2016-2020 handwaved nearly every allegation of impropriety made against then-President Donald Trump. And throughout all of that, you begin to see the cracks in the media and political establishment whether it is a lowly CBS store manager suddenly setting the DC agenda or a University of Michigan Law School alum busting up the Ivy League cocktail parties in DC, you get a sense the world is about to get turned upside down and people like Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, and Linda Tripp are just pawns in a story about the evolution of American democracy.
Episode three, entitled “Not to Be Trusted,” starts out in sunny, southern California in the CBS gift shop where we finally meet Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) working as the manager while regaling customers of Hollywood gossip and rumors from decades ago. After his shift is over, we witness Matt go through a sort of transformation from a knowledgeable, borderline creepy store manager to an intrepid investigative reporter who goes dumpster diving in the CBS lot to find nuggets he can post on his website, The Drudge Report. In many ways, the show is at its best when it is creating this world of peripheral characters and I routinely found myself feeling disappointed when the story shifted back to Washington, DC, not because of the performances, but rather exploring edges of the impeachment story is more fascinating to me than focusing on the titular characters.
Back in DC, we snapped back to the daily drama between Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) and Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) in which Linda manages to both exaggerate her significance in the Kathleen Willey allegations against Bill Clinton while simultaneously realizing how serious of an issue this is for the White House. Throughout the episode I found myself feeling like a math teacher whose student gets the correct answer but goes about getting it in the completely wrong way. Tripp’s political calculations about her own role and self-worth are nearly always incorrect, but somehow, she keeps coming up with the right answer regarding the significance of the story. Part of the reason she is correct about the story is that the Supreme Court finally rules on the Paula Jones suit and unanimously decides that her suit should proceed and that the president is not above the law. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is referred to twice in this episode, first as “the little Jewish lady” by an elated Susan Carpenter-McMillian (Judith Light) who breaks the news of the ruling to Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford). The second time she’s referred to simply as Ruth by Bill Clinton (Clive Owen), the man who nominated her for the Supreme Court, as he opines the court’s decision. In the scene with Clinton, he vents over his frustrations of how the personal scandals have overshadowed the political accomplishments of his administration and he admits that despite that while the politically expedient decision would be to simply settle the Paula Jones suit, Hillary (Edie Falco), will not let him.
Skipping ahead a few months, we find ourselves at a conservative cocktail party hosted by Laura Ingraham in which we discover an icy relationship between the host and fellow conservative flame thrower Ann Coulter who is finally introduced to Matt Drudge. In the time since we saw Drudge diving into dumpsters, he has managed to establish himself as an anti-establishment conservative media presence and he boasts that his website, The Drudge Report, will soon have better circulation numbers than the New York Times. I could not help but see Drudge as a Truman Capote-like figure in that scene as he entertains political figures and socialites with his performative appearance and voice as well as his love of making grandiose statements like “Print is dead.”
The episode continues to ping-pong between the political underworld of Washington, DC and the human drama unfolding between Lewinsky and Clinton. As the scandals continue to pile up, Clinton finally brings Lewinsky back to the White House for a visit, but it does not go as she plans, as Clinton pulls the rug out from under her and cuts things off. He ends things with a hug before having to take a phone call with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A distraught Lewinsky calls Tripp, who comes over and helps her pen a note to the president that serves as somewhat of an ultimatum with the message between the lines being, “bring me back to the White House, or else.” The note prompts a swift and severe response from Clinton who we finally see angry as he berates Lewinsky for adding to his stress and making things difficult. However, after upsetting Monica to the verge of tears, we see the other side of Bill Clinton, the master manipulator, who can deescalate the tension in the room with a few kind words. However, before Lewinsky leaves, she shares with him what she knows about the Kathleen Willey story that she’s learned through Linda Tripp. Clinton seems somewhat taken aback as he tells her that Willey had called the White House to warn them that Newsweek was sniffing around the story and trying to pressure her to say things. We discover later in the episode that Lewinsky spills the beans about Clinton’s comment to Tripp who proceeds to tell Willey, which gets back to Clinton in the White House. The game of telephone leads to Clinton realizing that Lewinsky is the leak, and we see a later interaction between the two that is as cold and business-like as anything we have seen to this point.
For the most part, “Not to be Believed” is a series of two-person conversations and toward the end of the episode, we get two of the better moments. First, Matt Drudge pays a visit to the Newsweek offices to chat with Michael Isikoff (Danny Jacobs) who has been working on the Kathleen Willey story. At first, Drudge commends him for the courage of taking “the sex beat” which Isikoff takes exception to and corrects him that he is investigating Clinton’s abuse of power. What follows is a great deal of foreshadowing about the future of print media as Drudge explains that with the advent of the internet, he can develop stories and reach an audience that traditional print media can only begin to fathom while Isikoff upholds the virtue of getting a journalism degree in order to become a reporter. Ultimately, the meeting is simply an opportunity for Drudge to confirm the Kathleen Willey rumors, which he does by flustering Isikoff.
The other faceoff is between Tripp and Willey (Elizabeth Reaser) as Linda goes over to Kathleen’s house to confront her about what she perceives as a massive inconvenience and revisionist history regarding the sexual harassment allegations. Tripp attempts to victim-blame Willey for what happened by framing her as “asking for it” by getting dolled up for the president and being giddy about the interaction and attention. Of course, the show depicted Willey immediately after the incident in the first episode, so we know that Tripp is exaggerating and taking out her insecurities on the more attractive Willey. Finally, after getting pummeled with insults, Willey punches back and tells Tripp that the manufactured drama that she develops and craves is simply a way of compensating for her otherwise pathetic life. As a result of the spat, Tripp finally agrees to meet with Isikoff to confirm portions of Willey’s story, but the real purpose of the meeting is for her to hint to him that there is a bigger story about a young, former White House intern.
The episode concludes with the Paula Jones storyline in which she’s delivered the great news that her name will be cleared and that Clinton has agreed to pay her a $700,000 settlement. However, her new trusted friend and advisor Susan Carpenter-McMillian, who wants to see the case go to court for political reasons, pushes all the right button on Jones and her husband and convince the pair to turn down the settlement offer and take the case to court.
- I did not realize until this episode how much I just want to watch Billy Eichner as Matt Drudge. Part of the reason for that is Drudge is an elusive figure. He does not do a lot of press and spent a significant amount of time living overseas during the last two decades. Throughout it all, he has built perhaps the most influential conservative news aggregation site in the world, and I have the utmost respect for it because it is still designed like something you would see a 6th-grader do for a class project. Zero frills, giant block lettering, and no graphics.
- One of the issues that is placing strain on the show is that it’s really three or four different shows and we do not get enough time in any of them to fully immerse ourselves in that world. There is the subversive right-wing lawyer drama headlined by Ann Coulter, there is the media and journalism story with Matt Drudge and Michael Isikoff, there is the central drama between Tripp and Lewinsky, and then there is a story about the President of the United States. I’d like to see more of each of them but trying to show all four at the same time is difficult given the time constraints of the episodes.
- There are some phenomenal line readings from Sarah Paulson this week but the whole Gerald McRaney storyline was hysterical. For my younger readers, McCraney was the star of an unlikely hit sitcom Major Dad, which I admit to regularly watching as a kid. Tripp is tasked with pulling together a custom tour for McCraney when he visits DC and when the Pentagon printer goes on the fritz she angrily huffs, “Gerald McRaney is landing his plane in 20 hours!” LOL!
- You do not get to see the coordination between Ann Coulter and Sarah Carpenter-McMillian in this episode, but it becomes obvious toward the end. Coulter, upon learning that Clinton will settle the case compares it to the Challenger space shuttle tragedy and emphasizes that they must do everything in their power to prevent Jones from accepting the settlement. Enter, McMillian-Carpenter who plays the Jones’ like a fiddle and gets Coulter her crack at the Clinton under oath.
- The show may have tried to tap into the political zeitgeist a little too much when Clinton says in the beginning about how right-wing forces are attempting to overturn election results. Perhaps the show was attempting to portrays Clinton’s victim mentality but having lived through the scandal, nobody was attempting to overturn election results. Not one conservative voice thought Clinton lost the 1996 election. Did many of them want to remove him from office? Sure, but that was because they thought he broke the law. Furthermore, if Clinton had been removed, he would have been replaced by his Vice President, Al Gore, and Democrats would have maintained the power of the presidency.
You can watch Impeachment: American Crime Story on Tuesdays at 10 PM ET on FX. Get all of Matthew’s political analysis on his weekly podcast ‘From the Swamp to the Swamp’ and follow along on Twitter at @fromtheswamppod.