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.
Becoming famous, or infamous, often coincides with the loss of control about how you are depicted to the public. Movie stars and politicians pay millions of dollars to publicists and agencies to ensure they craft a public persona, real or not, that provides them control over their image. In most cases, the figures at the center of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal didn’t have the power to craft those personas and therefore the media developed narratives around the story and depicted each of them in ways that supported the narrative, whether it was true or not. One of the challenges for Impeachment: American Crime Story is that it must do the work of deconstructing over 20 years of pop culture portrayals to give us a three-dimension view of the individuals involved. In some instances, the show chooses to lean more toward a shallower depiction (see Paula Jones), but in the case of the two central figures in the story, Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky, the show attempts to shed light on their motivations, purpose, and character in a more nuanced way than John Goodman or Molly Shannon did on Saturday Night Live. Episode four, entitled “The Telephone Hour”, does more than any of the previous episodes at showing the human cost and emotional damage inflicted onto, and by, Tripp and Lewinsky and reminds us that at the center of the most salacious presidential scandal in history was a naïve intern who had been in a series of bad relationships and a bitter, middle-aged woman who felt she has been passed over.
“The Telephone Hour” starts in August 1997 and after a brief scene in which Lewinsky gets the run around for yet another White House position, the show mostly details the origin and evolution of Tripp betraying the confidence of Lewinsky by recording their telephone conversations. From their initial interaction, you can see the volatile nature of their friendship as Lewinsky confronts Tripp about her quotes on the Kathleen Willey story while unintentionally hurting Tripp’s feelings by reminding her that nobody wanted her back in the White House. Tripp mentions that she may write a tell-all book to get back at everyone and Lewinsky audibly gasps, to which Tripp responds with perhaps the most fantastically egotistical line, “Don’t be such a narcissist. It’ll be about me, not about you.” However, the two mend fences, and shortly thereafter Monica starts calling Tripp incessantly and you get a sense of the age difference with Lewinsky babbling on about her presidential “boyfriend” like a giddy schoolgirl while Tripp sits in front of her TV dinner, smoking a cigarette, and eventually putting it out on a half-eaten baked potato.
Monica’s inability to get placed back in the White House and the radio silence she has received from the Commander-in-Chief leads her to frantically run through a downpour to pay him an unexpected visit but she’s thwarted Clinton’s personal secretary who informs her that the president is having a movie night with his daughter and cannot be disturbed. The scene shows Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) as frantic and manic as we have seen to her this point. I made a comment after the first episode about how lucky Clinton should feel that he engaged in this affair before the advent of social media. The scene really hammers this point home because if something similar were to take place now, Lewinsky was unhinged enough to start publishing her frustrations and detailing their relationship to the world. After being rejected, Monica calls Tripp sobbing in the rain and hysterical. Tripp uses the deterioration of Lewinsky’s mental state as a justification for reaching out to literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale) about selling her tell-all book because she wants the affair to end. Goldberg is initially nonplussed but after learning about the length and seriousness of Lewinsky’s relationship with Clinton, she encourages Tripp to tape-record all their conversations.
Once Tripp purchases and perfects the recording device, she begins cataloging their conversations and probes her for additional details or to retell stories she has already heard. Lewinsky is completely unsuspecting and gladly divulges details for a second or third time and, unprompted, provides dates and times of when different activities took place. Eventually, Tripp takes the tapes to Goldberg who calls over our old friend Michael Isikoff (Danny Jacobs) from Newsweek to take a listen. She wants Isikoff to leak the story to lend it legitimacy ahead of Tripp’s book so that it won’t look like another right-wing attack on Clinton. However, Isikoff’s journalistic integrity leads him to refuse to listen to the tape and he minimizes the story of Clinton, a known philanderer, having yet another in a long line of affairs.
Throughout the episode, Lewinsky gets more desperate for a job back in the White House and eventually calls Clinton’s personal secretary at her home and yells at her about how they’re all liars, which prompts an immediate phone call from Clinton who berates Monica for not being a “good girl” and reminds her that he’d never had started something with her if he knew she would act like that. For a moment it seems as if Clinton had lost a handle on the situation until Lewinsky mentions that she’s going to leave for New York. Clinton encourages her to do so, and his entire attitude shifts once he realizes his problem will be moving a few hours away and he even agrees to put in a few helpful calls to make sure she gets a job. The first of those calls is to his close advisor, Vernon Jordan (Blake Underwood), who Lewinsky meets and is immediately awestruck by his wall of photos with famous public figures. Jordan indicates that he should be able to help Lewinsky get a job at Revlon in their public relations and communication department and even gives her a smack on the ass as she leaves. However, nothing materializes, and later Lewinsky is insulted when she receives a call from then-UN Ambassador Bill Richardson about potential jobs at the United Nations.
After Isikoff’s rebuttal of the taped conversations, Tripp goes back to square one and continues to gather more intel from Lewinsky for the book and you begin to see the strain it places on her. Tripp’s life becomes consumed by conversations with Lewinsky to the point where Tripp’s daughter complains they need to get another line in the house because her friends can never reach her. Throughout the episode, Monica is depicted as the one constantly calling Linda, and considering that Lewinsky is as a producer on the show, one must assume that is an accurate portrayal. Eventually, after three months of phone calls, Tripp snaps and reads Lewinsky the riot act and tells her to grow up and stop living in a fantasy world. Ironically, the potential deterioration of their relationship leads to the most important discovery in the whole sordid affair—the little blue dress.
The day after the blow-up, the two makeup and Lewinsky invites Tripp over to her apartment. As they are going through Monica’s closet, Linda picks up a blue dress and Lewinsky immediately tells her to drop it because it’s “really dirty” and then proceeds to show her the semen stain Clinton left on it after Lewinsky performed oral sex on him in the Oval Office. Later that evening, Lewinsky tells Tripp about a series of failed relationships from her youth in which she is consistently used by older, unavailable men. After months of conversations and forging a relationship with Lewinsky, Tripp calls Lucianne Goldberg to see if there is another way to get the story out without destroying Lewinsky’s life. The two decide to piggyback on the Paula Jones suit and Goldberg makes a call to Jones’ lawyers to let them know about the affair and how it might help their case. Next thing you know, both Tripp and Lewinsky are served with subpoenas to testify as character witnesses in the suit.
The episode ends with Clinton’s White House counsel letting him know that most of the names on the witness list in the Jones’ suit are who they expected except for an unknown former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. When directly asked whether Lewinsky could pose a threat or have anything damaging to say related to the case, Clinton looks almost incredulous and replies, “Are you crazy? I’m not fucking stupid.”
- A week after bemoaning the ping-pong nature of the show between three or four different story lines, “The Telephone Hour” completely emersed itself in the Tripp-Lewinsky relationship with very few other figures occupying more than a few moments. From a chronological standpoint I understand why they needed to do this since August through December of 1997 was rather dull for the other characters in the story since the scandal had yet to break, but I could not help but wish for an occasional interjection from Matt Drudge or Ann Coulter or Paula Jones.
- Can we please get more Edie Falco?!?! The largest presence looming off-screen, by a mile, is former-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Falco is a dynamic performer and while Hillary was not as involved in the day-to-day policy discussions during her husband’s second term, she still had a presence in the West Wing and the fact that through four episodes we have only seen her wash her hands in the bathroom next to Linda Tripp and lay sleeping in the presidential bedroom suite at the end of the latest episode seems like criminally underusing Falco and criminally underusing one of the most fascinating political figures of my lifetime. You may love Hillary Clinton or despise her, but you cannot deny that she is a force of nature and I want to see depicted on the screen.
- While this episode makes you feel bad for Monica, and maybe even Linda, the person I felt the worst for was Betty Currie, Clinton’s personal secretary. The craziness that poor woman had to deal with and the number of awkward conversations she had to have with people is something I would not wish on my worst enemy. She is the closest thing the show has to a motherly figure, and she is so desperately trying to comfort Lewinsky while also attempting to get her to evacuate the White House as quickly as possible.
- I had to chuckle when I heard Linda Tripp’s daughter listening to “Return of the Mack” by Mack Morrison. This episode had a few cultural reference points like Clinton viewing GI Jane with Chelsea, but “Return of the Mack” was truly the jam of the summer in 1997 and something every teenager had on their CD player or Walkman.
- At the end of the episode, Clinton passed three presidential portraits on his way back to the bedroom suite: Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. I’m curious why the director chose to linger on the images of those three previous presidents. Kennedy and Roosevelt are the only two men who were younger than Clinton when they took office and Kennedy, of course, had well-documented extramarital affairs. Perhaps the portraits were simply meant to portray the historical judgement Clinton felt from the men who had occupied the office before him. Either way, it was an interesting choice that left me pondering additional connections.
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.