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.
The latest episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story takes place with the backdrop of the holiday season, and it reminded me how lonely Washington, DC can be during Christmas. Most people who live in Washington, DC are not natives, and this has only become truer with the massive growth of the Northern Virginia suburbs over the last twenty years. Universities close, the government shuts down, and a significant portion of the city goes back to where they are from during the holidays to see their family. As it related to the story being told, older government employees who have made this area their home stick around, but for younger professionals who cannot go home, Christmas in DC can be an isolating experience and that’s exactly where we find Monica Lewinsky, whose family lives in California, in December 1997. Isolated, alone, and vulnerable.
Episode five, entitled “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is the most consolidated timeline episode we have had to date. There is no more narrative jumping between years and the episode finally brings us right up to the point where the first episode started where Monica gets nabbed by the FBI. Taking place in December 1997, the episode starts off with a now-infamous impromptu date between a young Jake Tapper (now of CNN) and Monica Lewinsky at a local Tex Mex restaurant and while the date doesn’t move the narrative plot forward, it does underscore how tired Monica is of Washington, DC and how much the affair has weighed on her. Additionally, you get a sense that her constant connection with Linda Tripp has also disconnected her from people in her own age range as Tapper is the first 20-something we see her chat with since her friend came to visit in the first episode.
Meanwhile, Linda Tripp is absolutely reveling in the Christmas spirit as she’s handing out invitations to her holiday party and going shopping for nick-knacks to spruce up her place in preparation for the big event. Her kids are helping her decorate, but before the holiday festivities begin, she must convince Monica not to dry clean the infamous blue dress that has Clinton’s dried semen on it. Monica had told Linda she wanted to wear it to the interview in New York City with Revlon, which Clinton’s fixer Vernon Jordan had arranged. However, Linda, knowing the dress is the only physical evidence of the affair, cruelly convinces Monica not to get it cleaned by insinuating that she looks fat in the dress and that another outfit would be more flattering. It’s a gross moment where Tripp has lost her entire moral compass, if she ever had one, in the name of ensuring her future book deal and story still have monetary worth.
“Do You Hear What I Hear” also introduces us to Ken Starr, the independent prosecutor who was charged by Republicans in Congress with investigating the Clinton’s for a variety of potential misdeeds and improprieties. After reading a passage of scripture before a team meeting, we realize that after years of investigations, the team ultimately has not unearthed anything approaching an impeachable offense and while virtually everyone sitting around the table believes the Clinton’s have broken the law, they simply cannot prove it. Among those sitting around the table is a young Brett Kavanaugh, who is now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but Starr’s top man is Mike Emmick (Colin Hanks) who admonishes those on the team who keep trying to find evidence when it’s clearly a lost cause. While the meeting is taking place, Bill Clinton is in the Oval Office getting prepped for depositions relating to the Paula Jone case. After getting fed up with his lawyers peppering him with practice questions, Clinton lashes out at one of the younger attorneys by spouting his credentials for placing a record number of women in high-ranking positions in his cabinet and government. His line, “No one supports women like me!” demonstrates the duality of Clinton and how he can simultaneously use his position to lift the glass ceiling while also habitually using women for his own gratification.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, Paula Jones is living the high life with her new friend Susan Carpenter-McMillian’s money. Jones’s mother is startled to hear that Paula turned down a life-changing amount of money, $700,000, on the advice of someone who doesn’t have her best interest at heart, which becomes even more clear when Jones faces Clinton’s lawyers in deposition. After describing Clinton’s penis for the attorneys, his lawyers go on the attack and start hurling accusations at Jones about her previous sexual actions, which seek to frame her as a promiscuous woman who engages in deviant behavior. What else would you expect from the lawyers from a man who claims to support women like no other. The scene serves as a not-so-subtle reminder of how little progress has been made when it comes to allegations of sexual harassment and impropriety as the past of the accusers often is used to justify the actions of the accused. Even the #MeToo movement hasn’t been able to undo that element of the patriarchy to this point.
Back in DC, Monica is served with a subpoena to testify, which rocks her world and sends her into a frantic tailspin on the day of Linda’s office. Of course, Linda has been avoiding this discussion since she was served her subpoena weeks ago and had been hiding it from Monica until just recently. When Monica arrives at the Christmas party, Linda is in full hostess mode and has no interest in talking to Monica about any of the drama until finally, Monica confronts her and virtually shouts that she’s been subpoenaed. Once in private, Monica suggests the pair sign matching affidavits that they know nothing that would be of value to the Paula Jones case, but Tripp slow plays her and says that she needs to protect herself as a political appointee. Her line, “The closer you get, the nearer you are to the end,” serves as a metaphor for the holidays as well as the nearly four-year affair between Clinton and Lewinsky.
Despite Tripp’s hesitancy, Lewinsky goes to see Vernon Jordan again to ask for legal advice. He asks her whether she’s had sex with the president, which she denies, and he tells her she has nothing to worry about and recommends a lawyer who promptly draws up an affidavit affirming that Lewinsky knows nothing that would contribute to the Jones suit. Meanwhile, Tripp visits her own attorney who assumes he’ll draw up a similar affidavit until Linda unloads everything on him, including the fact that she’s been taping all her conversations with Lewinsky for the last several months. Tripp’s lawyer frantically explains that he can’t accept the tapes since Maryland, where Tripp lives, is a two-consent state that requires both parties to be aware calls are being recorded. Tripp is incredulous, scared, and angered by the fact she could be facing federal charges and jail time because she followed the advice of her literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg who lives in New York where private recording is legal. When Tripp calls to confront Goldberg about the news, Lucianne initially laughs it off, but quickly surmises she needs to get Linda to cut a deal with the federal prosecutors and promptly calls conservative lawyer George Conway who then tips off the Ken Starr investigation as to the existence of the tapes. The recordings are significant to the Starr investigation because Clinton is about to be deposed in the Jones case and will, under oath, deny any sexually inappropriate actions, but now there is evidence to the contrary and suddenly the team will have evidence the president is committing perjury.
As the year draws to a close Monica is getting a nice sendoff from her Department of Defense colleagues since she’s off to New York City for her new job at Revlon courtesy of Vernon Jordan and President Clinton. After avoiding her for days, Linda finally talks to Monica and sets up a time for them to chat before she leaves down. However, that evening, Tripp is notified by her literary agent that she must, immediately, call the FBI and approach them with the evidence of the affair. After making the phone call, Tripp suddenly has five FBI and Department of Justice agents in her living room and where she lays out the evidence at hand. Tripp describes Lewinsky as her good friend informs the agents, she has months of conversations between the two that outline, in graphic detail, the affair and coverup. The entire scene you’re not quite sure if the agents are befuddled, incredulous, or thrilled to hear the move, but after leaving Tripp’s house we realize they are simply gobsmacked by the gift they have been presented in their case and Mike Emmick (Colin Hanks) is thrilled they have taped evidence because in his words, “A jury would fucking hate that lady,” in referring to Tripp.
After Linda makes a deal with the FBI, they wire her up in advance of her meeting with Monica with the instructions that she must get Lewinsky to admit to lying about the affair and having Vernon Jordan get her a job as a result. Of course, there are technical snafus and Lewinsky expects something is up based upon the way Tripp is talking to her in much more formal language than before. However, after a paranoid moment where Monica rifles through Linda’s purse while, unbeknownst to Lewinsky, Tripp is in the bathroom having an agent fix her microphone, she spills the beans and admits everything, which is greeted by fist pumps and high fives by the FBI and investigators listening in on the conversation. The episode ends with a white van ominously tailing Lewinsky as she is prepared to leave town and start a new life in a new city. If only life was that easy.
- For the second episode in a row, the directors choose to have the camera linger on two former presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, while Clinton is contemplating his fate. It’s an interesting choice since the two men were great friends who had a falling out but were able to reconnect with letters later in life and died on the same date, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson, of course, has become known for having a long-standing affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings, and while the dynamic of taking advantage of an intern should not be equated with the slavery, it is a reminder of how men in power frequently sexually use women who are powerless against them.
- There are several name drops in the episode that feel a little forced. The opening scene with Jake Tapper is fine but does not move the narrative forward and feels like a cheap way of reminding people that a famous person once went on a date with Lewinsky. Similarly, the show went out of its way to show a young Brett Kavanaugh sitting around the table with Ken Starr despite the fact it’s obvious he had virtually no power and was little more than a researcher and entry-level assistant. Even Clinton mentioning the name Janet Yellen as one of the women he placed in a position of power feels like an attempt to connect the story to the current Secretary of the Treasury.
- Still no Hillary and her absence gets more egregious each episode. However, the show hardly depicts Clinton outside of his meetings with Lewinsky, so bringing in Hillary may feel forced, but it might also help expand the universe. Additionally, it would help the viewer have context as to why Clinton always says, “it’s complicated” when asked why he won’t settle the suit. It’s complicated because of his wife.
- I’m a little disappointed we’ve gone two episodes without checking with Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) and Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner). The media frenzy around the Clinton investigation was rapid and the show doesn’t really portray that fully. I remember the stories regularly leading the news coverage, but the show does not provide that backdrop except for a brief mention of the Newsweek piece in which Linda Tripp was quoted.
- I’m excited for the next episode because the chickens will come home to roost. We’ll finally catch up to where we started and it looks like we’ll get some of the media figures back in the next episode as well as, fingers crossed, a very pissed off Hillary Clinton.
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.