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.
Most of us would like to think that when we get our 15 minutes of fame it will be for saving some stranded motorist, giving back to a local charity, or making a one-handed grab while holding a beer at a baseball game. However, the reality is that most times, those 15 minutes are not for our best moment, but for our worst. In Impeachment: American Crime Story’s seventh episode entitled, “The Assassination of Monica Lewinsky” we see what happens when the press gets hold of a story that shows us at our worst and how many of our lives, when put under a microscope, would yield less than desirable outcomes. Fame and infamy are often very intertwined and while fame might only last 15 minutes, infamy tends to last much longer.
The episode begins with Clinton reviewing his upcoming State of the Union speech before getting interrupted by his lawyer who gives him a final prep before heading over to be deposed in the Paula Jones suit. Jones, who looks like a wreck, is getting pumped up by her personal cheerleader, Susan Carpenter-McMillian, before she too heads into the same deposition room to sit face-to-face with Clinton. All Jones’ husband can do to offer his support is to slap her on the back the way one might a child on their way to the plate in a Saturday t-ball game. Clinton and his entourage of lawyers arrive, and you see the Clinton charm on full display as he chats up the judge and her assistants prior to being sworn in at the beginning of the proceedings. You also see Clinton’s ice-cold demeanor as he never even glances at Jones while giving his testimony, including when he denies ever even meeting her in the first place, which causes Jones to break down and leave the room. Susan Carpenter-McMillian is there to console her, but the reality is that the justice she sought for Paula was always a bill of goods. Jones is barely acknowledged in the room and is an afterthought, particularly once her attorneys start to shift the questioning to Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky. Suddenly, Clinton’s demeanor changes as he becomes less sure in his answers, he’s less defiant and talks in circles, but eventually arrives at the steadfast assertion that he did not have sexual relations with Lewinsky, which is a lie. As he walks out of the room, Clinton’s lawyer tells him what a great job he did, but the look on Clinton’s face indicates that he knows he’s only started to face the biggest battle of his administration.
On the same day of the deposition, Monica and her mother meet with her attorney, Bill Goldberg who promptly assures Monica that she won’t face jail time and that he will straighten everything out with Ken Starr’s team come Monday and will get her a signed immunity deal. Shockingly, Monica still wants to try and reach Betty Currie, Clinton’s personal secretary, to get a message to the president. However, the more shocking development is taking place in the offices at Newsweek where journalist Michael Isikoff has finished writing his breaking story detailing the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Despite the overwhelming reaction from his colleagues to reading his draft, he’s pulled into his editor’s office and told that the story is being put on ice because the head brass in New York thinks the story is too risky given that there are limited sources. The scene provides a great view into how much things have changed in the press as Isikoff pleads that this story is their Watergate, but his editor responds by saying, “Sometimes it’s just not worth being first.” That is a sentiment that no longer exists in media as it is all about breaking stories first with little concern over accuracy. One must feel for Isikoff because he got the story first AND he got the story right. Later that evening, Matt Drudge calls Isikoff’s house and informs his wife that he’s running a story the next day on his site that Newsweek spiked, or stopped, Isikoff’s story about the affair Clinton had with an intern. Matt Drudge doesn’t have an editor or corporate leaders. He’s able to run with the story first and in the process become the biggest name in conservative news for the next two decades.
Back in the White House, Clinton realizes how much trouble he’s in, but is going about conducting damage control on his own. First, he brings Betty Currie into the Oval Office and without saying as much, starts to tell Currie his recollections of his interactions with Monica, which we know to be false. He tells Currie that every time Monica was in the Oval Office, Currie was with her and that he and Lewinsky were never alone together. Currie dutifully agrees and quickly realizes that Clinton is not so much jogging his own memory as much as giving her clear instructions on what to say if asked by prosecutors. After telling Currie to reach out to Monica to see how she’s doing, he realizes that he finally needs to loop Hillary into the whole debacle. He does so by waking her up to a front-page headline that outlines the accusations regarding Clinton telling Lewinsky to lie. Hillary is initially confused, but quickly gets her wits about her and asks Bill plainly whether he has anything he needs to tell her and seems sympathetic if he did commit an indiscretion that it is best he tell her now so they can deal with it proactively. Bill, as we have come to expect, lies to Hillary, and says this is all more of the made-up fantasies of Ken Starr and perhaps even Lewinsky’s delusions. You get a real sense in the scene that Bill values Hillary’s political instincts regarding what to do and she encourages him to address his staff right away to ensure clear communication.
Just prior to the news breaking, Linda Tripp finally tells her children about what is about to happen to her. Her daughter immediately knows that Monica is at the center of it, but Linda frames her actions as heroic as she compares herself to the whistleblowers within the Nixon administration who refused to lie and cover up the crimes of the boss they swore to serve. While her continued attempts to justify her betrayal ring hollower each time once the press descends on both her and Lewinsky’s house the tone of the episode changes. You empathize with both women as you would never want to subject even your worst enemy to the treatment they are about to receive from the hands of the press and popular culture.
As the press digs in and surrounds Lewinsky’s apartment building, Monica cannot stop watching the constant news coverage of her as the press continues to unearth new developments in the story, including Clinton’s friend Vernon Jordan helping get her a job offer at Revlon, which Lewinsky finds out has been rescinded while watching television. While the feeding frenzy has started outside the homes of Monica and Linda, the White House press corps is in an uproar, as usual, over wanting answers. Clinton has been silent on the issue, and some are asking whether Al Gore could be sworn in later in the evening. Rather than resign, Clinton sits down for an interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer who asks Clinton about the allegations, and Clinton, as expected, continues to lie, and deny any impropriety regarding a sexual relationship. You can tell the interview doesn’t go as Clinton would hope based upon him repeating his answers and seemingly coming up with new talking points in mid-sentence. Afterwards, Linda Tripp, who is watching at home, believes he is going to have to resign. However, Clinton has a lot of friends, and he brings back Dick Morris, a disgraced former political advisor, and for the first time in the episode Clinton, behind closed doors with only Morris in the room, tells the truth. He admits he screwed things up and that he feels blind since he does not know what evidence Starr has or the questions he will get asked from the press. He even admits that he can’t tell Hillary the truth because he fears that she will leave him. Morris shares some initial polling data he collected on the scandal, and it shows people are relatively indifferent about Clinton having the affair, and some like him more for it, but lying and perjury is another matter. After reviewing all the evidence Morris tells Clinton that he can’t tell the truth, to which Clinton responds, “Then it’s simple. We just have to win.”
Winning, in Clinton’s eyes, starts with coming up with a new narrative around Lewinsky. He begins to float a new story to his staff, one of a young star-crossed girl who initially came to Clinton for advice, but who quickly became obsessive and expressed delusions of a sexual relationship with him. He further tells them that once his closest staff realized the potential danger Lewinsky could pose to him, they transferred her away from the White House. Perhaps not surprisingly, Clinton’s new story starts getting picked up by the press and is framing the narrative around this unknown 24-year-old former intern. Late-night television hosts are joking about the affair, her ex-boyfriends from grade school are being interviewed, her attendance at a “fat camp” is being reported as actual news, and above all, the older man who she had a relationship with as a teenager, Andy Blieler, goes on television and reinforces the narrative that Monica is an attention-seeking, obsessive young woman who makes up stories to attract more attention to herself. But Monica is not the only one undergoing this treatment as Linda Tripp is receiving anonymous letters with vulgar messages and death threats and she sits down with her kids to watch Saturday Night Live only to see herself portrayed by John Goodman, a hulking overweight man.
As the press frenzy continues, Lewinsky’s lawyer, Bill Goldberg, finally gets an immunity deal cut with Ken Starr’s team, but he celebrates a little too quickly. Before Starr signs the agreement, Bill Goldberg, fresh off his newfound fame, goes on several Sunday morning political shows and insinuates that Lewinsky won’t tell the investigation much of anything, which prompts Starr to call off the deal. While the legal back-and-forth continues, Hillary makes her way to the Oval Office to confront Bill that he must get in front of the scandal, which has dominated the headlines for too many news cycles and is distracting the country from his upcoming State of the Union address. Hillary shoots down a suggestion that he make a primetime address and instead hatches a plan for Bill to drop in on one of Hillary’s press conferences on her education initiative. The episode ends with Hillary introducing Bill at her press conference where he speaks briefly about the importance of his wife’s education agenda. Those watching at the time are not sure what to expect and some, such as Linda Tripp, believe they may be watching the beginning of an impromptu resignation speech, but that’s not Clinton’s style. He’s a fighter. He’s arrogant. He believes he can lie his way through this and with that confidence he utters the now-infamous line, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Linda Tripp, who is watching at home, is stunned. Monica, who is watching on her couch, is devasted and runs to her bedroom and begins sobbing.
- There are elements of Edie Falco’s portrayal of Hillary that are accurate, such as her political cunning and her political partnership with Bill. However, what is completely unbelievable based upon every piece of historical and anecdotal evidence, is that she was unprepared or ignorant of the Lewinsky affair until Bill told her. Additionally, the idea that Hillary would leave her husband during his presidency and while she was exploring an eventual run for the United States Senate is simply laughable. Hillary Clinton, for better or worse, is one of the most ruthlessly political actors we have seen in the last half century and based upon the previews of next week’s episode it appears the show is going to frame her as a shocked and scorned helpless wife. Give me a break.
- I know I sound like a broken record, but how are we just ignoring Matt Drudge and Ann Coulter for so many episodes. Drudge BROKE THE STORY, and somehow was relegated to one scene in which he speaks to Isikoff’s wife? Ann Coulter was last seen popping champagne bottles and listening to the Linda Tripp tapes, but suddenly we can’t get an update about the victory lap she was inevitably taking as the Clinton administration started crumbling from within? The show has managed to sideline some of its most effective characters in service of deep diving on the Lewinsky and Tripp relationship. In some episodes that makes sense, however not this one.
- We get more presidential imagery in this episode with Clinton looking at George Washington’s portrait in the Oval Office as he comes back from his deposition at the beginning of the episode. In the final scene, Clinton is delivering a speech in front of the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill on a horse during the Spanish-American War. I found that particularly poetic since imagery of San Juan Hill is a media creation. Roosevelt never charged up the hill on horseback because they left the horses back in Miami. The depiction we have of Roosevelt riding a horse was a media fabrication, which seems like an appropriate backdrop to Clinton fabricating a story and having the press run with it.
- I am glad we finally got to see Bill Clinton with the gloves off. His stone-cold demeanor in the Jones deposition and his defiance in wanting to win during his conversation with Morris are telltale signs of his political behavior. Yes, Hillary is often the more aggressive of the two, but Clinton can drop the “good ol’ boy from Arkansas” routine really quick when he wants to show people who’s boss. The show would have been well-served to have shown a little more of that behavior prior to this episode so the viewers knew what to expect.
- Finally, I enjoyed the scene between Clinton and Dick Morris, particularly when Morris shared the poll results. The idea that the public would like their president having an extramarital affair is something that speaks to a changing generational culture, which we’ve seen continue as our most previous president, Donald Trump, had several high-profile extramarital affairs, including one with a former porn star, and his base seemed to like him even more for it.
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.