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.
Political partnerships in presidential marriages are nothing new. Eleanor Roosevelt dealt with several extramarital affairs by Franklin Roosevelt before his presidency and while their marriage never recovered, she remained one of his most trusted advisors and would seek her counsel on all matters. Jackie Kennedy was keenly aware of her husband’s dalliances with movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Campbell, but she focused on shaping the mystique of Camelot around his presidency that sadly came to fruition after his assassination. And in the most recent episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story, the focus is on the most significant political partnership in our nation’s history—Bill and Hillary Clinton. Love them or hate them, you cannot deny they have achieved. Bill’s resume includes being Attorney General and Governor of Arkansas and the third-youngest man to ever become President of the United States. Hillary managed to parlay her role as First Lady of the United States into becoming a US Senator from New York and the Secretary of State. However, prices are paid for those types of partnerships and the costs can be high on a personal and professional level.
Last week’s Impeachment: American Crime Story made us reflect on the implications of what might happen if our worst moment was revealed to the public through the eyes of Monica Lewinsky. This week, in “Stand by Your Man” the focus shifted to the perspective of the Clinton’s, and your mileage on the episode likely varied by how sympathetic you find either of them to be. For the first time in a couple of episodes, we time jumped and went back to 1992 when Governor Clinton and his wife faced their first major public scandal with the Jennifer Flowers affair. Flowers, for those who may not remember, claimed to have had a 12-year affair with Clinton. When met with the news of the Flowers scandal within the campaign war room, Hillary suggested getting a private investigator to leak whatever embarrassing information they could find on Flowers, which is a decision that is true to form for the former First Lady. Ultimately, they decide to sit down, as a couple, for a 60 Minutes interview to stop the public opinion slide Bill is facing during the Democratic primary. During the taped segment, the Clintons go to great lengths to emphasize their marriage is not an arrangement or agreement and Hillary mocks the adage made famous by country music legend Tammy Wynette of standing by your man no matter what. The interview works as Clinton’s numbers bounce back and he goes on to a respectable showing in New Hampshire and eventually the White House, but the next day an aide tells Hillary that people found her cold, calculating, and out-of-touch since a whole lot of people still identify with that Wynette song.
Jump forward to January 1998 and Monica Lewinsky is getting ready to leave Washington, DC to go home to southern California while the whole scandal blows over. However, before she leaves, she gets a mysterious phone call from someone in the White House warning her to watch out because “It’s not just him, it’s her too” who are trying to ruin Lewinsky. The message is clear that the Clinton’s are a team and are working in tandem to discredit Lewinsky, but she leaves for California while her mother must remain in DC to get deposed by the Starr investigation who is using increasingly hostile tactics to get Lewinsky to cooperate and spill the beans on her relationship with Clinton.
In the media, Hillary is putting on a full-court press with Matt Lauer on The Today Show in which she attempts to shift the discussion away from the Lewinsky scandal and instead to the “vast right-wing conspiracy assaulting my husband” in the form of the Starr investigation. She points out, accurately, that Starr initially had a charge of looking into some shady real estate dealings known at the Whitewater Affair but four years and millions of dollars later it seems the investigation now centers around a relationship President Clinton had with an intern. After the interview, Hillary comes up to Bill in the White House to ask if he watched her interview. He did and he tells her how impressed he was with her. You get a sense of genuine admiration from Bill toward Hillary in that moment, not as a wife, but as a politician.
The show skips ahead four months and very little has changed. Much to the frustration of the Starr’s investigation team, Clinton’s job approval numbers are up and he’s more popular than ever. They increasingly realize they need Lewinsky, but Starr refuses to deal with her bombastic attorney Bill Goldberg. As a result, they continue to use heavy-handed tactics including bringing Monica downtown to be fingerprinted and get a handwriting sample. While she is not under arrest the message is clear and Monica’s father tells her that they need to make a legal change. The next day, Ginsberg steps aside as her legal counsel and within 24 hours, armed with new attorneys, Lewinsky is in Ken Starr’s home signing an immunity deal and promising to turn over the infamous blue dress. President Clinton finds out the news of Lewinsky’s cooperation after getting briefed on the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombing perpetrated by Osama bin Laden, which becomes a backdrop for the rest of the episode. Despite his lawyers telling him to plea the 5th, meaning that he would refuse to answer based on the fact doing so could incriminate him, he steadfastly rejects the idea. He does not want to appear like some mafia boss, and he quickly gets his lawyers to send word to Ken Starr that he will voluntarily come to a deposition rather than face subpoena.
Back in the Starr headquarters, the mood has picked up considerably. They are conducting the mock trial with one of the team members playing President Clinton attempting to evade answering anything when Brett Kavanaugh pipes up and says they need to be more direct and hard-hitting with their questions and zero in on the sexual nature of the relationship with Lewinsky. Starr, as a deeply religious man, is hesitant and is clearly uncomfortable with the line of questions, but after the DNA test of the semen on Lewinsky’s blue dress comes back as a match with Clinton, they decide to move forward. Back in the Oval Office, the mood is mixed. Clinton has devised a legal maneuver that will allow him to skirt around his testimony in the Jones deposition where he denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky. It is all a matter of legal interpretation of the phrase “sexual relations” but his logic, while potentially dishonest, seems like a plausible legal defense. However, when confronted with the reality that he must tell his wife about the affair, takes a very different tone, and suggests that one of his staff softens Hillary up to the idea that perhaps he was lying about the affair. What ensues is an awkward conversation between the staffer and Hillary in which the First Lady insists that Bill, for all his warts, always tells her the truth about these issues. Later that evening, after Hillary has gone to sleep, Clinton walks into the bedroom and sits by the bed. He stays awake all night and breaks the news to Hillary in the morning. She’s furious and outraged. Before kicking him out of their bedroom, she tells him that he needs to tell Chelsea, who is home from Stanford before she finds out watching CNN. The reaction is honest and one you might expect from a spouse who just found out their partner committed the ultimate indiscretion, but it falls flat when coming from a person who has been aware of her husband’s affairs for the previous two decades.
Clinton finally sits down for his deposition with Starr’s team, and they only have four hours to question him, which has led to Clinton’s lawyers advising him to take as long as possible to answer questions. His testimony is being recorded and broadcast via closed-circuit to a grand jury who is listening to all the evidence for the Starr investigation. In a surprise move, Clinton reads a statement that addresses the inappropriateness of his actions with Lewinsky but also makes it clear that by his definition of “sexual relations” he did not lie to the Jones lawyers. Additionally, Clinton effectively shuts the door on any additional questions about the sexual encounters by saying that he is only going to address the indiscretion once in his statement and will not entertain further questioning to protect his family and the sanctity of the office. He completely screws the Starr team’s question because, as Kavanaugh mutters under his breath in the grand jury room, all of their questions are about the sexual relationship. Starr’s lawyers stumble through their questions with Clinton taking his time to talk through his legal logic and eating into the four hours they have to question him. While running legal circles around the Starr team, Clinton famously ponders the definition of the word is, which is hysterical but also speaks to his larger defense strategy of taking up time and shifting the focus away from the allegations and more toward the minutia of the case. Eventually, Starr himself takes over questioning, but to no avail and before you know it, the four hours is up, and Clinton walks out. You get a sense the jurors are heavily swayed by Clinton’s admission of an affair and his desire to keep the affair private. Starr is left gobsmacked, wondering what just happened. Later that evening Clinton address the nation and admits to the affair. Hillary is watching in a separate room and turns off the address before it’s over.
The next day the First Family leave for Martha’s Vineyard to vacation for Bill’s birthday, which happens to be the same day as mine, and while he is continuing to get updates about the potential location of bin Laden, he is more occupied with the fact his wife and daughter refuse to talk to him. After being relegated to the guest house, Bill summons Hillary and they go to Vernon Jordan’s house for Bill’s birthday dinner. Bill confides in Vernon how terrible everything is going while Hillary deflects and marvels at a new painting the family purchased. Dinner is icy at best with Bill attempting to tell funny stories about their early years of dating while Hillary sits next to him expressionless downing glass after glass of red wine. Once they are back home, Bill finally confronts Hillary and forces her to tell him what she feels. She lashes out calling him the embodiment of chaos and mayhem after throwing a vase of flowers at him. She already knows all of his excuses and shuts them down before he can even bring them up. Above it all, he is worried about her leaving him, but she reminds him that she’s in an impossible situation where if she leaves him, she will be known as the woman who left the president. If she stays, then she’ll be known as the woman who stood by her man despite the affair and their marriage is little more than a public sham. She assures him that she isn’t leaving him and storms off. Clinton goes out to the pool and begins to cry. We aren’t sure if they are tears of sadness or relief as his biggest fear, Hillary leaving him, has been averted. He is interrupted by a Secret Service agent who notifies him of the strike Clinton ordered of a Sudanese manufacturing plant owned by bin Laden and that of a potential meeting place had been carried out. The following morning, Clinton learns that while the strikes hit their targets, bin Laden was not among those killed.
The episode concludes with Clinton leaving Hillary behind in Martha’s Vineyard. Before he leaves, he gazes at Hillary, sitting in the kitchen with her back to him but decides not to say goodbye. Hillary eventually gets up and walks around the house and nearly picks up after Bill who left a coffee cup on the front table, but she intentionally puts it back down and refuses to clean up after him anymore. Instead, she walks out to the ocean and stares into the abyss while Tammy Wynette’s music kicks in reminding us to always stand by our man.
- As you probably could tell from the recap, the elephant in the room for this episode is how believable you find Hillary’s reaction. Hillary routinely ran interference and played damage control for all of Bill’s affairs while they were in Arkansas. Stories of her arranging for abortion payments and making threats against women he had affairs with have a significant amount of validity to them. The idea that Monica Lewinsky was a bridge too far or that it was the first time Bill had lied to her about an affair is laughable. She certainly had every right to be upset after defending him on national TV and probably felt like a fool, but again, nothing about the Lewinsky affair should have surprised or shocked her.
- As excited as I was about Edie Falco’s portrayal of Hillary, it just falls flat. Perhaps it’s simply because I can only see her as Carmela Soprano or the fact that her accent does not sound like Hillary in the least, but for whatever reason, her portrayal feels one-dimensional. Hillary Clinton is a fascinating woman. She is probably more politically skilled than Bill but is unable to connect with people the way he does. By all accounts she is highly intelligent, ruthless, and entitled. The idea of her cleaning up after Bill at their Martha’s Vineyard house is laughable. She would have a maid for that.
- Someone must have told the hair and costume people that Beanie Feldstein looked nothing like Monica Lewinsky because this week there was a concerted effort to dress her in more flattering clothing to mitigate the fact the two have completely different body types. Meanwhile, the makeup department could not decide what size to make Clinton’s nose. In some scenes he looks like Boris Yeltsin with a nose that would make Pinocchio blush, but other times it just looks like Clive Owen with pancake makeup. In any event, Owen tends to look much more like Clinton as we see him today and less the Clinton of the 1990s who was a little pudgier with red cheeks and salt and pepper hair.
- Having a scene where Brett Kavanaugh, who is currently a Supreme Court Justice, act as the impetus for Starr’s entire line of questioning in the Clinton deposition is absurd. Kavanaugh was, at best, an elevated staffer in that investigation. The idea that we would be walking around yelling about how they need to get tough and throwing questions around about oral sex is just ludicrous and feels like they are simply trying to capitalize on Kavanaugh’s status and his controversial confirmation hearing.
- This episode relied on the recreation of a lot of archival footage. From television interviews to Clinton’s testimony, I would venture to guess that probably one-third of the episode was reenacting moments that are public record. Interestingly, Owen is probably most effective with Clinton’s accent when he is mimicking real life quotes and interviews.
- The decision to close the episode with Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” was simply epic.
- And finally, my weekly plea for more Matt Drudge and Ann Coulter!! Nearly all the scenes between Bill and Hillary were matter of fiction and speculation but the idea that we couldn’t get the media reaction to the ongoing scandal just feels like bad writing. I still enjoy the show, but I feel there are some definite areas for improvement.
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.