podcast review

What Is Slow Burn Without Monica Lewinsky?

Photo: Slate

Slow Burn, the Slate podcast written and narrated by Leon Neyfakh, continues to be an excellent piece of political documentary. The first season, which focused on President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, was well-written, deliberately produced, and reasonably complex. Its sophomore effort is even more so, which is all the more impressive given that its subject is still alive.

Digging deeper into the show’s premise of conveying what it was like to live through a major historical moment, Neyfakh continues with the theme of impeachment and builds the second season around the Bill Clinton scandal of the 1990s. Together with producer Andrew Parsons and researcher Madeline Kaplan, Neyfakh’s builds an eight-episode arc that unspools President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, his troubling reputation as a womanizer, and the ensuing chaos of hypocrisies smashing together political chicanery and the culture wars. Those are just the major beats of the story, though: This being an enterprise of political archaeology, Neyfakh also brings into view a ton of detail previously underemphasized or lost to time, which make up a tremendous amount of the pleasure (and horror) that comes with the podcast.

To say that all these story threads echo with the present moment would be a cliché, but it would also be imprecise. They don’t so much echo as produce the same sound, slightly modulated. There’s a sitting president being investigated by an independent counsel. There’s a number of women accusing that very president of sexual misconduct. There’s a strong woman at the center of a maelstrom. There’s cynical politicking caked in the bullshit of moral posturing. Oh, look! There’s Senator Chuck Grassley, doing Chuck Grassley things. Man, that guy has been around for an obscenely long time. I would make the old “time is a flat circle” joke here, but frankly, the recursiveness of the whole matter makes me want to scream.

That overwhelming cyclicality appears to be a driving purpose of Slow Burn. One of the production’s major rules, as Neyfakh himself states in a bonus episode dropped last week, is that it will never directly address or reference matters happening in the present. Part of this is presumably aesthetic — wouldn’t that be didactic, annoying, and, like, super-tacky? — but part of it seems to be tragic-poetic: an effort to illustrate how we’re doomed to do the same horrible things to ourselves (and each other) over and over again, even as specific things about the world around us changes, like the feminist movement making incremental gains and media structures reshaping in the shadow of the Drudge Report.

Or maybe the best way to read Slow Burn is more as a straightforward prequel of the burning world we see today. After all, not only are many of the individuals involved in Clinton’s impeachment still alive and kicking, they continue to actively participate in the political world of today. There is the aforementioned Grassley (who, during the Bill Clinton saga, sported a button in support of Juanita Broaddrick, a woman who accused the president of violent sexual assault); the lawyer Abbe Lowell, who now counsels Jared Kushner; David Brock, the former right-wing investigative journalist turned Clinton ally and founder of progressive nonprofit Media Matters; Hillary Clinton, obviously; and even Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, who used to work for Ken Starr, the leader of the independent counsel investigating Clinton’s various scandals. (Hence, “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”) The insistent persistence of all these figures into the present moment is a testament to just how present the Clinton scandal remains in the nervous system of the contemporary American political body. It’s also a tiring reminder of the small and depressingly clubby world of American political power.

Many of those individuals appear as voices throughout the season, and while Slow Burn generally conducts its narrative business with well-deployed archival tape, a good deal of the meat comes from present-day interviews. In this department, Neyfakh makes some substantial gets, including securing an extensive sit-down with Linda Tripp, the former Lewinsky confidante most known for recording her conversations with Lewinsky about the affair.

There are, however, glaring absences. Neither Lewinsky nor Clinton appear as interviewees, and the resulting effect is something that feels like a narrative via Greek chorus: a cacophony of secondary and tertiary players giving their accounts of a story that are ultimately not their own. Lewinsky, of course, is the core casualty of this setup, as presidents, by virtue of the office, get automatically slotted into endlessly powerful narrative, media, and myth-making machines. Her identity continuously gets reshaped and refracted, until it is almost whittled down into a shadow, over the course of the season. I was recently on WNPR’s The Colin McEnroe Show talking about the podcast, and my co-panelist, Mercy Quaye, made a defining point on this: “I feel like with every episode Lewinsky gets younger and younger in description,” she said. “In an early episode, she’s described as ‘the woman’ … later on, she’s described as ‘the intern’ or ‘the young woman.’” Indeed, further into the series, Linda Tripp would even call her “a girl in a woman’s body.”

Given Slow Burn’s premise, you could argue the focus on the Greek chorus is kind of the point. To be honest, I’m partial to this notion. There’s a reason why the season’s sharpest episodes — that is, the installments that Slow Burn was built for — were “God Mode,” which examined how the Christian right responded to the scandal, and “Bedfellows,” which explored the multifaceted feminist reaction to the scandal. Both present a different view from a different slice of society on the same monolithic event, a kind of sociological Rashomon. But I still can’t shake the fact that the absence of Lewinsky’s living perspective undermines Slow Burn’s achievements because it replicates one of the scandal’s core sins: The woman who stood at the center of the maelstrom continues to go unheard within an earnest context. It’s a dark cloud that never quite drifts away from the proceedings.

This season of Slow Burn ends remarkably, with gestures toward even darker clouds. The final episode, “Move On,” provides snapshots of two women. The first, which constitutes the bulk of the finale, provides a look at Juanita Broaddrick, the woman who accused President Clinton of a violent sexual assault. Hers is a complicated voice, as Neyfakh points out. Broaddrick’s visceral allegations are still unproven, and her original telling of them were ultimately overshadowed by Lewinsky’s story. What little we see of her current identity, as a Trump supporter who publicly expressed skepticism over Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, only deepens the complication. Neyfakh pieces together this picture, weighs the situation, and is left sounding uncertain about how to move forward.

The second snapshot, which is the image Slow Burn leaves you with, is a simultaneous rise and fall: the beginning of Hillary Clinton’s political career and Al Gore losing the 2000 presidential election. Here, Neyfakh and the listener know exactly what happens next.

What Is Slow Burn Without Monica Lewinsky?