fact vs fiction

Fact-Checking Impeachment’s ‘Stand by Your Man’

Photo: FX

The new FX limited series Impeachment: American Crime Story the third in a true-crime anthology that started with The People v. O.J. Simpson and continued with The Assassination of Gianni Versace — covers the events leading up to Bill Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998, with a heavy emphasis on the fallout from his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Fans of the brilliant Slate podcast Slow Burn will surely remember many details from its Leon Neyfakh–hosted second season three years ago, which included among its eight episodes bonus interviews with major players like Ken Starr, the special prosecutor and author of the infamous Starr report, and Linda Tripp, who had befriended Lewinsky at the Pentagon and helped reveal her secret affair to the independent counsel’s office.

For all ten episodes of Impeachment, we’ve asked Madeline Kaplan, the researcher for the Clinton-Lewinsky season of Slow Burn, to fact-check the show’s major events and minute details against her own understanding of the events. (Kaplan and Neyfakh’s eight-book reading list can be found here and doesn’t include the Starr report and its eyebrow-raising appendices.) Kaplan followed Neyfakh (and co-creator Andrew Parsons) to Prologue Projects, where she serves as a producer on Neyfakh’s Fiasco and other podcasts.

The eighth episode, “Stand by Your Man,” mostly pulls the focus away from Monica Lewinsky to deal with the fallout of her affair with President Clinton on his personal and political life. It opens all the way back on the eve of the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 1992, when one of Clinton’s past indiscretions resurfaces and threatens to snuff out his presidential ambitions. After some initial reluctance to dignify such allegations by addressing them publicly, Hillary Clinton agrees to appear on 60 Minutes after the Super Bowl, an appearance that revitalizes her husband’s campaign but earns her notably mixed reviews. With the Lewinsky affair, Hillary again finds herself having to defend her husband, but the pain of his betrayal damages their marriage to such an extent that she wonders if it’s now just a political arrangement. The situation grows more fraught when Bill Clinton’s preparations for his four-hour grand jury testimony dovetail uncomfortably with his response to a pair of coordinated terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the Lewinsky family starts to lose patience with their lawyer, Bill Ginsburg, who cannot secure an immunity deal with Ken Starr’s team.

After watching “Stand by Your Man,” Kaplan talked about the strategy, execution, and reception of the Clinton response, the enduring details (and jokes) that came out of the grand jury testimony, and how a young start-up known as Netflix became an unexpected beneficiary of that testimony.

The Big Stuff

The major plot and character beats that shape Impeachment’s narrative.

The Clinton strategy for dealing with marital indiscretions
“Clinton had thought about running in 1988, and part of the reason he didn’t was because people close to him were worried about this type of thing popping up and destroying the campaign. So when he thought about running again, four years later, he brought it up himself at a meeting with some political operatives. And he said, ‘I know everyone’s thinking about this and concerned about this. And so if it comes up, the line is, We had problems early in our marriage, but that’s in the past, and we will be able to move on from there.’ Which is very similar to the way they end up responding when the Gennifer Flowers story breaks.”

Hillary getting persuaded to do the 60 Minutes interview
“It felt like things were dire and might be about to fall off a cliff, just as they were gaining momentum, very early in the campaign. And this was the line they had already prepared for this kind of situation. So that was part of it, but it’s also intuitive that if you need him to push back against this type of allegation, then you really need her to vouch for him. Otherwise, it feels like a crucial piece of his defense is missing. That’s why they attacked it in such a big way, with this post–Super Bowl, massive interview. But obviously that was a big ask for Hillary, and she had to be convinced that it was necessary in order to save the campaign. She was worried about what that kind of exposure could do to their family.”

How the 60 Minutes interview was received
“It was well-received in the sense that it seems to have done its job in allowing [the Clinton campaign] to move on from this and keep going forward and obviously ultimately be successful. It is true that Hillary got more negative feedback. This interview basically set the stage for a lot of future criticism of their personal lives, and of Hillary specifically. She ended up spending a lot of the campaign navigating all these questions about being a working wife and mother, walking back some gaffes like the Tammy Wynette thing in this interview. And it also sort of showed a micro-version of how a lot of Clinton supporters would respond to the accusations about another affair in 1998, which is, ‘Okay, he’s being a little weaselly, but is this really relevant?’”

On the Clintons as a “real marriage” or “an arrangement”
“That moment in the 60 Minutes interview where Steve Kroft referred to their relationship as ‘some sort of an understanding and an arrangement’ really stuck to them. In the moment, Bill pushed back immediately, that that was a ridiculous way of framing their marriage, even if it wasn’t meant to be an insult exactly. And obviously their relationship has been a source of endless fascination, especially in 1998 when the details of their personal lives were being speculated about every second of every day. By all accounts, Hillary was blindsided when he told her the truth about his relationship with Lewinsky. In one of her memoirs, she does talk a lot about their marriage around this time and from her perspective; it feels like the main thing was that it was important that he not lie to her, and that was the bridge that was crossed here.”

The “vast right-wing conspiracy” line in Hillary’s Today interview
“Some people have said this is the most famous thing that a First Lady has ever said, which I think might be true. I think this was important at the time, certainly in helping to create a coherent strategy and response to the Lewinsky news and the Starr investigation, that [the Clintons] were going to be this united front, pushing back against Starr and accusing him of overstepping his bounds and trying to pursue them. It gave a sense of unity and purpose to what they were trying to do, and to other staffers and aides. It has also definitely endured as a way of describing everything that happened in 1998 and beyond. And there were definitely people working behind the scenes, trying to move things along in various investigations and legal proceedings. But as the season shows, in some ways it was actually a pretty small group of people who kept popping up again and again when these scandals emerged.”

Clinton being caught off guard by the DNA test
“I think a little bit. Obviously, there was all this back-and-forth about the dress. The existence of the dress was known since almost the very beginning in January, when the story became public. So that’s not that surprising. But when the Starr team finally got the dress from Monica, they didn’t have to do a DNA test and then tell Clinton the results. He might’ve guessed what the results would be, but I think they were pretty surprised to be asked that directly before his testimony.

“One of Clinton’s friends said that the blood test shifted things for him and that was the moment that it felt more real and more like he couldn’t keep going in the same direction [strategy-wise]. If they’re going to go this far and test your blood, and have hard evidence like that … obviously he was reluctant to admit a lot of things, but I think this was what really made him realize, Okay, something has to give here, in what I’m sharing about this.”

Clinton finding wiggle room in the way the Paula Jones team defined “sexual relations”  
He definitely was very much in favor of this strategy, and as a lawyer and a former law professor, he was heavily involved in his own planning here. [The Paula Jones team] had this long, complex definition of “sexual relations,” where it comes down to intimate contact with the intent to arouse or gratify. And so by his interpretation, she had sexual relations with him, but he did not have sexual relations with her. But this also turns out not to be true. In all the intimate telling of the details of their relationship, even by those standards, that’s not true, but that was what he was holding onto. He was trying to play it up like, ‘Well, I also thought it was strange that they put this definition in front of me in that deposition, but when I read it, I was like, Oh, well, no, I guess the answer’s no, because by that definition I didn’t.’”

Clinton waiting until the morning of the deposition to confess to Hillary
“No, it was two days before. His testimony was on a Monday and he woke her up Saturday morning to tell her. I’m also not sure, as the episode shows, that he waited up all night, staring at her, before he told her.

“One other thing is that he was working with two lawyers to prepare, David Kendall and one of Kendall’s colleagues, but most people in his administration were not really sure what he was going to say, or how much, or whether he would backtrack. So there was a leak that appeared on the front page of the New York Times that Friday, right before [his grand jury testimony], that claimed someone ‘close to the president’ said he was thinking about changing his story and admitting to the affair. It seems that that was a strategic leak to try to persuade him to do it, because if that appeared so publicly, it would be really hard for him to then be like, ‘Oh, actually, I’m not changing my story, even though it was publicly reported that I was thinking about it.’”

Clinton asking David Kendall to “soften up” Hillary before the confession
“Not with David Kendall, but with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who is one of their close friends and who was alluded to in the first episode. She’s one of their friends who co-created Designing Women. At this point, she’s still in the fold, helping write speeches and doing strategic planning, communications, that kind of thing. And so he apparently did ask her, before he told Hillary, ‘Can you go soften her up?’ And she said no.”

The relationship between the Lewinsky drama and the Osama bin Laden bombings
“A lot was made of this, specifically around this movie that had come out the year before, that was an adaptation of a novel, called Wag the Dog, where a president starts a war to distract from a sex scandal. Once that bombing strike was made public, there were instantly hundreds of comparisons everywhere to the movie, asking whether Clinton is ‘wagging the dog’ and trying to distract from the scandal by seeming presidential and rushing back to D.C. from his Martha’s Vineyard vacation. For what it’s worth, that accusation was shot down by everyone in the administration and also a lot of his political opponents, including Newt Gingrich, who stood up for him and said, ‘That’s a ridiculous allegation.’”

How Clinton’s speech after his grand jury testimony was received
“That speech was absolutely panned by everyone. He got terrible reviews, saying that he seemed nonapologetic, that he did not apologize to the country. After lying to the American people directly for so long, he was taking this time to attack Ken Starr in the speech, as opposed to seeming genuinely contrite. The fact that he was acting really aggrieved in a moment where actually he had done something really wrong, maybe several things really wrong — this was definitely not considered to be a success by any measure.

“Lewinsky said that she watched this speech live and was very upset by it. Because after months of basically saying she was a liar and throwing her character under the bus, he didn’t have any apology for her or her family about what he put them through. And so that speech seems to have been a real turning point for her in how she thought about Clinton, and she started to reevaluate their relationship after that.”

Clinton’s time in the doghouse
“For days after he told her [about the Lewinsky affair], she didn’t want to speak to him at all. She was extremely angry. And then later on in this two-week trip to Martha’s Vineyard, they were able to have the opportunity to go on private walks outside, that were not in public view at all. And that’s when they started talking a little bit more. But in her memoir and in talking about this period afterwards, Hillary has said that she was very much unsure whether the marriage was salvageable or whether she should even attempt to try to save it at this point.”

Clinton’s birthday dinner at Vernon Jordan’s place
“They actually also brought Chelsea, who apparently stayed through dinner and then left before dessert to hang out with her friends. So she would have been there. But I don’t think that much is really known about this dinner. In a lot of descriptions of people who were near Hillary at this time, they said it was obviously really strange to know so much about what she’s going through. And that she was in shock and not totally present, I think.”

The joke about the limo running out of gas in Hillary’s hometown
“This is a weird thing. I’m pretty sure this is just a joke or an apocryphal anecdote about them. This joke was commonly told in the ’92 campaign. And then when he was inaugurated, there are many references to it as a joke that’s been told so many times that it’s gotten old. This joke has also been turned into a fake meme that has gotten a lot of play on Facebook about the Obamas — this exact anecdote, but told about Barack and Michelle Obama. I don’t think this really happened. But they do seem to present it in the episode as a real event.”

Lewinsky’s family’s frustrations with Bill Ginsburg
“Their dissatisfaction with Ginsburg grew over a long period of time, and it had to do with a lot of different things. Obviously, there was frustration about the immunity deal not working out originally, although there’s a subplot that helps explain why so much time passed without an immunity deal. Because the deal had been prepared and signed by the Lewinsky side of things, but not by Starr’s prosecutors, Ginsburg asked a judge to try to make Starr’s team honor that immunity deal. That effort took several months. It was after that request was denied by the judge that he was replaced, like two weeks later.

“But there was a lot of other stuff that he did that really frustrated [Lewinsky’s family]. He made a lot of inappropriate comments about Lewinsky, about her personal life. He seemed to sometimes give too much information away about what she might say, or what her experience might have been with Clinton. So while some of his legal maneuverings seem to have been not that bad, considering he was a medical malpractice attorney, he was seen as a buffoon in the press and by the Starr team. He didn’t seem to be helping her case very much.

“The story of them trying to replace him is more complex and interesting than what they show here. Monica snuck to D.C. without Ginsburg’s knowledge to interview new attorneys. It was this whole secret thing, so that he wouldn’t find out, because they were really scared that he was going to leak it. But then once they did make arrangements with the new attorneys, he did basically go along with it. And even though it was reported that he’d been dumped, both sides technically said it was a mutual, ‘We’re moving on’ kind of thing.”

Lewinsky’s new immunity deal
“The main sticking point of that original immunity deal was that Ginsburg said it was not in her interest to bring her in for the ‘queen for a day’ oral proffer, where she would have to tell them everything that happened verbally and answer whatever questions they might have. That original immunity deal involved her writing out a statement that they would then accept. The immunity deal that gets signed with her new attorneys is that she will sit for the ‘queen for a day’ and answer their questions, which, as they show in the episode, she ended up doing.”

Debate within the Starr team on how to interrogate Clinton
“There were a lot of conversations within the team about how hard to go on him and how specific to get with him. You’re trying to walk the line of not going too easy on him, but also not setting yourself up for accusations of either disrespecting the Office of the President, or seeming like you’re just trying to get him in a perjury trap. Very famously, Brett Kavanaugh wrote a memo that you can read where he basically says, ‘I thought a lot about what we’ve been talking about. I really disagree that we should give him a break of any kind. And so here are ten questions, and someone other than me should figure out the wording of these questions, but I think that we should be really specific.’ Those are really specific graphic questions about moments between [Clinton and Lewinsky] to try to get him to either deny things very specifically or admit to things very specifically.

“There are many controversies in the investigation and then in the Starr report about what details of their sexual relationship were relevant to a potential case. One of those issues is this anecdote about whether Clinton masturbated into a trash can, and that’s included in the Starr report as a footnote. So many critics have asked, ‘What possible relevance could that have to whether he perjured himself? That’s not even an interaction between him and Lewinsky, really.’ It set them up for a lot of criticism down the line.”

Clinton being allowed to read a statement during his grand jury testimony
“The proceedings of grand juries are so opaque to most people in general. And there are a lot of specific, weird rules that come into play because it’s the president — and not just the president, but the subject of the grand jury investigation. In his deposition in the Paula Jones case, the judge Susan Webber Wright was present and able to respond to objections and either say that he doesn’t have to answer certain questions or make him answer certain questions. There was not a judge present here to make sure that that happened. So Clinton had more leeway, so I think it was always probably going to be hard for [the Starr team] to get him to go to certain places. He’s much more able to be in control, and obviously he’s someone who is pretty good at this kind of thing.”

“That depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”
“People instantly thought that that was funny. That was one of the quotes that was pulled from this transcript immediately, as soon as it became public. It’s very funny and emblematic of how he answered things, but legally, he was being asked about something that his attorney said during the deposition, not something he said, so  ultimately this doesn’t become crucial to his own potential legal culpability. More of just an enduring quote.”

Starr asking questions in the final minutes
“He did, but not the way that it’s depicted here. With about 12 minutes to go, Starr stepped in and just asked a few questions about executive privilege, as it related to the investigation, not as they show it here. He was not trying to nail him on specifics about their sexual relationship.”

Odds and Ends

The details and embellishments that may or may not be rooted in the historical record but reflect Impeachment’s stylistic approach.

On Tammy Wynette demanding an apology from Hillary 
“Yeah, she was very upset to be brought up in that interview. She thought that it was very condescending to her music and to all country-and-Western fans. And so she did ask for an apology and she also asked to meet with Clinton to discuss it, which did not seem to have happened. When Clinton heard about it, she apparently rolled her eyes, but then said that if she had hurt her feelings, she was very sorry. And that she was a country-and-Western fan as well, so she’d never intend to do that.”

On Clinton switching from Diet Coke to Canada Dry during the grand jury testimony
“Throughout the four-hour grand jury testimony, he drank three cans of Diet Coke, one Canada Dry, and also had two glasses of water. And so there were many jokey columns and stories after this, about the strength of his bladder, to sit through that for so long and drink all that. And also funny coverage of how frustrating it must be for Coke, and for Canada Dry, and those companies, to be associated with him in this moment.”

On Clinton as a dog guy
“This was their dog Buddy, who’s a chocolate Lab. Clinton spent a lot of time with Buddy in general, but specifically on this trip, there was so much reporting about this tense time in their marriage that really focused on these scenes or images of Clinton being left alone with the dog, like he didn’t really have anyone else on his side. As a side note on Buddy — Buddy’s not as famous as their most famous pet, Socks the cat. And Socks was a foe of Buddy’s. They did not get along at all, and when the Clintons left the White House, they kept Buddy, but they gave Socks to Betty Currie to take care of.”

On the comedy stylings of Bill Ginsburg and Kellyanne Conway
“When Kellyanne Conway became famous [after Trump], there was this clip of her that went viral, of her doing stand-up comedy in 1998. She was competing in this Funniest Celebrity in Washington competition. One of her competitors that night was Bill Ginsburg, who came in second in the contest. He told lots of jokes about Ken Starr, apparently. You can watch the whole thing on C-Span.”

On an unexpected beneficiary of Clinton’s grand jury testimony
“One of the things that was really unique about Clinton’s grand jury testimony is that it was videotaped. Normally, the witness would just appear in front of the grand jury to speak to them directly, but because he’s the president, he’s doing it in the White House. There was a lot of back-and-forth about how to do it, but they ended up taping it with a feed to the grand jurors sitting in the courtroom, as they show here. Clinton and David Kendall made snarky references to it at the very end of the testimony, like, ‘Okay, are you sure the only reason you videotaped this is so that it can go to the grand jury?’ Under the assumption that this was intended to become public and embarrass him in some way. And it did become public about a month later. The footage was released and it was published widely, including by this very young company in California, called Netflix, that was trying to sell DVDs through the mail. And they didn’t have a very large customer base, so they did this promotion where they would sell DVDs of his testimony for two cents apiece to try to drum up publicity. And it seems to have worked very well. They got a lot of press in a lot of major publications.”

Fact-Checking Impeachment’s ‘Stand by Your Man’