American Crime Story
The tenth and final episode of Impeachment is here, and I’m just now realizing that I have no clue which specific moment in U.S. history we’ve been hurtling toward. Is there a logical culmination to all this scheming and taping and testifying? Is it the secret drop of the Starr Report, formally known by its much sexier name, Referral from Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr in Conformity with the Requirement of Title 28, United States Code, Section 595(c)? Is it Monica Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair spread, the one in which she dresses up as Marilyn Monroe alongside some of the most styleless photo captions Graydon Carter ever published? (Case in point: “As the star of the Starr report she went down in history as the woman who went down on — well, the rest of the sentence writes itself.”)
Or is it the actual impeachment of Bill Clinton, a moment of little political or actual significance beyond the Beltway? In its final 90 minutes, Impeachment is, at times, a hyperbolic version of itself: The camera chases the ensemble cast around the country as if on a great time-jumping tour of American living rooms, the dim sets achieve Rembrandt’s level of chiaroscuro, and the score grows so tense and pulpy that my husband asked me why I was watching Law & Order in the middle of the day. But here we are! The tenth and final episode of Impeachment, a show that, never mind the title, managed to mention impeachment only slightly more often than the Starr Report, which uses the word less often than it uses the word “cigar.”
It’s September 1998 when the episode begins, and the frat brothers at the Special Prosecutor’s office are still arguing over the porniest bits of the report even after their boss sends it to the printers. Ken tells his boys he’s proud of the smutty ledger it’s taken them four years to compile, then drops the report off on Congress’s doorstep without allowing the White House the courtesy of a sneak peek.
Yes, Bill Clinton is forced to read the full story of his affair online, along with the rest of the world. Ann Coulter is gleeful at the degree of prurient detail, George Conway likes it fine but wishes there was more legal stuff, and Marcia Lewinsky warns Monica’s dad, Bernie, not to open it all. On cable news, anchors are literally just reading the report out loud, word for word. Why did Monica tell these guys so much, and why did Ken include every last morsel of it? What is even happening? Ken Starr has broken the internet and possibly also spacetime. How else can it be possible that Chelsea is reading about her dad’s sex life in a sunny Stanford library at the same time Matt Drudge screams at the AOL guy in the pitch-black Los Angeles morning while, on the East Coast, Ann is swilling ice-cold Chablis and manifesting Bill’s inevitable resignation?
Poor Monica! Poor poor poor poor Monica. No one deserves this, and yet the gross extremes of the Starr Report’s invasion into her privacy will become the bedrock for Bill Clinton’s defense. This isn’t about the law, his team will argue. This is politics, and it’s personal. Too personal. So personal that Hillary doesn’t even need to be asked not to read it.
And then comes the audio-version drop, narrated by Monica and Linda themselves. Two months after Starr releases his report, the House Judiciary Committee uploads the Tripp tapes in their entirety — a move that doesn’t have the desired effect. Hillary Clinton’s public-approval numbers skyrocket, Bill’s presidency has popular support, and Monica owns a healthy share of America’s sympathies. Still, the needle just won’t budge on Linda Tripp, who is facing prosecution for illegal wiretapping in the state of Maryland and hasn’t been allowed back to work. Bill Clinton might be a liar and a cheater, but at least he’s not a bad friend, you know?
It’s too easy to forget that all of this started because a woman from Arkansas filed a lawsuit slash got used and discarded by Republican operatives. As ugly as things are for Linda in the press, life is worse for Paula Jones. Steve is gone, and Paula has taken Steve junior back to Arkansas, where they’re living with her mother. She’s forced to take work as a celebrity phone psychic and eventually agrees to pose naked in Penthouse magazine for money, which is the last time Susan Carpenter-McMillan ever calls her. The “tasteful” photographs she was promised include her in a white-mesh shirt humping a banister.
And somewhere far away in a room we never see, politicos are calling Congress members and whipping votes while Bill stews, powerless to help his impeachment defense for fear of looking like he’s interfering. Luckily, Bill’s married to his best advocate, and she’s never been more powerful. The Democratic delegation from New York State even wants her to run for Senate. Long mocked for her bad fashion, Hillary now sits in an elegant velvet gown for a portrait that will grace the cover of Vogue’s December issue. The women in Bill Clinton’s life do not fare well in Impeachment, but there’s still a continuum. On top are beautiful photographs taken by Annie Leibovitz at the White House, and on bottom is a sweaty guy in a wife-beater who tells you to take your top “all the way off.”
Which brings us to Juanita Broaddrick d/b/a Jane Doe No. 5. Lindsey Graham’s aides uncover her identity from the Starr Report footnote that nearly wasn’t. Attached to a name, her story starts to gain traction on the Hill even as Bill denies anything ever happened. When the impeachment vote finally rolls in, it’s anticlimactic: a bunch of characters whose names we can’t be sure of sit in a conference room looking sullen. And when Bill addresses the gravity of the situation, it’s with a joke. His grand theory on this cataclysmic moment in his presidency is that maybe God just doesn’t like him very much. Similarly, Bill’s acquittal in the Senate doesn’t feel like victory. There are no winners on Impeachment. When Juanita goes on Dateline to accuse the president of rape, more people tune into the Grammys. Paula Jones could have had $700,000 and a nice house in Little Rock; instead, she’s naked in a lad mag. Even Ken Starr, who gets almost everything he set out to achieve, kind of looks like a loser.
But the biggest losers here are Monica Lewinsky and her erstwhile friend Linda Tripp. In its waning moments, the show attempts an explanation of Linda’s extravagant treachery that goes beyond a dislike of the Clintons. At a party where strangers harass her in the lobby, her lit agent Lucianne Goldberg jokes that she’ll miss the First Couple: “They were great for books.” Linda looks like the only true believer, but what does she believe in?
Later, she tells her daughter all about the grandfather she never mentions. Linda’s dad was a liar and a cheater, just like Bill. His affairs were open secrets that never cost him a thing. This was Linda’s moment, you see, to punish an evil man. “Men like Bill Clinton — they ruin lives, and they get away with it. They just do.” Linda never gets her book deal, though Lucianne bankrolls her plastic surgery and presumably helps set up her interview with George magazine, may it rest in peace. As it turns out, Linda Tripp with a face lift looks a lot like Sarah Paulson and sounds almost contrite. She’s teary when she admits that her actions look like a betrayal, but really they were a rescue op. Monica was Bill’s victim.
Monica Lewinsky was 22 years old when she started an affair with the president of the United States and 24 years old when her friend made sure the world knew about it. No, Linda never gets a book deal, but St. Martin’s Press gives Monica half a million dollars to let Princess Diana’s biographer write the story of her life. She’s on the top of the NYT best-seller list, and her book signings are packed. That the series shows us a life somehow moving forward doesn’t undermine its portrait of how much she lost. In one scene, Monica talks to a friend about her fears: What job can she get now that she’s famous for being Monica Lewinsky? How can she find a good man who wants to date her? She didn’t want fans or haters or readers; she wanted to sell makeup at Revlon. She didn’t want to be the executive producer of ten very sad episodes of television; she wanted to be a wife and mom.
Impeachment doesn’t do that fast-forward thing that series based on true stories often do. It doesn’t remind us that Ann Coulter would go on to support Donald Trump’s candidacy over the “sentient bag of ice chips” they call Hillary Clinton. It doesn’t let us know that 25 years after its founding, the Drudge Report is still a leading right-wing news site — a great place to go for birther conspiracies. We don’t learn that Linda died in 2020. It doesn’t condescend to update us on the Clintons.
And so we’re left with Monica in her 20s and not the activist-cum-Hollywood producer we know she’ll become. I like that choice. I like how the series doesn’t insist on some sweeping tale of redemption. Monica may not be vilified now the way she was then, but the scandal took away things no hit TED Talk can give her back. This isn’t a show about how life got better for Monica. In fact, it leaves us with only a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. Overwhelmed by the crowd that’s turned up to her book signing, Monica absconds backstage and mutters to herself, “I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay” in the finale’s last moments.
At least that much seems true.
Yes, They Really Did That
• Yes, Linda Tripp really did attend the book party for Speak No Evil, a novel about politically motivated murder in Washington.
More From This Series
- Fact-checking Impeachment’s Final Act
- Fact-Checking Impeachment’s ‘The Grand Jury’
- Impeachment: American Crime Story Recap: Put Her in a Footnote