American Crime Story
Across the last few episodes, the character of Ann Coulter has come to typify the conservative mischief-makers that may or may not have been masterminding Bill Clinton’s impeachment (though the existence of such a network is one of the few things that the Clintons and the real Coulter agree on). She’s there to connect the wrong people at the right moment; she’s popping Champagne, the official drink of Schadenfreude, as she devours the Tripp tapes. So it’s intriguing that Coulter’s entirely missing when Monica Lewinsky’s name graduates from the roster of forgotten White House interns to above-the-fold news. The American media makes the more natural villain, from cable-news producers to late-night talk-show hosts. Who’s responsible for “The Assassination of Monica Lewinsky”? Coulter and the Clintons, Linda Tripp and Ken Starr, too. But also anyone who tuned in to watch Molly Shannon skewer her as an airhead on the SNL cold-open.
When the episode begins, though, we’re still in before times — before Drudge, before the beret footage, before Bill calls his mistress “that woman” on national TV. The president glad-handily thanks a room of suits for giving up their weekend to take his deposition. He swears to tell the whole truth and then proceeds to lie his face off. Perhaps WJC’s lying when he says he’s never even met Paula Jones, and perhaps he’s lying when he says he didn’t harass Kathleen Willey, but he’s sure as shit lying when he says he’s never been alone with Monica. The lawyers ask him if the two have exchanged gifts, but Bill says he can’t remember because he gets and gives so many gifts; later, he just says “yes.”
Bill’s confusion here is real, even if it’s not about the questions. A few hours ago, the president was drafting the State of the Union in the Oval Office; now, he’s just another bad husband struggling to understand how his 24-year-old girlfriend could have been so indiscreet. In a move as stealthy as it is chilling, Bill calls Betty into his office to confirm that she also remembers that she never ever ever ever ever left him and Monica alone. He somehow wordlessly induces her to lie using nothing but words. It’s diabolical and a little impressive. He also instructs Betty to give Monica a call, just to check up on her.
But having been scared straight throughout a Georgetown martini lunch with their attorney Bill Ginsburg, Marcia doesn’t let Monica answer Betty’s pages. They still don’t have Monica’s immunity deal in writing, and tipping off the president doesn’t send peak “cooperating witness” vibes. Plus, Newsweek is planning to finally run Mike Isikoff’s story, after which all deals might be off the table.
CUT TO: Newsweek decides to spike Isikoff’s story about the president securing a private-sector job for his mistress. If I were Mike Isikoff, I would burn down the newsroom, so it seems super-reasonable to me that all he does is yell a little. “Sometimes it’s just not worth being first,” says his gutless editor, about 15 seconds before Matt Drudge somehow finds out the story is dead. What happens next is famous, or at least D.C.-famous: Drudge scoops Newsweek on Newsweek’s own story, literally every outlet picks up the allegations, and the moment that should have been Mike’s instead belongs to Matt.
We’re over halfway through the season, and Impeachment’s story lines are at long last collapsing. When Drudge clicks publish, Monica is railroaded into cooperating with Starr, and the president’s perjury is all but confirmed. The world is fragmenting into dangerous shards, but instead of following the momentum, we take a drive to suburban Maryland to check on Linda. She warns her kids of the impending media storm without actually telling them what she did. Some people will think her the worst bestie since Judas, but she’s more of a John Dean figure to her addled mind.
Back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a more consequential family meeting is going down. Bill finally breaks the news to Hillary (Edie Falco), who wants to know what exactly her husband means when he says the Washington Post story is a lie. Did Vernon Jordan not get his mistress a job, or did he not have a mistress in the first place? “Ask Betty,” Bill insists, like a kid enlisting his little brother as a witness. Monica was troubled and a little infatuated with him. That’s all. Betty “saw the whole thing.” But of course, Hillary can’t ask Betty! How would it look if she asked Betty? Like a woman who knows how hard it is to get face time with the president, Hillary quickly passes from wifely concerns to work ones. She directs him to start putting out the fire.
Except his team can’t possibly. It’s already too big. Cable news is wall-to-wall Monica coverage despite having little to report besides her Pentagon hard-pass photo. The White House press corps is incensed at press secretary Mike McCurry’s evasiveness. Reporters surround the Watergate condo where the Lewinskys are staying, and Revlon very publicly rescinds its offer of employment. Even Linda’s house is being staked out. Linda! In a misjudged effort to get ahead of the story, Bill denies all the allegations in a semi-hostile PBS interview, but this is before he learns about the Tripp tapes. Luckily, he’s already had the idea to call his old pal Dick Morris, who returns to Washington from wherever political consultants go after they’ve been caught sucking a hooker’s toe.
Bill’s second instinct is to contradict the PBS interview that concluded five minutes ago (LOL), admit the affair, and draw a line under the story. But Dick’s hasty polling doesn’t support the truth. America doesn’t mind the affair. It’s the perjury that will kill him. So Bill opts for plan C: If you can’t end the game, you have to win it. He does what the best liars do, crafts a version of events that incorporates large swathes of the truth. Monica really was fixated on the president and his staff really did move her to the Pentagon when they noticed something untoward. She did call at all hours and showed up uninvited to public events. Even poor Monica recognizes herself in the ginned-up tale of the president of the United States and his young and unrequited stalker.
It’s a story line the American media is eager to explore. CNN runs a slapdash package on Monica’s troubled family life and her summers at fat camp. Jay Leno and Letterman are ruthless; so is SNL. The high-school drama staffer who took advantage of Monica when she was a teen comes forward, and cable news gives him a big ol’ mic as if it’s at all shocking that a man who cheated on his wife with Monica might also want to ride the coattails of this new Stalker Defense. Meanwhile, Monica sits in the Watergate watching it all from the sofa. She agrees to Ken Starr’s immunity terms because she needs the fastest route to being forgotten. Except now, even Ken Starr doesn’t want what she has to offer. After Monica’s lawyer Bill Ginsburg gloats his way through all five of the Sunday-morning shows in a single day, Starr pulls her deal.
“It’s been five news cycles,” Hillary complains to Bill. This is the unit of measurement even inside their marriage. It’s worth considering what this scandal would have looked like without TV. What if it hadn’t been transformed from an event in the lives of actual people into a moment of pop-culture excess? If there was no unearthed C-SPAN footage of Bill hugging Monica; if there was no video recording of Bill looking down a camera and insisting, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” That woman. It was a scene designed by Hillary and that ever-reliable Clinton acolyte Sid Blumenthal to address the nation on their own terms. Not a prime-time address that would validate Ken Starr’s allegations by giving them oxygen, but some passing remarks at a First Lady presser about after-school programs for kids, as throwaway as the rumors themselves. That woman. Perhaps the two most famous words Bill ever uttered.
But what if they’d just been something a reporter had written down, not unlike his deposition? What if no one could rewind again and again to see Monica’s beaming smile when the president greeted her on the rope line? What if John Goodman’s Linda Tripp impression wasn’t such a hit that he returned to SNL to do it five times? Twenty-five years on, we can recognize Sarah Paulson’s Linda Tripp by her helmet of highlights and we can spot Monica’s dark beret on the grainy footage. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal may have been the internet’s first big scoop, but Impeachment is a TV show of a TV show, brimming with visual familiarity.
Yes, They Really Did That
• Bill Clinton really did say “weekends” a gabillion times when asked about being “alone” with Monica Lewinsky. An excerpt from his deposition: “I don’t recall, but as I said, when she worked at the legislative affairs office, they always had somebody there on the weekends. I typically worked some on the weekends. Sometimes they’d bring me things on the weekends. She — it seems to me she brought things to me once or twice on the weekends. In that case, whatever time she would be in there, drop it off, exchange a few words and go, she was there. I don’t have any specific recollections of what the issues were, what was going on, but when the Congress is there, we’re working all the time, and typically I would do some work on one of the days of the weekends in the afternoon.”
• Bill Ginsburg really did appear on all five major American talk shows on a single Sunday, a feat never before accomplished. The move is now called, in some exceedingly D.C. circles, “the full Ginsburg.”
More From This Series
- Fact-checking Impeachment’s Final Act
- Impeachment: American Crime Story Season-Finale Recap: Monica’s Story
- Fact-Checking Impeachment’s ‘The Grand Jury’