fact vs fiction

Impeachment: Fact-checking Episode Four, ‘The Telephone Hour’

Photo: Tina Thorpe/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.

In the fourth episode, “The Telephone Hour,” Tripp makes the fateful decision to start recording her phone conversations with Lewinsky as evidence of the affair between the former White House intern and President Clinton. She also gets a look at Lewinsky’s infamous stained blue dress. After repeated failed attempts to return to the West Wing, Lewinsky is handed over to Clinton lawyer Vernon Jordan (Blair Underwood), who has been tasked with securing a job in New York City. With the Paula Jones lawsuit hanging over Clinton’s head, Lewinsky’s appearance on a witness list threatens to bring their secret affair out into the open.

This week, inspired by the episode, Kaplan talked about the uncertainty and emotional turmoil facing Lewinsky at the time, the mounting tension between her and Tripp, and the complicated legal and personal implications of the taped calls.

The Big Stuff

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

Lewinsky’s thwarted efforts to get back to the West Wing
“The woman in the first scene is Marsha Scott, who worked in the Presidential Personnel Office. And she, as they mentioned in the episode, was a friend of Clinton’s from Arkansas. She knew him from when they were teenagers. And so she’s very much in that Arkansas coalition of friends going back a long way. And interestingly, Linda Tripp actually worked for her for a few months, before she went to that Pentagon job. So [Lewinsky and Scott] had a couple of meetings and Lewinsky was in touch with her at various points during 1997, trying to get back into the White House. The meeting [on the show] is pretty close to Lewinsky’s recollection of it, which is that she showed up expecting that Marsha Scott had been told who she was and that she needed a job and that it was important to get her a job. And she walked out feeling really embarrassed and frustrated. She felt like, ‘either [Scott is] lying and saying she doesn’t know who I am, or the president lied and said that he was going to help me out with this, but didn’t actually tell her.’”

Lewinsky’s relationship with Betty Currie
“Betty Currie said they were friendly and they occasionally would meet up outside of the White House. But because of Monica’s persistence in trying to get back into the White House and because Betty’s role was facilitating these phone calls back and forth and trying to set up meetings, she was pretty annoyed with her at times. She definitely was frustrated with Monica and bet [Clinton] no longer thought that it would be a good idea for Monica to come back.”

The angry phone call from Clinton over Lewinsky’s treatment of Currie
“There’s a huge ordeal that happens in December of ’97, and the show skips over a lot of it. In the Starr report it’s called “the Northwest Gate Incident.” [The writers are] just taking little bits, but basically Lewinsky showed up at the White House and tried to meet with the president and he was meeting with someone else. And she got really frustrated by this because Currie had lied to her about what Clinton was up to that day. And that’s when she called Currie from a payphone and yelled at her. And it became this whole big thing at the White House gate, and some people noticed that there’s some weird conflict happening here with this woman who was trying to get in, and that the president is somehow involved and upset that someone told her who he was meeting with. Then later that day after she calmed down, Lewinsky spoke to the president and she said he was extremely angry with her. And one of the things he brought up in that conversation was that she shouldn’t talk to Betty that way. So that seems to be where this phone call scene comes from.”

Tension between Tripp and Lewinsky over the Newsweek story
“Linda Tripp felt very betrayed by what she had agreed to say and how she felt she was portrayed. And she ended up writing a letter to the editor with Lewinsky’s help about what was said about her in the piece and the comment about her from the president’s lawyer, where he basically called her a liar. It really freaked her out. So this was definitely a big turning point for Linda Tripp. But at this point in their friendship, it feels like their motivations for talking to each other about these things are starting to change. Tripp becomes much more focused on protecting herself. I’m not sure specifically about tension between them over the Newsweek story. Lewinsky was sympathetic to Tripp’s fears about losing her job over it. It was really Tripp’s mention of writing a tell-all book that upset her, but she said Tripp tried to reassure her that she would never include anything about her in it. ”

Vernon Jordan getting empowered to find Lewinsky a job in New York
“As with a lot of these meetings, the intermediary was Betty Currie. Obviously one of the cruxes of the whole thing is whether the president was involved in setting this up. Clinton testified that he knew about it but didn’t think he was the ‘precipitating force’ behind it. But Jordan later said that he understood that the reason that this was being set up was because Clinton wanted it to happen. So there were intermediaries, but he basically said later, ‘I understood I was being told to do this by the president.’ And that was because he had a lot of connections in New York, outside of government, so he could help find her job. He was on the board of directors at Revlon, as they say in the show.

“She actually did get offered a job to work for Bill Richardson at the U.N. And she ended up deciding a few weeks later not to take that because she didn’t want to work in government anymore if she couldn’t be in the White House. Then there was this whole other drama that happens in January with her not having a very good first interview at Revlon’s parent company. Vernon Jordan gets involved again and calls an executive, and then eventually she does get a job offer at Revlon, I think just days before the [Lewinsky] story breaks.”

The extent to which Jordan, Curry, and others knew about the affair
“I think it’s safe to say Betty Currie understood at least the broad outlines of what was going on. In her grand jury testimony, Currie basically said that she might have suspected something, but that she tried to see the best in them and that the president’s privacy was important. And she said she believed in him on a fundamental level. But I mean, she obviously was fielding tons of calls from Lewinsky, passing gifts back and forth between them, and knew they were seeing each other alone sometimes. Vernon Jordan testified that he asked both Clinton and Lewinsky individually whether they had had a sexual relationship around this time, and that they both said no. Lewinsky said she thought that was like a ‘wink wink, what will you say if you testify?’ question, not an earnest question. So potentially a miscommunication there. But in any case a lot of the specific facts of the relationship weren’t known to either of them, whether because Currie was looking the other way or Jordan was being told no, there’s nothing there.”

Tripp getting a document called “Bill and Hillary’s Body Count” on her desk
“Linda said in her posthumously published memoir that this happened in December of ’97. That she showed up to work in her office and someone had stapled a piece of paper that said ‘the Clinton death list’ to her chair that had all these names on it. I don’t know if she reacted as angrily and publicly as she does [on the show]. She just kind of ends it abruptly in the book, like ‘So needless to say, I didn’t feel too good that day.’ She doesn’t get into that much detail, really. But she always maintained that she felt actual harm could come to her because she was involved in this thing.”

Lucianne Goldberg persuading Tripp to tape her calls with Lewinsky
“It was definitely Goldberg’s idea. She told Tripp that she should make tapes and have some kind of hard evidence, for the press to take it seriously and for her potential book deal. Goldberg has always said that the two-party consent issue was an honest mistake. Because New York, where she was calling from, was a one-party consent state. So the fact that Lucianne Goldberg is recording her calls with Linda Tripp, that’s not a crime for her. She did not put herself in legal jeopardy. And Linda Tripp, for her part, seems to have always agreed that that was an honest mistake. She doesn’t seem to have felt there was anything nefarious there.”

The extent of Tripp’s legal jeopardy over the taped calls
“She definitely put herself in legal jeopardy by doing this. And she actually ended up being charged with wiretapping in Maryland, though those charges were later dropped. A key part of that statute and what [prosecutors] were trying to figure out was, ‘Can we prove that Linda Tripp knew that it was illegal when she did it?’ They actually interviewed Radio Shack employees at that store that she went to pick up the recorder. Radio Shack itself said, ‘It’s standard operating procedure for us to tell you when you buy it in Maryland, that you can’t record without the other person knowing.’ And then they also said that there’s some kind of disclaimer on the back of the packaging somewhere that says you should check what the rules are in your state. But Linda said she didn’t hear any of that at the time. So the case really revolved around the very last tape she made, and whether she made that one after her lawyer told her it was against the law. But there were a lot of complications around the evidence because of the overlap with various immunity deals, and the case didn’t go forward.”

Tripp’s guilt over making the tapes
“She said that this time was intensely difficult for her, and that she felt a lot of guilt about doing this to her friend. She felt that from the moment she started making these tapes, their whole relationship shifted and everything she did from that point on was a manipulation. She felt bad about it, but also felt that it was the right thing to do. She’s pretty solid on that point.”

Was the first recording really that clumsy?
“No. A lot of the tape stuff is conflated [on the show] because there’s just so many hours of it. Tripp did say when she started taping, she knew she’d have to get Lewinsky to repeat everything on tape, but the actual conversations were more natural than that, and sometimes more mundane. When Lucianne Goldberg listened to the first couple of tapes, she claimed her first reaction was like, “I’m so bored. This is just like two women chatting about their lives.” But there were definitely points in the tapes, especially later on, where it’s pretty obvious that [Tripp] is saying things out loud, knowing that they’re going to be recorded. As if to imply, ‘I want it to be very clear that I’m saying I’m not going to lie [for the Paula Jones deposition]. I’m not doing this. So you’re saying you’re going to lie, but I’m not going to.’ There’s definitely moments in the tapes that are that obvious in retrospect.”

Michael Isikoff getting tipped early on the Lewinsky story
“That happened. They did have this meeting in Jonah Goldberg’s apartment, Lucianne’s son’s apartment. [Yes, that Jonah Goldberg, of National Review fame.—ed.] And they offered to play the tapes for Isikoff. And he basically said, ‘I can’t do that journalistically.’ There’s a point of real contention here, after the fact, because Linda Tripp said that Isikoff told her to keep getting hard evidence. He was like, ‘I would never tell her to do that.’ But it is true that he was tipped off about this story at this point and the three of them had this meeting. And then he was like, ‘Well, I can’t use this material. So what are we actually going to do here?’ Then when it becomes clear that Newsweek is not going to be running a story and things aren’t moving forward, that’s when they decide to go to the Jones lawyers and push things ahead that way.”

Lewinsky showing Tripp the blue dress
“I’m not sure about the sleepover [on the show], but they did have this conversation where Linda was like, ‘I’ve lost some weight.’ And then Monica said, ‘Why don’t you come raid my closet?’ And so she came over and then Monica showed her the dress. That’s when Linda, obviously, realized that she had that physical evidence. It also seems accurate that Monica wasn’t thinking that much about it or what should she do with it, or that it’s anything besides a dress that needs to be cleaned at some point.”

Lewinsky sharing her relationship history, from losing her virginity via sexual assault by a camp counselor to her affair with a married man
“I’m not sure about the camp counselor thing. I don’t know anything about that. But the married man, Andy Bleiler, after this whole thing becomes public, becomes a very minor character in the circus. Lewinsky talks about this a lot and how this relationship really deeply affected her. Andy was an older man that she met while he was working at her high school and they had this relationship that went on for years on and off, really complicated, very painful for her. And after [the Clinton affair] becomes public and she becomes really famous, Andy Bleiler comes forward and is like, ‘I had an affair with her and I think it’s important for people to know that she’s not telling the truth. She is a liar and she’s a manipulator.’ It’s pretty bleak, looking back.”

Clinton’s team reacting to Lewinsky being on the witness list
“They went through all the names on the witness list because those names would eventually become public as part of the case. [Clinton and Lewinsky] were very much on the same page at that time like, ‘We don’t want this to get out.’ So he probably assumed that neither of them would have to tell the truth about what happened, but obviously his insistence in that moment is striking. [The show uses] a direct quote from [Jeffrey] Toobin’s book when [Clinton’s] lawyer asks him about Lewinsky and he responds, ‘Bob, do you think I’m fucking crazy?’ He was saying, I’m done with that stuff now, I know everyone’s watching me, I wouldn’t just hand my enemies something like this. Which I think is a pretty interesting amount of denial in that moment to your own attorneys.”

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 Clinton’s gifts to Lewinsky being “ugly”
“That was funny. I couldn’t find anything specific about that. In her biography, she said that sometimes the assortments of gifts were kind of odd, but I couldn’t find anything where she said they were ugly. The gifts were often just purely positive. She’d be sitting around worried like, ‘Why isn’t he contacting me? I can’t get in touch. I don’t even know what he’s thinking or feeling.’ And then the gifts were a really concrete way for her to feel relieved, like ‘he’s thinking about me in this way.’ I couldn’t find a lot of her being anything but positive about the gifts.”

On Clinton giving her an Annie Lennox CD
“I’m not sure which CD it was, but he did give her an Annie Lennox CD. And there’s a New York Times article [by Neil Strauss] after the Starr report came out that wrote up all the music that appears throughout the report. It was a way of analyzing the generation gap between these two people and how they’re thinking about music and giving music to each other. It’s pretty interesting.”

On Tripp’s strained relationships with her adult children
“I think a lot of that is probably for the show, to dramatize her home life in that way. She did say that she started to become so consumed by talking to Monica and the tapes and everything that her attention to her home life suffered. Interestingly, her daughter, Alison, who’s depicted in the show a lot, just gave an interview to Vanity Fair about this and only had very positive things to say about her mom’s behavior during this period. She said that after this whole thing went down, her mom apologized to them.”

On the bookmark Lewinsky gifted to Tripp
“Lewinsky wrote about this later. She said that she gave her an antique bookmark. They both loved antiques. One detail they didn’t include here, maybe because it would’ve seemed too on the nose, is that the bookmark apparently was inscribed with a poem about friendship.”

On Clinton’s walk of shame past portraits of revered former presidents to get to his bedroom
“That was really funny. I tried to figure this out, but it’s difficult because they move the paintings around a lot and I couldn’t really tell where he was walking. It looked like he was walking through a private corridor from the office up to the residence. I feel like those paintings are so good and so famous that they probably would be in a more public location, but I don’t know. That’s a great painting of JFK looking like he was really disappointed in him.”

Impeachment: Fact-checking Episode 4, ‘The Telephone Hour’