FX’s latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story looks at the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, suggesting that perjury and obstruction, which were the charges the House—though not the Senate—found Clinton guilty of, is the equivalent of the murders previous seasons explored. While the media firestorm at the time focused on the political dynamics, reverting to the default framing of a gladiatorial (courtroom) combat between two men, this post-#MeToo production foregrounds the women who were subject to Clinton’s advances instead of relegating them to the sidelines of their own story.
However, time has done nothing to make the ethical issues less murky. Unlike, say, the Weinstein saga, this was never a simple case of a powerful man pressuring women into doing what he wanted but that they didn’t. Some of the women Clinton put the moves on were definitely consenting while others found his attentions decidedly unwelcome. Whatever their reaction, all ended up being used as pawns by partisan interests, losing agency over their own experience.
The Clinton impeachment was also the first major excursion into the post-truth world, where conspiracy theories and outright lies amplified by compliant media outlets and social media in its infancy were deployed as political weapons to muddy the waters, mobilize the base, and discredit the very notion of objective truth. However, after 20-plus years, it should be possible to separate fact from fiction. We take a look at whether American Crime Story has managed it.
Betrayal at the Food Court
The episode starts with a fulcrum moment in 1998. Fresh-faced Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) is packing up her apartment before meeting her friend Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) for lunch. Arriving at a food court, the unsuspecting Lewinsky is trailed by Men in Black until they ask her to accompany them to a room at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, where prosecutors from independent counsel Ken Starr’s office are waiting to question her, telling her, “It’s about the Paula Jones case.” Tripp urges Lewinsky to cooperate.
This is true. Within hours of getting approval to extend his inquiry to include the Lewinsky affair, Starr arranged for Tripp to lure Lewinsky to the Pentagon mall. Lewinsky ended up being questioned for 11 hours in the hotel room. “It was just like you see in the movies,” she told a Forbes 30 Under 30 conference in 2014. “Imagine, one minute I was waiting to meet a friend in the food court and the next I realized she had set me up, as two FBI agents flashed their badges at me. Immediately following, in a nearby hotel room, I was threatened with up to 27 years in jail for denying the affair in an affidavit and other alleged crimes. Twenty-seven years. When you’re only 24 yourself, that’s a long time.”
However, Lewinsky was up for a fight. Not only did she genuinely say Tripp should remain in the room because she wanted “that treacherous bitch to see what she has done to me,” as depicted in the show, but when urged by the FBI agents to accompany them, her response, at least according to the New York Post, was “go fuck yourself.”
In a flashback to 1993, Tripp considerately brings lunch to Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel for whom she works as an assistant. He leaves the office without touching it, drives to a park, and removes a revolver from the glove compartment. The next thing we see is his belongings being removed from his office, including a large box marked “Whitewater.”
Foster was an Arkansas friend of the Clintons who found the partisan pressures of Washington, and the resulting attacks on his integrity, too much to bear. The U.S. Park Police, the D.C. coroner, and the FBI all concluded his death was a suicide, but in some quarters the show’s accurate representation of his death will be considered invention. Multimillionaire conservative activist Richard Mellon Scaife funded a group of journalists to come up with Clinton “gotcha” pieces. One of these was Christopher Ruddy (now CEO of Newsmax), whose book about Foster’s death alleged that he was in fact murdered by the Clintons because he knew too much about their financial malfeasance/his own affair with Hillary Clinton.
Although Foster’s death had already been the subject of two investigations, in 1995 a young attorney named Brett Kavanaugh convinced his boss, Kenneth Starr, that these unsubstantiated allegations provided legal grounds for including Foster’s death in the Starr inquiry. Although this investigation too concluded Foster had committed suicide, the “mysterious” death of Vincent Foster has remained a right-wing conspiracy talking point, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to refer in 2016 to Foster’s “very fishy” death, asserting Foster “knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”
We first see big-haired, double-denim-clad Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) trying to placate her aspiring actor husband, Steve, who has just read an Arkansas state trooper saying in a magazine that Paula went to a hotel room with then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Paula sets the record straight: She was working a registration desk for a conference when a state trooper told her the governor wanted to see her in his room. Once there, Clinton tried to kiss her, then took out his “thing” and tried to get her to kiss it, at which point she said no and left. All she wants is an apology. And a part on Designing Women for Steve.
Her lawyer puts her before the media at CPAC, where the assembled reporters eat her alive because she’s not willing to get into the juicy details. However, journalist and conservative activist Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) spots an opportunity: If Jones sues for sexual harassment, Clinton will have to testify under oath, and he’ll lie. Coulter fixes Jones up with some high-powered Washington lawyers, who tell her she only has three days to sue before the statute of limitations expires. When she repeats that she just wants an apology, they doubt her account. To convince them, she draws a picture of the gubernatorial Thing, noting that “it takes a dramatic turn.” Under pressure from Steve, she agrees to bring charges.
A 1998 interview with Steve in the Irish Times suggests the depiction of him pushing Paula to sue is accurate. It describes Steve as “a commanding personality whose verbal economy can conceal the absolute authority he has over his household—a household that the modern feminist movement has never touched.” Furthermore, Steve, according to co-workers, had Bush-Quayle stickers all over his gym locker back in 1992 and hated Clinton from the start. And he was indeed a struggling actor, playing, as Impeachment notes, the ghost of Elvis Presley in Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 movie, Mystery Train. It’s not clear that Jones actually made a part on Designing Women part of the bargain, but it wasn’t that far-fetched a request: The show’s creators, Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, were longtime allies of Clinton’s, famously creating the iconic Man From Hope ad.
And a 1994 interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson, recounted on Slate’s Slow Burn podcast, suggests that Paula was indeed a guileless pawn who unwittingly stumbled into serving the interests of canny conservative operatives. “I was just there. I didn’t—I wasn’t a conservative. I didn’t even know what a conservative was,” she tells Donaldson. “Those are the only people that are coming to my defense. … I was just wanting to tell my story, and I’m thankful that the conservatives let me use their podium to tell it on.”
As for the question everyone really wants to know the answer to—was Paula’s anatomical recollection accurate?—Monica Lewinsky, a person who was in a position to know, had doubts. In one of her Q&A sessions with Starr’s prosecutors, Lewinsky said she didn’t care to describe the president’s sex organs beyond saying she disagreed with Paula Jones’ description. And author Ken Gormley notes in The Death of American Virtue, a definitive history of the Clinton impeachment, that “evidence from confidential sources now establishes with near certainty that the alleged ‘distinguishing characteristic’ described by Paula Jones at the time of her encounter with then-Governor Clinton in 1991 did not exist, as an anatomical matter.”