Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Impeachment’s Episode About the Clinton-Lewinsky Affair

The first kiss, the thong flash, and Leaves of Grass.

Bill Clinton, Clive Owen as Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton, Clive Owen as Bill Clinton. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wilfredo Lee/AFP via Getty Images and FX.

With Episode 2, the focus of Impeachment: American Crime Story moves from West Wing backstage intrigues and partisan politics to the personal (the episode title, “The President Kissed Me”, is a bit of a giveaway). It also illustrates how many gray areas there were in the charges of sexual misconduct against Clinton and indeed are in cases of sexual harassment in general. It’s considerably easier to take a stand on the Paula Jones allegations—powerful man makes unasked-for and unwanted sexual advances on low-status woman out of the blue—than it is on the Lewinsky affair, where such advances were not only desired but actively encouraged and where there was a courtship and a relationship of sorts. The question remains whether a relationship between an unusually naive 22-year-old and the most powerful man in the world (who also happened to be married) could be anything other than exploitative, but there is no doubt that it was consensual. We attempt to shed light on the murk.

The First Meeting

Clinton and Lewinsky first exchange lingering glances when the White House interns, drafted in to work in the West Wing when a budget stalemate between Clinton and the Republicans in control of Congress meant there was no money to pay federal employees and all but a skeleton staff were sent home. As the group of interns are being shown around, the President comes down a corridor.

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It’s not clear that Lewinsky first saw Clinton up close on an orientation tour for interns, but whenever she first encountered the Presence it was certainly love at first sight on her part, or so she said in a 2018 Arts & Entertainment Channel documentary. “I was struck in a way that he had this ability to hold everybody that was there,” she said. “Not just young women, not just older women—but young men, older men, gay, straight, everybody is sort of starry-eyed in his presence. … I kind of have to laugh at my younger self, but that is when my crush started.”

The Thong Flash

Lewinsky starts flirting madly with Clinton whenever they encounter each other in the depopulated West Wing, even giving him a flash of the pink thong she is wearing.

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This thong flash was documented in the report prepared by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, a fount of such media-friendly sensationalistic detail. However, even though it actually happened, Impeachment showrunner Sarah Burgess was reluctant to include the incident for fear of triggering Lewinsky and was only persuaded to do so by Lewinsky herself. “Listen, I would’ve loved to have been really selfish and said, ‘That’s great that you guys think we don’t have to show that, fantastic,’ but I’m incredibly experienced in understanding how people see this story,” Lewinsky told The Hollywood Reporter. “So, ultimately, I felt two things: One was that I shouldn’t get a pass because I’m a producer; and two, that it was unfair to the team and to the project because it would leave everybody vulnerable.” At this point she gave the scriptwriter her account of what happened and, Burgess said, “I really wrote in a script very tightly based on what she specifically described.”

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Monica Lewinsky, Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky.
Monica Lewinsky, Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP via Getty Images and FX.

And Then He Kissed Me

Monica’s assignment is to answer phones for Clinton’s furloughed Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, where she encounters the President in passing on a regular basis. One day he invites her into his office, but far from going for a quick grope, he asks her opinion of the shutdown and then draws her out about herself, drawing her out on her family and current circumstances and finding points of similarity. Then he kisses her.

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Testimony by both Lewinsky and Clinton to the grand jury convened by Starr confirmed there was more to the connection than sex. “We would tell jokes. We would talk about our childhoods. Talk about current events … there was a lot of hugging, holding hands sometimes. He always used to push the hair out of my face,” Lewinsky said, while Clinton described Lewinsky as “a good young woman with a good heart and a good mind … She talked to me a lot about her life, her job ambitions.”

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Not shown: a second meeting that same night during which, as recounted in the Starr report, Clinton stuck his hand down Lewinsky’s panties as he conducted a phone call.

Walt Whitman and Neckties

Lewinsky is distraught after being ghosted by Clinton for five weeks before and after the 1996 election. (He may have been busy) Keen to remind Clinton he promised her another West Wing job if he got re-elected, she leaves a box of gifts including a tie and a ceramic frog with his secretary. Later, after catching sight of Monica in a red dress at the inaugural ball, Clinton smuggles her into his office, where he gives her hatpin and a signed copy of Leaves of Grass, a book he says that meant a lot to him as a young person.

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Gifts of ties featured in Lewinsky’s grand jury testimony. “Almost all our conversations included something about my ties,” she said. “I used to bug him about wearing one of my ties because then I knew I was close to his heart. …” A memo of a prosecutor’s interview with Lewinsky devoted two pages to describing the six ties she gave Clinton and when she saw him wearing them. The Prosecutor’s account of the testimony noted that Lewinsky had given Clinton some 30 items, gifts that “reflected his interests in history, antiques, cigars, and frogs.”

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In his grand jury testimony, Clinton recalled that he gave Lewinsky a tennis bag from the Black Dog Restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard (“Well … I knew she liked things from the Black Dog so I think that’s what I put the presents in”), a pin with the New York skyline to celebrate her moving to New York, and the special edition of Leaves of Grass.

Monica and Unavailable Men

Monica’s best friend (who is not Linda Tripp) tries to run up some warning flags, urging her to stop sitting around waiting for Clinton to call and pointing out she has a history of getting involved with unavailable men.

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This is true. Lewinsky revealed in an appearance on Larry King Live in 2000 that she had had an affair with an un-named 40-year-old married man in Los Angeles while she was attending Lewis & Clark College in the early ‘90s.

Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Judith Light as Susan Carpenter-McMillan
Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Judith Light as Susan Carpenter-McMillan Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images and Tina Thorpe/FX.

Susan Carpenter-McMillan

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Meanwhile, Paula Jones shows up for a meeting with her high-powered DC lawyers accompanied by a new friend, the expensively coiffed Susan Carpenter-McMillan (Judith Light), who describes herself as the “President of the Women’s Coalition” and a “Conservative Feminist.” Carpenter-McMillan feels Jones has been treated poorly and is here to “protect Paula’s interests.” She soon clashes with Jones’s legal team who want to focus on an upcoming SCOTUS ruling on whether a sitting president is immune from sexual harassment lawsuits, in contrast to the media-oriented Carpenter-Macmillan, who wants to get Paula telling her story on TV. SCM would appear to be a mirror image of Linda Tripp, and apparent mother hen/confidante who may be using the younger woman for her own purposes.

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Described by Slate as “a first-class media hound, blessed with a savage wit, good looks, and–as one enemy put it–‘the tact of a bulldozer’” Carpenter-Macmillan did clash with Jones’s legal team, who, she recalled, “went ballistic” after she sent out a press release anointing herself Jones’s official spokeswoman.

Why Don’t You Pass the Time by Playing a Little Solitaire?

Clinton is shown playing solitaire shortly before giving a radio address. Unlikely as it sounds, Clinton often passed the time this way. According to a 1997 New Yorker article, Clinton was “an inveterate cardplayer” who could “go for hours, his long fingers arranging the cards in the seven neat piles of Klondike Solitaire. … Over and over, folding and shuffling, the President keeps score in his head. Not even his closest aides have figured out exactly how much time he spends dealing to himself.”

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