The third episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story shows the net starting to tighten on four women caught up in the scandal—Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Linda Tripp—as journalists start to pick up the scent. No one can be sure of who will back them up or who will betray them to deflect the wrath of the powerful interests for whom they are just pawns in a much larger game.
The Birth of Drudge
The episode starts out with what seems like a digression: A clerk in the CBS Studios gift shop hawks an Edward R. Murrow poster to a journalism student but says he prefers Walter Winchell, the feared gossip columnist known for his fast-talking, hard-boiled style who was the inspiration for J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success and who pioneered the blind item while moonlighting as an informant for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, with whom he shared a determination to root out alleged Communist sympathizers in showbiz. After work, Matt Drudge roots through the CBS garbage to unearth a thrown-away draft contract with Jerry Seinfeld and posts it on his America Online account (younger viewers may be dumbstruck by the accurate representation of just how long it took to get online in 1995).
Two years later and Drudge, now in trademark fedora and trench coat, visits reporter Michael Isikoff in the Newsweek offices. It’s a classic legacy media/new media confrontation, with Isikoff dismissing Drudge’s scoops as mere unsourced internet gossip and Drudge pointing out that unsourced internet gossip has cracked open the news business. He also says he didn’t go to college, unlike all the reporters at Newsweek, but the internet is leveling the playing field so qualifications no longer matter. He also tries to get Isikoff to confirm the rumors he’s heard (from one of Paula Jones’ lawyers) about Kathleen Willey’s allegations that Bill Clinton sexually harassed her in the White House.
While it’s not clear if Drudge ever had this conversation with Isikoff, he certainly expressed similar sentiments in a 1998 speech to the journalists of the National Press Club in which he said he used to “stare up at the Washington Post newsroom over on 15th Street, look up longingly, knowing I’d never get in. Didn’t go to the right schools. Never enjoyed any school, as a matter of fact. Didn’t come from a well-known family—nor was I even remotely connected to a powerful publishing dynasty. … I would never be granted any access, obtain any credentials.”
He did work for eight years in the gift shop of CBS’s Hollywood studios before starting a gossipy email newsletter that quickly grew to more than 300,000 subscribers. Throughout the episode, people are constantly asking if Drudge’s voice and costume are for real, but it was an entirely constructed persona. As one of his friends told New York magazine, “His demeanor off the air could not be more different than what it is on the radio. … There’s a profound sweetness to him; he’s got a delicate nature that allows him to win over the enemy when he’s in the room with them.”
Hillary Won’t Settle
After the Supreme Court ruling in 1997 that Paula Jones can sue a sitting president, Clinton’s lawyer Bob Bennett recommends his client settle rather than go to trial. At first Clinton is reluctant, convinced that this won’t stop further ill-founded lawsuits against him because his political enemies are “trying to use the legal system to overturn an election.” However, when Bennett points out that leaving it to a jury to decide will mean his past will be dug up, Clinton says, “Hillary will never let me settle.”
It is well documented that Hillary Clinton felt the best defense was a good offense. When singer Gennifer Flowers asserted in 1992 that she had had a long-running affair with the then-governor, Hillary told Esquire that if she had the chance to cross-examine Flowers, “I would crucify her.”
Hillary’s rationale was that these allegations of affairs were merely part of a campaign by a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to bring down the Clintons. She may have put too much faith in her husband’s denials, but time has shown her analysis to be more valid than paranoid. In January 1997, the Washington Post reported that as early as 1995 the White House counsel’s office had documented what it called “a close connection … between Republican elected officials and the right wing conspiracy industry.” An outlandish rumor (saying, for example, that the Clintons murdered Vince Foster) would appear in an outlet like Drudge or in posts from right-wing think tanks, then be picked up by Conservative-leaning U.K. tabloids like the Daily Mail or by conservative papers like the Washington Times, until finally it became mainstream news.
At the time, many dismissed the White House’s theory as outlandish and “suspicion-laden”; today, this concept of a right-wing media pipeline is widely accepted. But that doesn’t mean the allegations it propagated in this instance were necessarily untrue. Hillary later wrote in her autobiography Living History that opposing a settlement with Paula Jones was a mistake.
The Hair Salon Meeting
After Drudge scoops Isikoff by publishing an (unverified) item about Kathleen Willey’s allegations that Clinton groped her in the West Wing against her will, Isikoff phones Tripp, desperate to get her to go on the record. Tripp instructs him to meet her at an address, which turns out to be a hair salon where she is having her highlights done. Tripp refuses to confirm Willey’s story, saying that while Clinton did indeed kiss Willey in the White House, Willey was only too happy to comply. Linda then suggests that Isikoff is missing the big story, that Bill is having an affair with a young intern. Isikoff is spotted by a Washington Post reporter having her hair done, but the quick-witted Tripp claims to be his cousin Harriet.
Unlikely as it sounds, this was where Tripp decided to speak with Isikoff, as the Starr report confirmed. “He [Isikoff] met me at the hairdresser’s and came in and talked to me while I was having my hair done,” Tripp told Starr’s investigators. But it was worse than a Post reporter just recognizing Isikoff. “It turns out a Washington Post reporter was there and came up to me and said, after Mike left, ‘Are you Kathleen Willey?’ ” Tripp testified, although the Post was unable to confirm this with any staffer. And yes, as the episode depicts, Tripp did make Isikoff use the code name “Harvey” whenever he called her.
Paula Doesn’t Want to Settle
After the Drudge blind item about Willey’s allegations appears, Clinton has a change of heart. Paula’s lawyers call her in to report with great satisfaction that Bennett has offered the full amount she demanded—$700,000—along with a statement that she engaged in no improper conduct. Paula is thrilled by the life-changing amount of money but, after a private discussion with her husband Steve and adviser Susan Carpenter-McMillan, turns the offer down unless Clinton also issues an apology. What neither she nor the lawyers know is that before she arrived, Susan—one of the radical conservatives who wants the case to go to trial so Clinton will lie under oath—got to work on Steve, pointing out that if Paula accepts the money, there will always be whispers about her. Also, the money isn’t coming out of Clinton’s pocket but his insurer’s. Steve more than anything else wants to hurt Clinton, so he tells Paula to turn the offer down.
According to an account by Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker, Jones did indeed reject the deal, insisting she wanted an apology from Clinton as well as money. The lawyers, who had been working on the case for more than three years, often unpaid, were furious. Toobin too puts the blame for turning down the deal at Steve’s door, noting “if anyone is goading Paula into her lawsuit, it appears to be her husband, Stephen Jones, who seems consumed with fury at Clinton.”