Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Impeachment’s Episode About the Tripp-Lewinsky Tapes

Featuring that blue dress.

Linda Tripp holding a fast food soda and sunglasses, and Sarah Paulson as Tripp, talking on the phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tim Sloan/AFP via Getty Images and Tina Thorpe/FX.

Impeachment: American Crime Story is a saga of multiple betrayals: of Paula Jones by her advisers, of Hillary Clinton by her husband, and of Monica Lewinsky by her confidante, Linda Tripp. At the time, many found the idea of a presumed close friend taping and circulating their most intimate secrets particularly appalling, and Tripp, perhaps even more than Clinton or Kenneth Starr, emerged as the villain of the piece. Episode 4 of the show is centered on the Lewinsky-Tripp relationship and seeks not to condemn but to understand, exploring Tripp’s complex motives, which included punishing Clinton for exploiting her friend and, as she saw it, demeaning the office of the presidency; increasing her own importance by moving from bit player to central figure in the affair; getting revenge for being banished to the Pentagon; and, of course, making a large amount of money with a book deal. Let’s separate out invention from reality.

Linda Agrees to Tape

A woman in glasses and a blond bob, and Martindale, with a similar look, holding a Martini glass.
Lucianne Goldberg, and Margo Martindale as Goldberg. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Mainz/Getty Images and Tina Thorpe/FX.
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Tripp believes that, as the last person to see Vince Foster alive, she has a target on her back—a feeling reinforced when someone leaves her a list of Clinton associates who met allegedly violent and suspicious ends. Afraid she’ll lose her job at the very least, Tripp contacts conservative literary agent Lucianne Goldberg to disclose Clinton had an affair with a young intern. Goldberg tells her she needs proof of the affair and suggests she tape Lewinsky’s calls. Tripp justifies her decision to go along with this by a need to expose Clinton’s hypocrisy. When Goldberg warns Tripp the press will destroy Lewinsky, Tripp responds, “She’ll be fine. She knew what she was getting into.”

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Goldberg told the New York Times she urged Tripp to tape her calls with Lewinsky not out of partisan interests but out of a selfless desire to exact revenge for the heartache Clinton had caused Lewinsky. She also felt Tripp “needed to be protected” from Clinton supporters and needed to cover herself before she was interviewed by Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff. “I said, ‘You don’t have pictures, you don’t have corroboration, you don’t have anything to back you up. All you’re getting sometimes is 15 and 20 phone calls a day,’ ” Goldberg recalled (although Tripp, who had worked for highly classified Army intelligence and commando units in the 1980s, later testified she was already well aware of the importance of keeping and maintaining secrets in a crisis).

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And contrary to what the episode suggests, Goldberg said a book deal was the furthest thing from her mind. “When she [Tripp] came to me, this was not about a book deal. But you see, that has always been the White House disinformation, too, you know, evil money-grubbing Mrs. Goldberg, hint hint, wink wink, in New York City, wink wink, is doing in the President just to make a crummy gossipy book.”

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Tripp, meanwhile, told Slate’s Leon Neyfakh that financial considerations had nothing to do with her decision to tape, declaring that she didn’t want to tape her private conversations but she felt like she had no choice. “I kept holding on to thinking that had that been my daughter, I would want to have had someone stop it,” she said.

Atlas Shrugged

Isikoff interviews Tripp at an apartment belonging to Goldberg’s son, where a poster for Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a libertarian foundational text, is prominently displayed.

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This décor touch is probably invention, but Goldberg’s son Jonah, a journalist, is the author of books with titles like Liberal Fascism and The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, so the suggestion that he has libertarian sympathies is not so far-fetched. He has also written that “elitism—properly understood—is at the heart of the conservative enterprise and wholly consistent, if not essential, to the American experiment. … An elite is simply a member of a group which is considered superior in some way”—possibly a group he considers himself part of.

Vernon Jordan

Convinced she’ll never be brought back to the White House, Lewinsky tells Clinton she’s moving to New York and asks if he can help her get a job there. At Tripp’s suggestion, she asks him to get Vernon Jordan, the ultimate D.C. insider and fixer, to help. Jordan says he’s on the board of Revlon and will put in a word. As she gets in the elevator, Jordan, who is aware of her relationship with the president, smacks her on the bottom.

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This bottom-smacking seems like a directorial flourish to underline how Lewinsky was perceived by the men in the Clinton inner circle, but it actually happened. Lewinsky told the Starr investigation that Jordan gave her a “playful slap” on the rear, “as if to say, ‘Get out of here, kid.’ ”

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Tripp’s suggestion that Jordan could help Lewinsky get a job was far from altruistic. Isikoff had told her there were no larger ramifications to make the affair an abuse of power story he could report on, rather than just a tabloid-ish sex story, unless there was a quid pro quo, with Clinton paying off Lewinsky with money or getting her a job to ensure her silence.

Monica’s Job Hunt

Lewinsky in a black dress with red flowers on it, and Feldstein as Lewinsky in a black dress with polka dots.
Monica Lewinsky, and Beanie Feldstein as Lewinsky. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images and Tina Thorpe/FX. 
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While waiting to hear from Revlon, Lewinsky receives a job offer from Bill Richardson, America’s ambassador to the U.N. Lewinsky turns down this prestigious offer, infuriating Tripp. This actually happened, although the offer came from Richardson’s chief of staff, not the ambassador himself. Moreover, White House chief of staff John Podesta and Clinton secretary Betty Currie, not Clinton himself, referred Lewinsky to Richardson.

The job—junior assistant doing public outreach, working with grassroots organizations across the country—was an opportunity many young people would give their right arm for, and Lewinsky did indeed turn it down. Instead, she sent the president a “wish list” identifying five PR firms in New York she’d like to work for and saying of the U.N., “I do not have any interest in working there.” She also told him, “The most important things to me are that I am engaged and interested in my work, I am not someone’s administrative/ executive assistant, and my salary can provide me a comfortable living in NY,” suggesting a highly entitled young woman at odds with the vulnerable naïf the show depicts.

That Blue Dress

Down in the dumps after realizing that Clinton no longer wants to see her and that she’ll never get her White House job back, Lewinsky invites Tripp over for a drink that turns into a sleepover. Learning that Tripp has lost some weight, Lewinsky suggests her friend go through her closet to see if there’s anything she might like and fit into. In the closet, Tripp sees a crumpled blue dress on the floor. Lewinsky informs Tripp she wore the dress the last time she saw Clinton and she hasn’t hung it up because there’s a stain.

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In reality, Tripp did not stumble across the dress by accident. Lewinsky hadn’t noticed the stain and had hung the dress up, but then tried it on for Tripp’s inspection to see if it made her look fat (Tripp told her it did). It was Tripp who saw the stain and helped Lewinsky figure out what it was, Lewinsky said in the HBO documentary Monica in Black and White.

The Annie Lennox CD

In the episode, Lewinsky confides to Tripp that Clinton gave her an Annie Lennox CD to put her in the mood. According to the Starr report, Clinton did indeed present Lewinsky with a Lennox CD. The two also bonded over a shared enthusiasm for singer Sarah McLachlan, with Lewinsky particularly fond of the song “Do What You Have to Do” about an obsessive love.

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