Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in the Impeachment Episode Where Bill Clinton Commits Perjury

Linda Tripp is lampooned on SNL, and the Lewinsky story finally breaks—gasp!—on the internet.

Bill Clinton, and Clive Owen as Bill Clinton in Impeachment: American Crime Story, with the Fact Versus Fiction logo
Bill Clinton, and Clive Owen as Bill Clinton in Impeachment: American Crime Story. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by PBS NewsHour and Tina Thorpe/FX.

After lurking on the sidelines for most of the series, Bill Clinton finally takes center stage in Episode 7 of Impeachment: American Crime Story as he prepares for his historic deposition before Ken Starr’s prosecution team. Starr’s strategy is to leverage Clinton’s lying about an affair (not admirable but understandable) under oath in a deposition into an impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors” charge of perjury and suborning perjury. Clinton knows that, to kill the story and limit the political damage, he should just admit the affair and apologize, but he is worried about what the admission will do to his marriage and that it will land him in Starr’s perjury trap. Meanwhile, the story has hit the press, and both Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp are besieged by the media and relentlessly mocked on late-night TV with the kind of jokes about being slutty (Lewinsky) or ugly (Tripp) one might expect from fratty writers rooms.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Episode 7 mostly features witnesses in Starr’s gun sights strategizing in bunkers with lawyers and advisers (or mothers), rather than depicting matters that are in the public record, so it’s largely the writers extrapolating backward from later statements and actions about what might have been said. Nevertheless, even if we can’t attest to whether they got the conversations right, we can separate out some fact from fiction.

Was Linda Tripp Called “Gus”?

Tripp is at first excited to hear she will be the subject of a Saturday Night Live sketch, assuming the show will celebrate her exposing Clinton’s hypocrisy. This bubble is cruelly burst when she sees she is portrayed by John Goodman, although she tells her daughter she is unaffected by it, having been teased about her size for years, for example by being called “Gus” in high school.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Tripp was indeed nicknamed Gus in high school, a reference to Gus Johnson, a big NBA star at the time (Tripp is 5-foot-10). But it did not roll off her like water off a duck’s back. In a March 1998 Washington Post profile of Tripp, several of her former classmates said she loathed the nickname Gus and wanted to be petite and blend in.

Advertisement

What the show hasn’t revealed, as of yet, is that Tripp’s father carried on a public affair with a fellow teacher, resulting in her developing zero tolerance for cheating husbands.

The Other Married Man

Lewinsky and her mother are watching television when a face from her past appears on the news: Andy Bleiler, her high school drama teacher, with his wife by his side. We’ve heard in previous episodes that Lewinsky had an affair with him when she was in college. Bleiler paints Lewinsky as obsessive and says she has “a history of twisting the facts,” bolstering the narrative of her as needy and unstable.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There was a press conference, but Bleiler had his lawyer, Terry Giles, read his statement rather than delivering it directly. One of Bleiler’s assertions, unexplored in the program, was that his affair with Lewinsky continued until 1997 and so would have overlapped with her relationship with Clinton. Via Giles, Bleiler also said that after moving to Washington, Lewinsky called him four or five times a day and talked frequently about sex, boasting that she was involved in a sexual relationship with a “high-ranking White House official” but was frustrated with him because “the creep would not have regular sex but only oral sex.” That claim would seem to support Clinton’s future defense that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” depending on how you define “sexual relations.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Giles further declared that the Bleilers viewed Lewinsky’s tales of sex in the White House as fantasies and “would both describe Monica as having a pattern of twisting facts.” In fact, Giles said, “I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton, and when I first heard these allegations about Monica Lewinsky, I jumped to a couple of conclusions about a person in a position of power taking advantage of her. I must tell you that after talking with [the Bleilers], I now have some doubt about the conclusions I jumped to.” We now know, of course, that Lewinsky was not inventing her White House sexual encounters. But would she really call her ex to recount them? And did she really, as Giles asserted, tell Bleiler before she left for Washington that she was “going to the White House to get my presidential kneepads”? This “Monica the Stalker” narrative, promoted by Clinton sympathizers, is at odds with the lighthearted flirtation depicted in Impeachment.

Advertisement

Bleiler’s wife, Kate Nason, divorced him a year after the press conference and has said she regrets appearing with him for what she called her “stand by your man” moment.

Did Clinton Ask Betty Currie to Lie?

Betty Curie, and Rae Dawn Chong as Betty Currie in Impeachment: American Crime Story.
Betty Curie, and Rae Dawn Chong as Betty Currie in Impeachment: American Crime Story. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Luke Frazza/AFP via Getty Images and Tina Thorpe/FX.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In one of the episode’s more chilling scenes, Clinton sits down with his secretary, Betty Currie, to sound her out on what she’s planning on telling Starr and to let her know what he expects her to say. Of course he doesn’t put it that way; he merely asks her to refresh his memory about his encounters with Lewinsky. “You were always with me and Monica when she came to visit, right?” he asks. After hearing that she’s willing to agree that he and Lewinsky were never alone together and that these meetings were Lewinsky’s idea but nothing happened, he says he’s “glad we have the same recollection.”

Currie told the FBI that, three hours after finishing the deposition in which he lied to Paula Jones’ lawyers by denying he had had an affair with Lewinsky and urged them to contact Currie for verification, Clinton asked Currie to come into the White House the next day, a Sunday, to discuss it. This was in violation of the judge’s order to not discuss his testimony with any other involved party.

Advertisement

At the Sunday meeting, he sat down with her to let her know what he had said in the Jones deposition and what assertions he expected her to back up. According to Currie, Clinton said something like “You were always there when she was there, right? We were never really alone. … Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?” Currie also told the grand jury convened by Starr that there was a second coaching session after a subpoena had been issued for her appearance before the grand jury, although she had not yet been served with it.

Did Newsweek Hold Its Lewinsky Scoop?

Michael Isikoff, and Danny Jacobs as Michael Isikoff in Impeachment: American Crime Story.
Michael Isikoff, and Danny Jacobs as Michael Isikoff in Impeachment: American Crime Story. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images and Tina Thorpe/FX.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, who has scooped the Lewinsky story thanks to Linda Tripp’s literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, is furious to learn that the magazine, a weekly, is holding his story. His editor is concerned that Lewinsky might be lying or making things up on the Tripp tape and they need a second source to confirm. When Isikoff points out the story is going to break in 24 hours, the editor says, “Sometimes it’s just not worth being first,” a soon-to-be-extinct 20th century perspective. Then, to rub salt in Isikoff’s wounds, Matt Drudge lets him know he’s going to be running a story on Newsweek’s spiking the Lewinsky piece (although it was only held, not killed).

Advertisement

This is true, and it marked a watershed moment in the transition from legacy media to the new online world. “At the last minute … Newsweek magazine killed a story that was destined to shake official Washington to its foundation: A White House intern carried on a sexual affair with the President of the United States!” Drudge breathlessly reported. The story was picked up by newsgroups and then referenced on a Sunday morning politics show, with the Washington Post and other daily papers finally running it on Wednesday.

What does not appear in the episode is the allegation that Newsweek held the story at Starr’s request. “Newsweek editors felt that the people weren’t ready to hear this story, and/or the special counsel needed more time to build a case that they’d been involved with for more than six months,” Drudge declared on television.

Advertisement

Newsweek editor Rick Smith denied this. When top editors debated whether to run with the story on Saturday, they only had one 90-minute Tripp tape and felt it did not substantiate the charges. “We had expected that the tapes would shed some light on the obstruction of justice charge,” Smith said. “As it turned out, the tape we had did not.” The other concern was that Tripp’s and Lewinsky’s motivations were unknown quantities. Starr had been repeatedly accused of overstepping his mandate, so the Lewinsky tapes might be sensational but irrelevant. As for Lewinsky, whom no one had spoken to, there was always the possibility that her allegations were fantasy.

A week later, Isikoff posted his authoritative account on Newsweek’s America Online site, the longest breaking news story the magazine had run in its 65-year history. The Clinton camp could no longer dismiss the story as just unsourced scandalmongering from Drudge. “In the future,” the BBC observed presciently, “academics, politicians and journalists aren’t likely to dismiss the Internet so quickly.”

Advertisement