This is a transcript of Episode 1 of Season 2 of Slow Burn, which was released Wednesday. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
Monica Lewinsky didn’t know it, but her lunch meeting with Linda Tripp was never going to happen. Lewinsky was waiting for Tripp at the food court inside a shopping mall in Pentagon City, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. It was a typical suburban mall—brightly lit, with a movie theater, a Macy’s, and white tiles on the floor. Lewinsky had come from the gym. She was still in her exercise clothes. And she was reading a magazine while she waited for her friend.
It was Friday, Jan. 16, 1998. Lewinsky was 24 years old. About two years earlier, she had become involved in a precarious relationship with the president of the United States. As Lewinsky later told her biographer, her relationship with Bill Clinton had come to overwhelm her life. She found it hard to think about anything else.
Standing there at the Pentagon City Mall, Lewinsky looked up from her magazine, and she saw Linda Tripp heading towards her on an escalator.
RENATA ADLER: Suddenly she gestures, I mean, Linda Tripp is coming down on the escalator. And gestures towards some men behind her.
That’s journalist Renata Adler. She wrote about Monica Lewinsky, and what happened to her on this day in 1998, for Vanity Fair and the L.A. Times.
RENATA ADLER: And suddenly these guys apprehend her, and they keep saying that she’s already in steep trouble with the law, and it can only get more steep unless she does as they ask.
The two men who approached Lewinsky were wearing dark suits and carrying badges. They said they were with the FBI, and that the Attorney General of the United States had authorized a criminal investigation into her actions. The FBI agents invited Lewinsky to follow them to a room in a nearby Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Though they told Lewinsky that she was not under arrest and was free to leave at any time, she agreed to go with them. Later, she said she went because she wanted to protect the president—that she was thinking, “I have to fix this.”
As the scene in the food court unfolded, Linda Tripp tried to give Lewinsky a hug. “Monica, this is for your own good,” she said. “Just listen to them. They did the same thing to me.” But like so much of what Tripp had said to Lewinsky, that was a lie.
While I was working on this show, I discovered that not everyone knows who Linda Tripp is. Twenty years ago, Tripp was a world-famous supervillain—her name was synonymous with treachery and manipulation. Tripp worked in the same office as Monica Lewinsky for much of 1996 and 1997, and during that time, Lewinsky spilled her guts to her colleague about the affair she was having with Clinton. Eventually, Tripp started recording her conversations with Lewinsky. And then, after making fake lunch plans with her at the Pentagon City Mall, Tripp delivered her friend to the FBI.
The agents led Lewinsky to the tenth floor of the Ritz-Carlton and into room 1012. It was a standard unit furnished with a dresser, a television set, a bed, and a chair. There, Lewinsky met two men from the Office of the Independent Counsel. One of them was a prosecutor named Bruce Udolf.
BRUCE UDOLF: The only thing we knew about Monica was from the tapes. We had heard her voice, but we didn’t know what to expect—how she was going to behave or act or anything. We assumed that she was not going to be a very submissive person. But we were not prepared for her personality. And what happened at all when she got there.
Udolf and his colleague were working for Ken Starr, the independent counsel who had been investigating Clinton for more than three years. They were there to put Monica Lewinsky in a brace. That’s what prosecutors call it when they confront a potential witness in a criminal probe.
At issue was something Lewinsky had written: a sworn affidavit in which she claimed that she had never had a sexual relationship with Bill Clinton. The point of putting Lewinsky in the brace was to scare her into telling the truth—and to convince her to help Ken Starr go after the person he was really interested in: the president.
RENATA ADLER: So they take her into this room, and they say, “You’ve committed this crime, you signed a false affidavit, and it puts you in such trouble you may go to jail for 27 years.”
Udolf’s colleague suggested to Lewinsky that she could make some of that prison time go away if she agreed to work with Starr’s office. All she had to do was take part in an undercover operation designed to catch the president committing a crime.
Monica Lewinsky had a choice to make: Should she cooperate with the Starr investigation or remain loyal to the president and risk a decades-long prison sentence?
On Jan. 16, 1998, Lewinsky weighed that choice for eleven mind-bending hours. It was a choice that would set the course for the rest of her life. It also put the fate of the Clinton presidency on her shoulders.
This is Slow Burn.
I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.
REPORTER 1: In the long history of the American presidency, there’s never been anything like this.
REPORTER 2: Sex, lies, and constitutional duty.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON 1: These kind of issues are not private matters.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON 2: Congress is rushing to overthrow the commander-in-chief.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON 3: What has happened in this town? Where is the decency?
Over the next two months, I’ll be your guide to everything you never knew about the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
How did a turbulent series of sexual encounters between the president and a White House intern go from being a secret to an all-consuming national obsession? How did the ensuing scandal change our politics and shape the world we live in now? What did Americans think about and talk about as they were forced to pick sides? And what did they miss in the process?
Episode 1: Deal or No Deal.
When Bruce Udolf joined the independent counsel’s office in mid-1997, Ken Starr’s investigation was focused almost entirely on money. Starr was interested in the Clintons’ financial history—specifically, something called
NBC: Whitewater! The Arkansas real estate deal that has dogged President and Mrs. Clinton since they arrived in Washington. The special prosecutor has been looking into this case …
Udolf was 46 years old when he was recruited to join the Starr team. He was an accomplished investigator. He had built up an impressive record going after public corruption in Florida.
REPORTER: Many of the lawyers working for Starr are some of the toughest prosecutors in the nation. Bruce Udolf nailed more than a dozen judges, mayors, and cops for corruption while U.S. attorney in Miami.
Most of the politicians Udolf went after in Florida were Democrats. But Udolf didn’t join up with Starr for partisan reasons or because he wanted to get Bill Clinton. Udolf was a Democrat himself. He had voted for the president. What attracted him to the Starr probe were the stakes.
BRUCE UDOLF: I mean, to work on a case involving allegations of corruption on the part of the president of the United States, I mean. If you’re looking to have an impact, it doesn’t get more impactful than that.
But within six months of Udolf’s arrival in Washington, Starr’s team had received an astonishing tip from Linda Tripp. It caused the investigation to swerve into questions of presidential adultery and deception.
Udolf was skeptical about this new direction.
BRUCE UDOLF: I mean, I went up there fully expecting to investigate the president’s involvement, or alleged involvement, in a real estate deal that had failed—basically a white-collar investigation. This was not necessarily something I signed up for. And it’s not something that I feel terribly good about.
Udolf wasn’t crazy about the idea of putting Lewinsky in a brace, although he mostly kept his doubts to himself. Some of the more hard-charging prosecutors on the team already thought he was a softie—later, they would put up a jokey chart on the wall of their office where he was labeled “commie wimp.” When Udolf suggested that it wasn’t a good idea to confront Lewinsky with a group of men and no women, he was told that none of the women in the office were available.
Udolf is in his mid-60s now. He lives outside Fort Lauderdale and works as a white-collar defense attorney. And he has a hard time talking about the Monica Lewinsky investigation. When I spoke to him in his office earlier this year, his face would toggle between friendly, cautious, and agonized, and he fidgeted with any small object he could get his hands on. As he answered my questions, there were times when Udolf would stop and think for a full 10 seconds, searching for the right words.
UDOLF: This case … involving Monica Lewinsky … should’ve been dead on arrival. … And it served no useful purpose.
Udolf really hates that the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation happened. He hates what it put the country through. And he hates thinking back on that long, tumultuous day in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel that kickstarted the whole thing. Looking at Monica Lewinsky that afternoon, Udolf saw a young woman, dressed in spandex and a t-shirt, fighting back tears and biting her fingernails.
Prosecutors in the Office of the Independent Counsel referred to the Jan. 16 Lewinsky operation as “Prom Night.” Bruce Udolf, despite his reputation as a dove, was one of the two attorneys in charge of persuading Lewinsky to flip. The other was a prosecutor from Los Angeles named Michael Emmick.
Emmick, who died in 2015, was known in the office as something of a charmer. Here’s reporter Susan Schmidt, who co-wrote a book about the Starr investigation called Truth at Any Cost:
SUSAN SCHMIDT: He was, you know, the nice guy in the office—very good-looking guy, very personable.
Schmidt covered the White House for the Washington Post. In fact, she helped write the first major newspaper story about Lewinsky a few days after all this happened.
SUSAN SCHMIDT: Other people were in the next room listening and down the hall. You know, so it was a very carefully thought through interaction with her. But it all went haywire very quickly.
The first mistake came when the FBI agents who brought Lewinsky into the hotel room for some reason allowed Linda Tripp to join everyone inside. Lewinsky, who understood immediately that Tripp had betrayed her, stared at her former friend with rage in her eyes. Before someone finally thought to get Tripp out of the room, Lewinsky remembers saying, “Make her stay and watch. I want that treacherous bitch to see what she’s done to me.”
Speaking in a soft, even voice, Emmick explained to Lewinsky why the independent counsel’s office had summoned her. It had to do with a lawsuit, he said—a sexual harassment lawsuit that had been filed in 1994 by a woman named Paula Jones. Lewinsky knew all about it.
REPORTER 1: There has been a legal cloud over the Clinton administration ever since Arkansas native Paula Jones made sexual harassment allegations against the president.
REPORTER 2: Paula Jones, a former Arkansas clerical worker who claims that she was sexually harassed by the president.
You’ll hear more about Paula Jones’ story in future episodes. The short version is that she worked for the state of Arkansas while Bill Clinton was governor.
REPORTER: Jones alleges that in 1991, then-Gov. Clinton lured her to a private room at this Little Rock hotel during a state conference and made unwanted sexual advances.
Here’s what you need to understand about how all this fits together. Basically, three separate storylines converged to put Bill Clinton’s presidency in peril. The first was Ken Starr’s investigation into the Clintons’ financial history and Whitewater.
REPORTER: The president’s biggest headache, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s Whitewater investigation.
The second was Paula Jones’ sexual harassment suit.
REPORTER: Paula Jones’ sexual misconduct allegations against President Clinton continue to wreak havoc among members of the White House staff.
The third was Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
We’ll trace the origins of these three threads later in the series. For now, I’ll just say that they started coming together in the fall of 1997, when Paula Jones’ lawyers found out that Clinton was carrying on a secret relationship with a former White House intern. For Jones’ legal team, that made Lewinsky a very useful witness. If she testified that she had begun an affair with Clinton while working in the White House, it would help establish that he had a habit of pursuing his female subordinates—a pattern of behavior that would make Jones’ harassment claim more credible.
And so, on Dec. 19, 1997, Jones’ lawyers served Lewinsky with a subpoena. She responded by signing a sworn affidavit in which she denied having a sexual relationship with Clinton, and stated that he had always behaved appropriately in her presence.
Not long after, Ken Starr’s office learned about Monica Lewinsky and the false affidavit she had signed. That affidavit gave them leverage over her. And that’s how she found herself being marched into a Pentagon City hotel room by the FBI.
MONICA LEWINSKY: 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.
That’s Monica Lewinsky, speaking on stage at a Forbes event in 2014. Lewinsky declined to be interviewed for this podcast. She has only spoken publicly about her ordeal on a handful of occasions. Pretty much every time she has talked about it, she has made a point of describing the fear she felt on Jan. 16, 1998.
MONICA LEWINSKY: 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.
Mike Emmick—the “nice guy” on Starr’s team—told Lewinsky there was evidence that she had committed perjury, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice—that she had not only lied on her affidavit, but that she had encouraged other people, including Linda Tripp, to lie on her behalf.
Did Lewinsky commit these crimes? Technically, she might have.
STEVE BINHAK: Look, I can have empathy for someone as a human being—anybody can. But what she did was wrong, and she got caught.
This is attorney Steve Binhak. He served on the Starr team as a prosecutor alongside Bruce Udolf and Mike Emmick. He passed through Room 1012 several times on Jan. 16.
STEVE BINHAK: So, she was confronted with her conduct by federal prosecutors, FBI agents. And in no uncertain terms, Mike and Bruce told her that she had violated the law and that there was a criminal case that could be made against her—readily.
Again, all that may be technically true. But in reality, no jury was ever going to convict a 24-year-old woman for lying about an adulterous affair. Even the hardliners on Ken Starr’s team had to know this. Plus, they knew they didn’t have much evidence on Lewinsky. Here’s Udolf:
BRUCE UDOLF: At that particular point, it was not necessarily known to us that this relationship was not a figment of a young impressionable girl’s mind.
The lack of evidence didn’t stop the prosecutors from telling Lewinsky that she faced grave consequences unless she agreed to cooperate with them. They told her that if she wanted to make a deal, she would have to move fast, because her value as a witness would only go down.
Lewinsky had a guess as to why the prosecutors were in such a hurry.
REPORTER: Good evening. There’s never been anything quite like it before, a president of the United States in the same room with a woman who has accused him of sexual harassment.
As Lewinsky and just about everyone else in America knew, Bill Clinton was set to give a deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit the following day. Jones’ lawyers were going to ask Clinton all kinds of intimate questions about his personal life— it was a very big deal.
REPORTER 1: This is a historic first. Never before has a sitting president had to give sworn testimony in a court case where he is the defendant.
REPORTER 2: And it happens tomorrow morning in Washington.
Lewinsky was right that the Starr prosecutors were aware of Clinton’s deposition when they decided to schedule “Prom Night” for the day before. Given that Lewinsky’s name was on the Paula Jones witness list, Starr could be pretty sure that Clinton would be asked about the affair, and it seemed likely that he would lie about it. Here, again, is reporter Sue Schmidt:
SUSAN SCHMIDT: The Starr people were thinking: Just let ‘em go into the deposition, and he’s free to tell the truth or not. If he’s going to lie, you know, so be it.
Clinton’s deposition was one thing hanging over the proceedings in Room 1012. But the prosecutors had another reason to try to hurry things along.
A reporter from Newsweek was getting ready to publish an article saying that Starr was looking into her affair with the president. The reporter had reached out to the Starr team, and he had told them that his piece would be going to press that weekend. The prosecutors wanted to secure Lewinsky’s cooperation before that happened, because once her name was out in the world, she would be significantly less useful to them as a witness.
What would cooperation look like? First, Lewinsky would have to tell the prosecutors everything about her relationship with Clinton, and she would have to agree to testify about it under oath.
That was the easy part. The prosecutors also wanted her to wear a wire. As Lewinsky understood it, her mission would be to carry out controlled calls to two of Clinton’s associates—his friend Vernon Jordan and his personal secretary, Betty Currie—and possibly to the president himself. The goal was for Lewinsky to get confirmation, on tape, that Clinton and his cronies had encouraged her to lie under oath in response to questions from Paula Jones’ lawyers.
When she heard Emmick’s pitch, Lewinsky panicked. She began shaking, and sobbing so loudly that a member of Starr’s team could hear her from the hallway.
BRUCE UDOLF: I thought she was petrified, I thought she was intimidated, I thought she was angry, I thought she was confused, and at times she seemed hysterical.
Lewinsky cried out that her life was ruined, and she wondered aloud about what would happen if she threw herself out the window. Here’s Renata Adler again:
RENATA ADLER: There are these guys, they are official guys, they’re saying to her, “We have enough to send you to jail.” I mean, you say that to anybody, they’re going to be terrified. I mean, who would not be scared by that?
It was about two hours into “Prom Night” when Lewinsky said she needed to call her mom. By this point, it was starting to look like Mike Emmick’s “good cop” approach wasn’t going to work. To ratchet up the pressure, one of the Starr team’s most combative prosecutors came into the room and told Lewinsky to knock it off with the indecisiveness. Lewinsky remembers him telling her, “Monica, we know you’re smart, you’re twenty-four years old. You don’t need to call your mommy.” But Lewinsky insisted. If Starr’s guys wanted her to make a deal, they had to let her make up her mind on her terms.
Lewinsky’s mother, Marcia Lewis, lived in New York. As it happened, she was something of an aspiring gossip columnist—she had even published a juicy book about the world of opera called The Private Lives of the Three Tenors.
For months, Lewis had been hearing about her daughter’s relationship with the president. It worried her. When she picked up the phone and heard Lewinsky say, through tears, that she was in trouble with the FBI, Lewis said she’d be on the next train to Washington.
The train ride would take at least three and a half hours. In the meantime, all the occupants of Room 1012 could do was wait. Soon the tension in the room gave way to boredom and restlessness. Someone turned on the TV.
SUSAN SCHMIDT: They were watching some Ethel Merman movie because every channel had cop shows, and Emmick didn’t want her to see these cop shows because they all involved snitches. He was thinking that that’s gonna, you know, queer their efforts at cooperation.
As evening fell, Lewinsky told the prosecutors she was feeling claustrophobic, and that she wanted to stretch her legs. Emmick and one of the FBI agents agreed to accompany her back to the Pentagon City Mall, where they could wander around a bit and get some semblance of fresh air. And so, the three of them went shopping.
The first stop on the excursion was Crate and Barrel, where Lewinsky looked at household goods and tried to lighten the mood by cracking jokes.
SUSAN SCHMIDT: It was a very strange juxtaposition of this sort of bristling law enforcement operation going on, you know, upstairs, and then this sort of carefree browsing at Crate and Barrel because they were waiting for her mother, and it was taking hours.
After Crate and Barrel, Lewinsky said she needed to use the bathroom, and she headed towards the ladies’ room at Macy’s while Emmick and the FBI agent waited for her.
When Lewinsky was confident she was out of their sightlines, she did something bold: She went to a payphone and dialed the number for Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie. Currie was one of the two people Starr’s prosecutors wanted Lewinsky to set up. But Lewinsky thought of Currie as an ally. If she could get her on the phone, Currie could then get a message to Clinton and warn him about Starr, so he wouldn’t risk perjuring himself in his deposition the next day. As Lewinsky put it later, “Betty was the only one that I knew I could call for two seconds and say something cryptically that I knew would get to [the president].”
But as fate would have it, Betty Currie didn’t answer the phone that day. Looking back on that moment, it’s hard not to wonder how everything might have turned out if she had. If Currie had told Clinton that Ken Starr knew about the affair, would he have told the truth in his deposition the next day and avoided the accusation of perjury?
But Currie did not pick up, and so Lewinsky, deflated, met back up with Emmick and the FBI agent. By this point, it was almost 7 o’clock—and since there was still more time to kill, and everyone was getting hungry, the trio got dinner at a restaurant at the mall called Mozzarella’s American Grill.
While they ate, Lewinsky asked Emmick to explain one more time why she was facing 27 years in prison. He ticked off the crimes she could be charged with on his fingers: perjury, obstruction of justice, witness-tampering. What he didn’t tell her was how profoundly unusual it would be for the federal government to prosecute someone for covering up an affair in a civil lawsuit.
At the end of the meal, Lewinsky made a point of paying for her own food, as if to signal that she didn’t want to be in the prosecutors’ debt. Then the group headed back to the hotel room and watched some more TV. Finally, a little after 10 p.m., a woman in a fur coat rang the doorbell. Lewinsky’s mother had arrived.
The first thing Marcia Lewis did after she got to the Ritz-Carlton was hug her daughter. The two of them went into the hallway, where they spoke alone for a few short minutes. “I can’t do this,” Lewinsky remembers saying. “I can’t wear a wire; I can’t tape record phone calls.” Steve Binhak, one of Starr’s prosecutors, caught a snippet of the conversation:
STEVE BINHAK: And it just so happened, I walked out in the hallway while Monica and her mother were talking, and I overheard Monica’s mom say to Monica, “You’re going to tell these people everything they need to know, and we’re going to be done with this.” And Monica said, “I am not going to be the person who brings down the president of the United States.”
The prosecutors told Lewis that if her daughter cooperated, they were prepared to grant her immunity, meaning no charges would be filed against her, and she wouldn’t face any prison time. Lewis listened but didn’t feel sure that she could trust the prosecutors. If they wanted to talk about a deal, she said, they would have to speak to her ex-husband: Monica’s father.
From Udolf and Emmick’s perspective, this was yet another obstacle to getting the deal done quickly and cleanly. As Lewis called her ex-husband in California and briefed him on the situation, the prosecutors began to accept that Lewinsky was not going to flip before the end of the night.
BRUCE UDOLF: You didn’t have to be a seer to know where this was headed. This was going to be one huge mess.
Lewinsky’s father put his daughter in touch with a family lawyer who specialized in medical malpractice law. When the lawyer got on the phone with Mike Emmick, he told him that his client would not be making an immunity deal with anybody, at least not yet. Then, he told Lewinsky and her mother to go home.
So, that’s what they did. More than 11 hours after Lewinsky was first approached in the food court, she and Lewis got into Lewinsky’s SUV and drove to her apartment. As it happened, Lewinsky lived at the Watergate complex, in an apartment owned by her mother, not far from where Richard Nixon’s team of burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972.
Lewinsky later recalled worrying that her apartment might be bugged. For a second, she and Lewis talked about maybe fleeing the country, but they ruled it out because they figured they’d be stopped at the airport. Lewinsky said she wanted to try to call Betty Currie again, so that she could warn Clinton about what was happening. But Lewis made her daughter promise that she wouldn’t.
When they got home, Lewis was so worried that her daughter would try to hurt herself that she made her leave the bathroom door open while she took a shower.
Meanwhile, Ken Starr’s prosecutors wallowed in defeat.
SUSAN SCHMIDT: They were extremely depressed at the end of the night. They felt like their whole plan had failed. I mean, she’d gotten away. They didn’t have a deal. The deposition was the next morning. And they came so close. Emmick was cursing himself and so upset that he had not closed the deal. I just don’t think they expected it to go the way it did.
In the end, Jan. 16 could have turned out a lot worse for the prosecutors. For one thing, they managed to keep their investigation under wraps until after Clinton’s deposition. And when Paula Jones’ lawyers asked Clinton about Lewinsky, he lied, just like the hardliners on Starr’s team had suspected he would.
But Lewinsky’s refusal to cooperate and to wear a wire meant that the Office of the Independent Counsel would have to spend months trying to prove that the intern and the president actually did have an affair. They would interview scores of witnesses, dig through phone records, and pore over White House visitation logs. It was obvious right away that this process would irreparably transform Lewinsky’s life.
Not long after that day at the Ritz-Carlton, Bruce Udolf ended up leaving the Office of the Independent Counsel, in part because the disagreements between him and the rest of the team ran so deep. Twenty years later, he still feels queasy when he thinks about his former colleagues actually building a criminal case against Monica Lewinsky.
BRUCE UDOLF: One would have to ask themselves, what good does it serve to indict a 24-year-old girl for lying on an affidavit in a civil case, which probably would represent the first time in the history of that jurisdiction where someone was indicted for such an offense. What good would it do to try someone like that? What interests does the United States government have that are vindicated by that kind of prosecution? Because to me, if you were to prosecute that case, you wouldn’t need to have Monica Lewinsky flip. Your goal would’ve been served by having a very public humiliation of the president of the United States.
Udolf told me he’d heard that one of his former colleagues from the Starr team had recently said in an interview that he was proud of the work the office had done on the Lewinsky case. The guy apparently said he felt vindicated by the #MeToo movement—that the world had caught up to the idea that powerful men shouldn’t take advantage of young women, and that Bill Clinton deserved to be taken down. Udolf finds that line of reasoning appalling.
BRUCE UDOLF: The humiliation and hurt to Monica Lewinsky, the hell with that. She’s expendable. Is that something to be proud of? Does that vindicate one? For advocating that kind of position? I don’t think so.
You don’t have to agree with Bruce Udolf. But it’s worth dwelling on his anger for a minute.
Because he’s not the only one who’s angry. A lot of people who played a role in the Clinton-Lewinsky saga get angry when they think about it, for all kinds of different reasons. Some are angry that Clinton’s presidency survived. Others are angry that the political forces that aligned against him were so effective at crippling his administration. And there are also a lot of people who are angry on behalf of Monica Lewinsky.
I was in middle school when the scandal broke. I remember it, sort of. I remember being confused about why Clinton got to stay president even though he’d been impeached. And I remember that, as a child of Democrats, I took Clinton’s side and believed, sort of vaguely and ambiently, that Ken Starr was in the wrong. I’d like to think that I felt sympathy for Monica Lewinsky, but I honestly don’t know if I did—a lot of people didn’t.
That’s part of what I want to examine on this season of Slow Burn. I want to get into the minds of people who followed the scandal, and talked about it, and argued about it, and I want to try to figure out why they reacted to it the way they did. I want to think about how I would have reacted to it, if I had been able to process it then as the person I am now. I want to excavate the ideas that swirled around the Clinton saga—ideas about sex and power and privacy and character—and I want to consider how those ideas have changed since the 1990s. Are we more enlightened now? Or is there something we’re not appreciating about what it was like to live through this story in real time?
The ’90s were a transformative period in American politics—a time when the culture of no-holds-barred partisan warfare that we’re all used to now first took hold in Washington.
Jan. 16, 1998, represented a turning point in that era. You could argue that it determined everything that happened next. If Monica Lewinsky had agreed to cooperate that day, it’s likely Ken Starr would have been able to seize the moment, and he would have sent an impeachment referral to Congress very quickly.
Instead it took him the better part of a year, and by that point the shock of the scandal had worn off. It’s possible that if the impeachment process had started sooner, while public outrage at Clinton’s conduct was at its peak, the president would have been forced out of office.
For Renata Adler, this is the part of the story that gets forgotten—that Monica Lewinsky’s refusal to succumb to Ken Starr saved Bill Clinton’s presidency. As scared as she was on that Friday afternoon, Lewinsky was unwilling to get wired up and sent off to spy on the president.
RENATA ADLER: That is where she comes through, I mean, as I can’t imagine anybody else would. She just said no. I think there’s an honesty, perhaps, under everything else that there is in the way Monica Lewinsky presents herself. She doesn’t disguise herself. I just think that’s admirable. I just persist in thinking that’s admirable—she didn’t do it.
Not that it helped Lewinsky very much. Though the Newsweek story that was supposed to come out that weekend got held up by the magazine’s editors, the affair soon became public knowledge anyway, thanks to a story on a previously obscure website called the Drudge Report. From there, Lewinsky rapidly became famous around the world.
REPORTER 1: The president, the intern, the accusations, and the denials.
REPORTER 2: Tuesday overnight, explosive news about the president. The center of the controversy: Monica Lewinsky.
REPORTER 3: Lewinsky has been described by a number of sources as flirtatious and mildly obsessed with the president.
REPORTER 4: One law enforcement source put it this way, quote, “We’re going to dangle an indictment in front of her and see where that gets us.”
REPORTER 5: Tonight, the fate of this administration—how it will go down in history—is in her hands.
Reporters started staking out Lewinsky’s apartment at the Watergate. One day, her neighbor Bob Dole, the Republican senator from Kansas who had run against Clinton in ’96, brought the reporters a box of donuts.
Later, when Lewinsky moved out of the building, she sent letters to all the other residents, written on blue stationary, in which she apologized for any inconvenience she might have caused.
Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode of the show this week and every week for the next two months. Our first bonus episode features a behind-the-scenes discussion about the making of our new season, and why it was so much harder than making the first one. The bonus episode also includes a fabulous interview I did with Doron Hagay and Lily Marotta, the creators of a fictionalized miniseries about Monica Lewinsky that imagines her life after the scandal.
LEON: She had started a handbag design company, right?
DORON HAGAY: Yes, yes, which are incredible objects if you think about it. Because they really are a product of trauma.
This episode of Slow Burn was co-produced by me and Andrew Parsons, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Our researcher is Madeline Kaplan. Our theme song is by Spatial Relations, and this episode featured music by Wet, whose album Still Run is out now. Our artwork is by Teddy Blanks at Chips NY. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts.
Special thanks to the NBC News archive, CBS News, and C-SPAN for the archival audio you heard in this episode.
For script notes and all kinds of other help, we want to thank Ava Lubell, T.J. Raphael, Faith Smith, Chau Tu, June Thomas, Ben Frisch, Mary Wilson, Allison Benedikt, Mike Pesca, Jeff Friedrich, Willa Paskin, Carrie Baker, Alice Gregory, Camilla Hammer, Jonny Dach, Ben Kawaller, Jon Liu, Mark Feeney, Tod Lippy, Ellen Horne, Avi Zenilman, and Julia Turner. See you next week.