What’s the Most Crucial Part of the Clinton Affair?
Impeachment: American Crime Story tells a humanizing story, but misses a bigger point.
If you’re in the mood for ’90s nostalgia, the first episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story is a scrunchie-wearing, SlimFast-drinking, Jane magazine–reading coast down memory lane. It has shopping malls and step-aerobics classes and pagers and the Gap, where Monica Lewinsky bought a sapphire-blue collared dress that would become one of that decade’s most defining emblems. The cleverest thing the FX series about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal does is lull viewers into wistful remembrance right before walloping them with revisionism. Not everything about that decade, it emphasizes, should be remembered fondly.
American Crime Story has reframed history before. Ryan Murphy’s anthology series has excelled at taking some of the gaudiest tabloid spectacles of the ’90s—O. J. Simpson’s arrest and trial, Gianni Versace’s murder—and exposing the cardinal sins of the era. The past few years have seen a wealth of works confronting the cruelty with which high-profile women in the ’90s and early aughts were treated: I, Tonya, Framing Britney Spears, Lorena. The pairing of Murphy and the playwright and showrunner Sarah Burgess seemed to promise a blistering, starry reckoning with a defining moment of the late 20th century. What we get instead is less rewarding: several hours of Sarah Paulson wrinkling her prosthetic nose in an I smell something awful approximation of Linda Tripp, while Beanie Feldstein’s Lewinsky sobs because the president hasn’t called her. It’s a scattered, frivolous confrontation with history that neglects the more crucial parts of the Clinton impeachment: the extralegal manipulation of power, the seeding of a thousand conspiracy theories that still bloom today, the extraordinary influence of a handful of unelected people who know how to work the media to their own advantage.
The misdirected focus on the relationship between Tripp and Lewinsky isn’t necessarily surprising. Murphy has long had a weakness for women like Tripp. “The delusional, tempestuous middle-aged woman who’s lost all self-control,” as Logan Scherer wrote in 2015, is a recurring feature of his work, as is Paulson. And I can understand why Lewinsky, brought on as a producer after she happened to meet Murphy at a party, might have wanted to home in on her interactions with the woman who betrayed her. After all, the broader events of the Clinton impeachment were thoroughly and incisively rehashed upon their 20th anniversary, in 2018, via a thrilling season of the Slate podcast Slow Burn and an A&E docuseries produced by Alex Gibney. Back then, two years after Hillary Clinton lost her groundbreaking run for president, the fault lines in Clintonworld seemed particularly relevant. Lewinsky has also proved herself to be a persuasive self-advocate, publishing a striking 2014 essay in Vanity Fair about what it’s like to be “arguably the most humiliated person in the world,” ritualistically mortified by a million media jabs before you’re even 25.
But the Clinton debacle was and always has been bigger than the betrayal of Monica. Impeachment only briefly touches upon this fact amid its fixation on Tripp as a huffy malcontent so irked by the Clinton administration’s informal occupation of the White House (she’s shown sneering at pizza parties and casual Fridays) that she almost brings down the 42nd president and ruthlessly sacrifices a young woman in the process. This isn’t to say that Lewinsky shouldn’t get to challenge how she was treated—she certainly should. But with its curious focus on Tripp and Lewinsky, Impeachment follows the tabloid model rather than subverting it. The show spends an exhaustive amount of time on the salacious elements of the Clinton affair—the dress, the gifts, the phone calls, the tapes—while neglecting the politics at play, and the roiling currents below the surface of the story.
That oversight is a shame, because American Crime Story is usually adept at finding the underplayed elements and most pertinent subtext of its cultural firestorms. Here, though, it stages what amounts to a star-studded Clinton-era costume party. For starters, there’s Clinton himself, played in just a handful of scenes by a heavily made-up Clive Owen as a slow-moving, enigmatic mafioso. Was Clinton a narcissist? A predator? An opportunist with a roving eye who really did, as he attests in the show, place more women in high-level positions of power than any president before him? Impeachment doesn’t even hazard a guess. Edie Falco, playing Hillary Clinton, occupies so little space in the first seven episodes made available for review that I can’t imagine how the role tempted her.
The series makes more space for Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford, wearing a bulbous prosthetic nose that even a caricaturist might resist), whose accusations that Clinton sexually harassed her when he was the governor of Arkansas are shown being leapt upon by a team of conservative operatives with a vested interest in bringing down a popular Democratic president. But the motivations of Jones herself—and the fact that her description of Clinton’s penis was later discredited—are left hazy. Kathleen Willey, another Clinton accuser who expressed suspicion in 2007 that both her husband and Vince Foster had been murdered in a plot involving the Clintons, is played by Elizabeth Reaser simply as a White House volunteer who girlishly confesses to Tripp that Clinton kissed her. At least in the first seven episodes, there’s no mention of Juanita Broaddrick, who claims that Clinton raped her in 1978. Maybe it’s unfair to expect a miniseries to thoroughly and meaningfully parse all the accreted layers of Clintonian scandal over the years: the “vast right-wing conspiracy” defense and the Hillary haters and the divisions among feminists over which side to stand on. But there’s surely space across 10 episodes for sharper, more detailed analysis than is offered here.
Even when the series does allude to larger elements within American politics, it does so with such an emphatic tone that the point itself is hard to take. Cobie Smulders is delightfully rakish playing the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, but the show lost me in the third episode, when Coulter declares to the conservative attorney (and later vocal critic of Donald Trump) George Conway that her efforts to bring down Clinton are about principle, not politics. “Being the president used to mean something,” she says theatrically. “Even Nixon was capable of shame. But after this? Just think what kind of flabby con man will see a path to the White House.” To write such obviously portentous dialogue is one thing; to put it unironically into the mouth of a prolific troll is another. American crimes indeed.