In the new documentary series The Clinton Affair, during a section devoted to the story of Paula Jones, there’s footage from an episode of The Tonight Show that aired in 1997, when Jones’s allegations of sexual harassment against Bill Clinton were an ongoing source of fascination for Americans. The sketch, prerecorded and presumably set in Little Rock, Arkansas, featured the fictionalized “Jones” emerging from a trailer. Her skirt was short. Her hair was big. Her stride was hip-first. Those gags were mere accessories, however, to the primary joke of the sketch, a visual punch line that punched decidedly down: the prosthetic nose, long and bulbous and intentionally grotesque, that the actress playing Jones wore to complete the simulation. The late-night camera zoomed in on it, menacingly, mockingly. The studio audience, as they got a closer and closer view of it, howled with laughter.
The American media, making fun of the woman who had accused the president of sexual harassment: It was a form of cruelty that would be repeated many times over, not just when it came to Jones, but also when it came to other women associated with Clintonian scandal. Gennifer Flowers, for one. Monica Lewinsky, for another. Here were accusations that the president had abused women as he had abused his power, and here was the court of public opinion offering its own verdict on the matter: It was the women who were at fault. They were treated, in many quarters, with a degree of sighing annoyance—“these women,” a Washington Post columnist wrote of Flowers and others, “crawling out from under rocks”—and greeted, in pop culture as well as in politics more narrowly, as sources of unwelcome disruption. They were dismissed on the terms that so many women who are deemed to be inconvenient are: They were belittled, in the most public of forums. For their appearances. For their accents. For their hairstyles. For their sexuality. Leno on Lewinsky: “She told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah—she didn’t want to give up her sex life.”
The Clinton Affair, produced by Alex Gibney (Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) and Blair Foster (Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown) and airing this week on A&E, premiered soon after the conclusion of the second season of Slow Burn, Slate’s podcast that similarly focuses on the complicated chain of events—Jones’s suit, Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, Whitewater, Ken Starr’s appointment to investigate Whitewater, Linda Tripp’s friendship with Lewinsky, Tripp’s decision to betray her—that led, roughly 20 years ago, to the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
There is significant, and inevitable, overlap between the two docuseries—similar interviews conducted, similar stories told—but the two shows have another thing in common, as well: Neither offers a concisely specific argument about the overarching questions of the Clinton affair—how to think about it, what it all meant, who was right in it, who was wrong. Instead, the series captures a different kind of truth: the way the events, of the 1980s and the early 1990s, and then of 1996 and 1997 and 1998 and beyond, never, strictly speaking, ended. They remain, instead, tightly woven into the current workings of American culture: Bill Clinton and his failures grappling with #MeToo; Hillary Clinton, caught in her own kind of reckoning; Juanita Broaddrick, finally being heard; Monica Lewinsky, speaking in public about her 20-year-old trauma; Ken Starr, himself now accused of covering up sexual misconduct; Brett Kavanaugh, attributing the allegations of sexual impropriety against him to nameless actors taking “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” This overlap of fates, of people and of the country, ultimately questions whether history—history, the tale of that which has come and gone—is actually history. Each story serves as a reminder that the past tense is also the present.
One of the pieces of conventional wisdom that has emerged from the scandal that was then known as “the Lewinsky affair” is that the scandal—arriving on the national stage when it did, and how it did, and with whom it did—contained several embryonic truths about the realities of the current moment. The metastatic expansion of partisanship, from mere ideological disagreement into ceaseless, take-no-prisoners blood sport. The ratification of 24-hour cable news, with its incentives toward argument and outrage, as one of the primary facts of the American informational landscape. The political power of the religious right. The emergence of the conservative blogosphere.
An element of the scandal that has been less commented on until now, however, is how neatly it crystallized truths about sexism in America as it existed in the waning years of the 20th century—sexism that was aware enough to be ashamed of itself; sexism that wasn’t quite willing to change its ways. Sexism that often manifested in the way political backlash so often will: as innocent comedy. As jokes (just jokes! they would protest in self-defense) made at the expense of women’s bodies and minds. “He said, ‘Paula, take my advice—find a line of work where no one will have to see your face,’” The Tonight Show’s fictionalized Jones told Jay Leno, relaying a bit of wisdom from her plastic surgeon. “So it was either this or get a job at Hooters.”
The Tonight Show’s crowd, once again, burst into guffaws.
So much has changed since then. The scandal’s villains and protagonists rearranged themselves; those who were once mocked are now being reestimated in works, both small and sweeping, of purposeful revisionism. Slow Burn interviews Linda Tripp, the workplace confidante of Lewinsky who ultimately shared news of Lewinsky’s affair with the president to the FBI (and another woman who was mocked for her weight/her hair/her nose/her person by the American media). Tripp presents herself today as an early adherent to the notion, now widely shared, that Clinton’s consensual affair with his young intern was nonetheless an abuse of power. As she told Slow Burn’s host, Leon Neyfakh, who tracked her down at her new home in rural Virginia:
I mean, how it was presented to the country initially is how it continues to be referred to today, which is an affair, the Lewinsky affair. But by virtue of using that word, one assumes it was in some way an actual relationship of sorts—romantic, physical, whatever, it was a relationship—which couldn’t be farther from the truth. What it was was a series of encounters to address a physical need, a use of a young girl, and then the sort of cold, hard dismissal of her on any human level.
Lewinsky herself, who long insisted that the relationship with Clinton had been a consensual affair, has recently come around to a similar idea: “We now recognize,” she wrote in an essay earlier this year, “that it constituted a gross abuse of power.” The Clinton Affair interviews Lewinsky at length, as well as her parents, who were collateral damage of the relationship in question, and who speak of their daughter’s trauma as their own. Their appearances in the documentary double as testaments to the radiating effects of abuses of power: the way one person’s decisions can ripple out, to affect a whole family, a whole community, a whole country.
In the process, the two docuseries revel in the extreme contingencies of history: the fact that, had things gone just a little bit differently, Monica might still be, for most Americans, anonymous; Bill Clinton might never have been impeached; Al Gore might have gotten elected; and … you can fill in several of the fancifully counterfactual blanks from there. Lewinsky describes the hot-and-cold nature of her relationship with Clinton—she still refers to him as “Bill,” and sometimes as “B.C.”—during the period when he was running for a second term. She suggests that his behavior toward her, in which he variously gave her gifts (Leaves of Grass), showered her with compliments, and ignored her, going silent for long periods of time, is what ultimately led her to share the details of the affair with Tripp. “I had this nagging insecurity,” Lewinsky tells The Clinton Affair’s camera: “Maybe he just did all of these things these last six months because he was trying to keep me quiet during the election. How stupid am I that I believed this, that I bought this? I felt so deflated, and so desperate. And those were the conditions, along with some other things, that led to me confiding in Linda Tripp.”
The Clinton Affair and Slow Burn are full of similar condition-collisions: Paula Jones’s legal team sought Lewinsky out, with Tripp’s help, to prove that Bill Clinton had a long-standing pattern of abusing women. Ken Starr, whose investigation of Whitewater had led to indictments of the Clintons’ associates in Arkansas but little more, learned about Lewinsky, and shifted the course of his inquiry into the real-estate deal. When Lewinsky was interrogated by members of the FBI, under the auspices of the special counsel—she had been waylaid at a suburban mall, thinking she was meeting Tripp for lunch—she tried to call Betty Currie, Clinton’s secretary, to warn the White House about what was happening, and to seek the president’s help in her predicament. Currie happened not to pick up.
There’s much more in this vein: small events that became big ones; minor shifts that changed the course of the timeline. Lewinsky, still in love with Bill Clinton and determined not to be the one to bring down his presidency, resisted the FBI’s efforts to make her agree to cooperate with their investigation; Starr, in The Clinton Affair, recalls her stubbornness with a bit of self-exculpatory bitterness: “The real shame,” he says, “is that, when you look back on it, if [Lewinsky] had said, ‘I was betrayed by Linda Tripp, there’s nothing else I can do, I’ve got to tell the truth.’ And you know what? The horror that the nation went through for eight months would have been essentially avoided. It would have been over very, very quickly.”
Gibney and Foster let those words linger. If. If. If. What if. If only. What might have been different? Had the butterfly flapped its wings just a little faster, just a little slower, what would the shifted air have meant for the country? What would we know today? What would have been lost to history?
What The Clinton Affair also makes clear, though, and what Slow Burn makes clear along with it, is that Monica Lewinsky’s actions—and Bill Clinton’s, and Linda Tripp’s, and Ken Starr’s, and Juanita Broaddrick’s, and Paula Jones’s, and so many others’—were operating in a context that was deeply resistant to change. Watching and listening to each is riveting; it is also, in the end, exhausting. All this, to what end? What really changed? The status quo is a sturdy thing. People will rise to defend it. Cultural apparatuses will rise to defend it. Twenty years ago, many of them defended Bill Clinton by way of belittling the women who would disrupt his otherwise popular presidency. They suggested that those women were cheap, and manipulative, and ugly, and unruly. That they would have been better off staying silent and complacent. America has its own ways of abusing its power.
In late December of 2000, as the Clinton administration—intact, despite it all—neared its official end, Conan O’Brien published an elegy to it in Time magazine. The piece was called “What I’ll Miss About Bill Clinton,” but its generalized sense of loss extended—to Hillary, to Flowers, to Jones, to Lewinsky. “Comedians will soon have to build their own Clinton Presidential Library just to catalog the thousands upon thousands of joke variations made possible by his two terms,” O’Brien wrote. “He made our job so easy it was a challenge not to feel irrelevant.”