Of Monica and Murphy: ‘Impeachment’ vs. History, and the Birth of the Tabloid Era

Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images
Monica Lewinsky
Todd S. Purdum
September 15, 2021

A lifetime ago, as a young reporter covering the New York City Police Department, I used to ask most every officer I met which “realistic” television drama best captured the essence of police work. In the beginning, I expected the answer would be Hill Street Blues, or maybe KojakNYPD Blue and Law & Order had yet to be born. But, to a person, New York’s finest invariably cited Barney Miller, the antic half-hour ‘70s squad-room sitcom, as the show that most reflected the can’t-make-this-up truth of their trade.

This paradox came vividly to mind as I watched FX’s Impeachment, Ryan Murphy’s literal-to-a-fault recreation of the Bill ClintonMonica Lewinsky saga. The series summons up all the gritty, granular detail of the world-shaking story that I helped cover in another long-ago lifetime for The New York Times. Pounds of prosthetic makeup, verbatim quotations from taped conversations, and skillful reproductions of remembered iconic images—that jaunty beret, that wagging finger—prompt P.T.S.D.-inducing flashbacks.

The familiar facts are all there: the flashed thong, the stained Gap dress, the betrayal-by-cassette-recorder, and the febrile moment when modern Washington political journalism first jumped the shark. Less-remembered aspects of the case are faithfully recounted, too—chief among them the work of the circle of right-wing “elves,” the conservative lawyers and media figures who aided and abetted the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s unyielding investigation of Clinton (and who, in some cases, cynically manipulated it as well).


ADVERTISEMENT

So what’s missing? For my money, the insights and perspective that only art can bring to life. One needn’t require Richard II  to think anew about the implications and abuses of contemporary power. In 1996, Joe Klein’s thinly-veiled novel Primary Colors captured something essential about Bill Clinton’s protean talents, fierce intelligence, and insatiable appetites that pre-Lewinsky era journalism couldn’t match. Freed from a Joe Friday factual format, Klein’s roman a clef had license to imagine a character that seemed somehow even more real and rounded than the real, rounded thing. In the book, the Clinton figure fakes a blood test to prove he hasn’t fathered an illegitimate child—which means he fears he might well have. Totally made up, and completely believable (especially in light of what the world would later learn about the D.N.A. on that famous blue dress). 

Slate’s Slow Burn podcast performed a similar alchemy in 2018, albeit in rigorous documentary form, for the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, shedding fresh light on a presumably well-understood story with the shattering hindsight of the #MeToo movement.

In all its punctilious literalism and plodding exposition, Impeachment rarely breaks through in a comparable way (at least not in the seven episodes so far made available for media review). Make no mistake: The series has its delights—in Sarah Paulson’s embittered sneer as Linda Tripp, that most faithless of friends; in Beanie Feldstein’s broken-hearted, self-aware delusion as Lewinsky; in Annaleigh Ashford’s victimized naivete as Paula Jones and Margo Martindale’s delicious treachery as the literary-agent-cum-provocateur Lucianne Goldberg, who goads Tripp into betraying Lewinsky with dreams of best-selling glory.

Much has been made of the series’ appropriately corrective focus on Lewinsky, Tripp, and Jones—the triumvirate at the heart of the case, who were so often rendered in cartoonish-to-contemptuous terms in contemporary media accounts. By contrast, we see them here as three-dimensional characters, with complex personal lives and real human emotions. “You are my whole world,” Feldstein’s Lewinsky tells Clinton at one point, and you can be sure she means it. The Starr team’s “brace” of Lewinsky in a marathon interrogation-cum-intimidation in a Ritz-Carlton Hotel room near the Pentagon is a palpable, heart-pounding outrage, one that plays very differently with a post-Guantanamo awareness of the torture, psychological and otherwise, that our ostensibly civil liberties-respecting federal government is capable of.

But the emphasis on the women victimized by Clinton also throws the story out of whack. It leaves Clinton himself (portrayed by Clive Owen in makeup that makes him look more like CNN’s John King) as a cardboard cutout, who exists simply to set the plot in motion, and whose own range of presumably complex emotions and motivations go almost completely unexplored. There’s a reason well beyond phone sex that Bill Clinton spent hours and hours in conversation with Lewinsky. They touched something broken and vulnerable in each other’s emotional makeups—a reality that the too-prurient Starr Report itself actually captures better than this show does. (The report records that, after their last physical encounter, Clinton serenaded Lewinsky with “Try a Little Tenderness,” the 1930s ballad that contains the line “She may be weary/Women do get weary/ Wearing the same shabby dress…”)


ADVERTISEMENT


Covering the scandal in real time was a surreal experience, as the prevailing ground rules of political coverage crumbled underfoot by the hour. The ability of an internet scribe like Matt Drudge (played here with snarky fidelity by Billy Eichner) to scoop what wasn’t yet known as the “legacy media” at its own game unleashed a revolution whose reverberations and implications are still being felt daily. At the Times, the imperative was often to minimize the sexual details of the story without rendering it incomprehensible—perhaps tellingly, Impeachment also shies from explicit depictions—an effort that seems quaint at best today, when the Anglo-Saxon term for sexual congress appears in the paper of record from time to time without apology. The series vividly depicts the media maelstrom that pummeled Monica night and day—a circus that seems typical enough in the Age of Trump—but without providing context or comparisons to explain just how bizarre the whole thing felt to a working journalist in 1998. 

When Impeachment strays from its ripped-from-the-headlines depictions and into the realm of imagination, it is sometimes better off. In one wonderful presumably made-up moment, Paulson’s sanctimonious Linda Tripp tells her children not to listen in on her phone calls—“It’s tremendously inappropriate!” the character explains in a priceless foreshadowing of her own shameless eavesdropping on Lewinsky. But other imagined dialogue rings false. When Lewinsky complains to Betty Currie, Clinton’s kindly Black secretary, that the president’s gifts of accessories are all so ugly, the Currie character replies: “Arkansas.” That’s a line that Betty Currie of Edwards, Mississippi would never utter, but that Ryan Murphy of Indianapolis by way of Hollywood just might. There’s a reason that Aaron Sorkin in The West Wing, or Peter Morgan in The Crown, captured the viewing public’s imagination: Their kind of elevated writing is largely absent here.

Impeachment was produced with the active participation and advice of Lewinsky herself. In a couple of long off-the-record conversations more than a dozen years ago when she was considering telling her story to Vanity Fair (before eventually deciding to write it for the magazine herself), I came to know her as a thoughtful, intelligent, resilient and ruefully funny person—far deeper and more serious than the distorted popular caricature that took root (thanks in part to the Clinton camp’s shameless sliming of her) in the public mind. It is much to this series’ credit that it accurately depicts the 20-something Lewinsky as an unsettling mix of precocity and vulnerability, who did not lack agency—though she did suffer from a gross imbalance of power—in her relationship with the president of the United States, who was, after all, the most consequential man in the world.  

But all too often, this Impeachment amounts to a waxworks reproduction of the real one, a serviceable bus-and-truck revival of a warhorse whose original cast was more compelling. In 1998, at the height of the Lewinsky drama, The New York Times’s Russell Baker wrote, “It’s a comedy that was already too shopworn for Molière 300 years ago.” A dark comedy, yes, but those words were true at the time, and seem even truer now. Perhaps Murphy should have made Impeachment a sitcom, after all.

SHARE