I grew up in Arkansas where role models are in short supply, particularly if you fall on the left side of the political spectrum, and so I idolized Bill Clinton. Like myself, he grew up in a poor single-parent home, and I modeled my way out of Arkansas after him (college, law school), although unlike Bubba, I had no desire to return once I left. I also worked as a volunteer on his campaign before I could even vote and again when I could, and majored in political science/journalism in college because I wanted to get into politics because of that experience (and as many know, Pajiba was originally a political site before it was a review site before it became a blend of the two).
I mention this because I knew everything about Bill Clinton. Sort of. I knew everything I wanted to know. For a long time, my understanding of the Clinton years was similar to the Arkansas educational system’s understanding of the Civil War, which is to say: It was supremely lacking and one-sided. Some of that was willful blindness, and a lot of that is because the sources of a lot of the information about the Clinton scandals came from villains, so to speak, which is what makes the whole goddamn saga so complicated. Bill Clinton was a Democrat, but also a serial philanderer who used his position of power to abuse women. Ken Starr was an evil man who wanted to use Clinton’s sex scandals to take him down because he couldn’t find anything else, and people who worked for or cooperated with Ken Starr — especially Linda Tripp — were also Bad People.
Time and perspective have changed the ways we think about the Clinton Impeachment scandal considerably, and for those of us who lived through it — especially on the Democratic side — we’ve had to do a lot of reevaluating. That process became doubly complicated in 2016 when Hillary Clinton ran for President because, again, she was on our side, even if some of the sh*t she pulled during the Clinton Impeachment scandal was not OK, and even if she was married to and supported a man whose sexual misconduct would have rightfully gotten him canceled in today’s world (as a Democrat. Republicans can apparently do whatever the hell they want).
All of which makes Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: Impeachment — now airing on FX and FX only — a complicated show to watch. By today’s standards, basically everyone involved is a villain, except for Monica Lewinsky, the one person who unfairly took the brunt of the emotional and reputational damage from that scandal. It is insane for us to think now that a 22-year-old intern who was the clear victim of a chasmic power differential could be made the scapegoat. The Democrats did that. The Clinton machine did that. And way too many of us — from late-night talk show hosts to political operatives to voters who looked the other way — were complicit in that.
Watching Impeachment forces us to sit in a stew of our shame and regret. But again, it’s also complicated for Democrats because we have no desire to root for Ken Starr, or Linda Tripp, or maybe even Paula Jones and her prideful but opportunistic husband. How do we square our political support for a man who was no better than Donald Trump when it came to the way he sexually treated women?
I don’t know how many people remember this, but we once celebrated Bill Clinton as the “Comeback Kid” for surviving a sex scandal and coming in second place in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, which he only managed to do by smearing and discrediting his accuser, Gennifer Flowers. Six years later he admitted under oath to having an affair with her. Nevertheless, for surviving that, the media celebrated him! Then he used the momentum he gained from smearing and discrediting an accuser and rode that to the White House, where he behaved with Monica Lewinsky in precisely the same manner he did with Flowers.
It’s really something else, isn’t it? If anything, American Crime Story: Impeachment will be valuable for the way it makes those of us who lived through it reflect on the way it was covered, on why we placed our allegiances where we did, and on why it’s important to interrogate someone’s qualities beyond the D or the R next to their name. The first episode of the series does a nice job of setting that up, centering it on Linda Tripp, the busybody career bureaucrat who had an ax to grind because she felt underappreciated. It’s Tripp who broke the scandal open, although her reasons were less than above board: She wanted to get back at the Clinton White House for reassigning her to a position she felt was beneath her, and because she wanted to sell a book. She also took advantage of Monica Lewinsky, disingenuously offering herself up as someone to confide in, only to use information gained in confidence for her own personal gain.
We also meet Paula Jones and her husband, Stephen, and their story is almost too uncomfortable to talk about from the lens of our modern culture. Was she a victim of Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment — yes, obviously — or were she and her husband opportunistic rubes? That’s certainly how they were depicted then, and it continues to be the way they are depicted here (also, Taran Killam’s Arkansas accent is atrocious). And then there’s Vince Foster, who took his life, and who is the subject of numerous conspiracy theories, which the series nods toward, but he’s also an important figure here in setting Linda Tripp’s arc into motion.
There are lots of ways to talk about Impeachment — is it good or bad? Fact vs. fiction? What was Sarah Paulson thinking with that fat suit? Wait, is that really Clive Owen — but this is the way I want to cover it, by reassessing a ’90s scandal from the perspective of 2021.
Header Image Source: FX