The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Ick alert? TV dramatizations of Clinton-Lewinsky scandal airing or in works

More than 20 years after it ended, the scandalous affair of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky still fascinates, still strangely exerts a hold on popular culture.

Clinton and Lewinsky, mid-November 1995

How otherwise to explain news of prospective televised dramatizations about the improbable liaison between the president and an intern, an affair that began during a partial government shutdown in 1995 and led to Clinton’s impeachment in 1998?

Word circulated yesterday that the History Channel is moving ahead with a six-part dramatization the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, based on The Breach: Inside the Impeachment of Bill Clinton, a book by Peter Baker. And the Washington Post noted that “possibly in the works is Amazon’s ‘Linda and Monica,’ a not-quite-buddy movie about the relationship between … Lewinsky and her onetime friend Linda Tripp, who recorded the pair’s conversations about Lewinsky’s affair with Clinton and turned them over to investigators.”

I happened to find the Reelz dramatization on cable last night. The show’s ick factor is pronounced.

The actors looked a bit like Clinton, Lewinsky, and Linda Tripp. But not surprisingly, none of the characters was much developed. While it hewed more or less to the well-known outlines of the scandal, the show offered no good explanation as to why Clinton eagerly took the risks he did in carrying on a sexual dalliance with a brazen and willing intern 27 years his junior.

Reelz depicts Lewinsky as a floozy ever-eager to get her hands on Clinton and his zipper, and the mirthless, goatish Clinton character is seldom inclined to resist.

It’s all pretty tawdry, and it’s lifted to no revealing heights by the four or five talking heads the producers recruited. Most astute of the lot is Michael Isikoff, the former Newsweek reporter whose digging uncovered the affair. But Newsweek held off on publishing and Isikoff’s exclusive was plucked by the Drudge Report.

The Reelz show, called “Scandal Made Me Famous: Monica Lewinsky,” compresses the scandal’s denouement — Clinton’s impeachment and acquittal — into a few sentences tacked on at the end.

So maybe it won’t be difficult for History Channel to exceed that low bar and skirt the ick factor.

The series filmmaker, R.J. Cutler, seems to be dialed-in about the scandal’s consequences. Cutler was quoted as saying that Clinton’s impeachment is “’the origin story’ that defines the political moment we live in.”

He was further quoted as saying: “It’s the origin tale of how our Government was broken and has never really healed, of the entrenched divide between the red and blue states.”

I buy that. Indeed, his comments echo points I make in the Clinton-Lewinsky chapter of my 2015 book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.

In it I write:

“Sharp and predictable partisan disagreement on a variety of matters came to characterize the country’s riven political culture. Well into the twenty-first century, Republicans and Democrats were at odds, and often bitterly so, over the size and reach of the federal government, at odds over national health care and other federal entitlements, at odds over environmental protection, at odds over national security.

“It would be a mistaken exaggeration of course to attribute political polarization exclusively to the storm provoked by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal,” I add.

“But the impeachment battles of 1998–99 contributed mightily.”

I also note in 1995 that while Clinton succeeded in beating back the impeachment charges, his mendacity in the scandal did not go unpunished.

In April 1999, two months after the Senate acquitted him of perjury and obstruction of justice, Clinton was found in contempt of court by Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge who presided at the deposition Clinton gave in 1998. During questioning under oath, Clinton was asked about his affair with Lewinsky.

He falsely testified that they had not had sexual relations.

The judge wrote in a scalding opinion that the “record demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence” that Clinton at the deposition gave “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process.”

Simply stated, she wrote, “the President’s deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. Lewinsky was intentionally false, and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false ….”

None of that detail made it into the Reelz show.

WJC

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