Secrets & Lies
With never-before-seen archival footage and new interviews from the likes of Monica Lewinsky, the A&E docuseries The Clinton Affair explores the investigation of a president. And in the light of the #MeToo movement, the ‘90s scandal takes on new tones.
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About halfway through The Clinton Affair, the pace quickens, and the story takes on the tenor of a spy thriller.
That's when Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who had an affair with President Bill Clinton, describes, beat by beat, how gun-toting FBI agents approached her at the Pentagon City Mall and coerced her to go to a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. There, she was interrogated by lawyers working for Ken Starr, the independent counsel investigating the president.
Lewinsky characterizes the encounter as petrifying, like an out-of-body experience. She fleetingly considered suicide: "I felt the only way to fix this was to jump out the window."
Her reflections on her role in Clinton's impeachment provide a vivid through-line for this six-part documentary, which winds through the events that led to that critical juncture in American politics. The series, which premiered on A&E in November, is available on demand and at aetv.com.
For her willingness to share her story, "I give Monica tremendous credit," says executive producer Alex Gibney, who conducted some of the interviews himself. Known for his no-holds-barred documentaries, he has won five Emmys: three for Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and two for Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.
Lewinsky agreed, knowing that the scandal's 20-year anniversary was looming. Still stinging from being characterized as "the seductress" and having been the butt of countless jokes at that time, she took this opportunity to explain what happened, rather than to let others define her experience.
"She did it knowing that it would be her voice telling her story," Gibney says, "but it would not be under her editorial control."
She's not the only one. Several of Clinton's accusers, who were also on the receiving end of public doubt, shaming, ridicule and sexism, get their say in this series.
That includes Paula Corbin Jones, whose lawsuit claiming that Clinton sexually harassed her helped set the wheels in motion for his impeachment; Kathleen Willey, a former White House staffer who claimed she was the victim of his unwanted sexual advances; and Juanita Broaddrick, an Arkansas businesswoman who alleged that Clinton raped her — but then kept her story under wraps to protect her own privacy.
"Everyone had an opportunity to tell their story," says executive producer–director Blair Foster, who conducted the lion's share of the interviews. Foster, who won an Emmy for her work on George Harrison: Living in the Material World, was in her 20s when the Whitewater investigation began.
She felt there was a lot to this twisty, sprawling story that she had missed. Seeking a deep dive, she reached out to about 100 key players and astute observers. Almost 60 of them — Republicans and Democrats — agreed to be interviewed. "We wanted to put aside politics," Foster says, and present a nonpartisan perspective that would interest a wide audience.
What they didn't foresee is how the series would dovetail with the #MeToo movement. "That didn't factor into it when we first commissioned the show," says A&E programming chief Elaine Frontain Bryant, who greenlit Gibney's Jigsaw Productions and Jemima Khan and Henrietta Conrad's Instinct Productions to produce it.
"But we realized it's one of those where you get lucky." The series became even more relevant as they worked on it. "What's happening politically," she adds, "in terms of the divide within our country, this [series of events represents] an early moment in that time. It's fantastic to look at something from 20 years ago with today's eyes."
They also interviewed lead prosecutor Ken Starr, who went on to serve as president and chancellor of Baylor University — until accusations he'd mishandled several sexual assaults at the Waco, Texas, school led to his resignation.
We also hear from Michael Isikoff, then a Newsweek reporter, who chased the Clinton story early on; Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent who incited Lewinsky's so-called friend Linda Tripp to tape her; and James Fisher, the lawyer who conducted Clinton's famous deposition — which some say entrapped him. Other observers say Clinton ensnared himself by denying his sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
But if lying about his relationship with Lewinsky ultimately got Clinton impeached, a confluence of acts led to it — and this seven-hour series examines them in chronological order.
The Whitewater investigation began in January 1994, when a special counsel was appointed to investigate an Ozark real estate investment of the Clintons'.
A few months later, Jones's lawyers filed a civil lawsuit against Clinton for sexual harassment, seeking $700,000 in damages. That November, the Republicans, led by Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich, won the House for the first time in 40 years, ushering in an era of extreme partisan politics that continues to this day.
The series features new and old footage. The younger faces of newscasters like Ann Curry and Diane Sawyer show up, reminding us how quickly time passes. News clips show that what goes around sometimes comes around, as in the case of disgraced Today anchor Matt Lauer, seen grilling Hillary Clinton in 1998 about her husband's infidelity. Of course, he was later ousted from NBC for his own inappropriate sexual behavior.
One of the most familiar clips presents a beaming Lewinsky in a black beret, seen in a crowd at the White House as she awaits an acknowledgment from Clinton (she gets a hug). It aired with such frequency in the '90s that it became seared into viewers' mental hard drives.
The series also reveals never-before-seen footage of Lewinsky visiting the Oval Office with her parents. "We hit the archival jackpot," Foster says, explaining that the footage was in the public domain but had been overlooked until now. Lewinsky enthusiastically introduces her parents to Clinton, and they pose for a group photo.
Foster says she'd never realized the full extent of Lewinsky's relationship with Clinton, which included gifts as sentimental as the copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass he gave her. "I was kind of shocked at the extraordinary and ordinary aspects to this relationship," she says. "This was a real relationship. Not a conventional one. But it went on for two years."
In her candid interviews, which took place over 20 hours, Lewinsky shows that she's reflected quite a bit on her youthful misstep. Her more balanced view has allowed her to acknowledge that Clinton abused his authority and station by getting sexually involved with a 22-year- old subordinate.
She also owns up to her part in igniting things. "She herself characterizes it as flirting," Foster says, referring to the episode when Lewinsky describes delivering a slice of pizza to Clinton in the Oval Office and purposely exposing the top of her thong because she wanted him to take note of it. Which he did.
Paula Jones also gets a lot of play in The Clinton Affair. "I like to think that we took her seriously in ways that other people hadn't," Foster says. Jones comes across as guileless and credible as she describes her encounter with Clinton. She alleges he exposed himself and tried to force her into a sexual act. Then and now, what she most wanted was a public apology from him. She never got one.
But here, Jones isn't reduced to soundbites, as she was in the '90s. Instead, this feels intimate. She appears comfortable in the interview setting and with herself. And it's gratifying to hear her speak in lengthy passages and to observe her inflections and expressions. Whether you consider her a Clinton victim or a right-wing pawn, it would be difficult not to reconsider her through a modern lens and feel empathy for what she endured.
Linda Tripp declined to be interviewed for the series. She nonetheless looms large in any story concerning Clinton's impeachment. It simply can't be told without recounting her role in befriending Lewinsky and then surreptitiously taping the young woman as she divulged the most intimate details of her relationship with Clinton.
As Tripp's ultimate act of betrayal, she offered the tapes to Paula Jones's lawyers and the Office of the Independent Counsel.
Listening to those tapes now, Tripp appears most manipulative when she urges Lewinsky not to have a certain blue Gap dress dry-cleaned. Tripp knows that the dress likely contains traces of Clinton's semen. In fact, the dress became key evidence in his trial. Tripp continues to defend herself today as a concerned whistleblower.
Considering that she was tattling on a private relationship between two consenting adults, however, people will continue to question her motives. "I'm not sure that she knows," Gibney says. "I think her motives were mixed."
Lucianne Goldberg, however, did agree to be interviewed, and she recounts clearly and confidently her instrumental role in the matter. "It was one of my favorite interviews," Foster says. "She appeared to have no qualms about what she did."
A literary agent who had worked as a political spy for Richard M. Nixon, Goldberg was once described in the New York Times as having "a taste for right-wing, tell-all attack books."
Gibney says, "Goldberg has a nose for a really good story, and she's ruthless for how to position people so the story is told effectively." In this situation, she convinced Tripp to tape Lewinsky and also connected her to other players, such as Isikoff.
Learning that Tripp had informed Jones's attorneys of the tapes' existence, Isikoff pressed his weekly publication to run the scoop. When his editors held back, Goldberg fed it to Matt Drudge, then an emergent presence on the nascent internet, enabling him to scoop Newsweek.
"That's another time capsule," Gibney says, reflecting on how archaic it seems now for a news organization to sit on breaking news. "The idea of having to wait a week…" he muses.
Bill and Hillary Clinton also declined to be interviewed for the series. But we see and hear them in news coverage and archival material, such as Hillary's interview on 60 Minutes during Clinton's '92 campaign.
Asked about her husband's infidelities, she responds, "I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." That statement, always controversial, has by now been turned on its head more than once.
"She is the more fascinating character in all this," Foster says, noting that Hillary has embraced the #MeToo movement but sometimes seems tone-deaf in terms of how it concerns her husband.
To make up for the Clintons' absence, the series has interviews with individuals close to them, including their personal lawyer, David Kendall; Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior advisor to Clinton; and James Carville, Clinton's former political strategist. "I felt fortunate that they agreed," Foster says.
On the other side of the political divide, we hear from people like Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi and John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, which assisted Jones's lawsuit.
Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, provides some of the rawest emotion. She comes across as a hero for the way she supported her daughter in her time of need. "I can't imagine what it was like to learn your daughter is in a hotel room with FBI agents," Foster says.
The newest U.S. Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, also makes an appearance, sitting next to Starr as a member of his legal team at the Clinton impeachment hearings.
Kavanaugh wanted to use some of the more salacious details when questioning Clinton, which helps explain his outburst during his own recent Supreme Court hearings, when he berated the Democratic opposition for enacting "revenge on behalf of the Clintons."
Gibney says debates ensued in the edit room as to how much archival footage of Kavanaugh to include, considering that he'd faced sexual assault allegations himself. "I was roving around it. We had a number of discussions," he says.
The story reaches its apex in the penultimate episode, when Clinton sits for his deposition in the Jones case. The coverage of that testimony, always fascinating, is even more riveting in The Clinton Affair, where it's interlaced with interviews with James Fisher, the lawyer who conducted the deposition.
Fisher shares what he was thinking as he queried Clinton, knowing full well that the president had no idea how much his interlocutor knew about the relationship with Lewinsky.
"I felt we were building a good case," Fisher says, recalling that the more personal and detailed the questions became — like, did he give Lewinsky a copy of Leaves of Grass? — the more rattled Clinton got. Fisher recalls, "He lost his confidence. He began to fumble for words."
Reflecting on that scene, Foster says, "When you see that moment, you can almost read what the president is thinking. Suddenly, he realizes that Fisher knows something: 'Oh, he's been talking to Monica.'"
Soon after, Fisher asks Clinton if he ever had sexual relations with Lewinsky. Clinton responds, "I have never had sexual relations with her. I have never had an affair with her," and at that moment, he essentially seals his fate.
"A big one for me is: what if he had told the truth and not lied?" Foster wonders. "That became the essential question that haunted me."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019