Monica Lewinsky was far from the first young woman to have an affair with a married American president. She was just the first one unlucky enough to have Linda Tripp for a confidante.
"Make her stay and watch," Lewinsky told the federal prosecutors who greeted her in Room 1012 at the Ritz-Carlton in Arlington, Va., to question her about the nature of her relationship with the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton. "I want that treacherous bitch to see what she has done to me."
The "treacherous bitch" was Tripp, and what she did was secretly record phone conversations she had with Lewinsky while pumping her for details about her office romance with the commander-in-chief, which began Nov. 15, 1995, when Lewinsky was a 22-year-old White House intern, and effectively ended on March 29, 1997.
All of which proved so much catnip for an independent counsel named Ken Starr, who was already investigating Clinton for other alleged malfeasance when Tripp brought him tapes featuring 20-plus hours of girl talk. Once intended to be fodder for a tell-all Tripp was hoping to write about the Clinton White House, she soon imbued her efforts with a greater purpose: Taking the president down.
The whole spectacle—from the sexual relations that most definitely did occur, the stained blue dress Lewinsky had to turn over to the Feds and the infamous cigar to the rabid partisan hunger for Clinton's downfall, the sexual harassment lawsuit that laid the foundation for so many lies to be told and the second-ever impeachment of a sitting president—is the subject of FX's Impeachment: American Crime Story, recognized with a 2022 Emmy nomination. Which was the long-awaited third installment of the anthology series that previously brought us the takes on the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the hunt for Gianni Versace's killer that we didn't know we needed until we saw them.
"Really, why?" may have also been the response when word got out a couple years ago that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was next on the agenda, the subject matter not seeming at first like a natural fit within the parameters of the true-crime sagas that came before.
But most stories benefit from hindsight, and Lewinsky's is no exception.
After a few years of trying to navigate in the hypercritical public eye after the impeachment—telling her story to Princess Diana biographer Andrew Morton, making cameos as herself on Saturday Night Live to bookend the beret-punctuated parodies, starting a line of handbags, hosting a Fox dating show, Mr. Personality—she'd had enough, particularly after the release of Clinton's 2004 memoir My Life.
Telling the Daily Mail that he was a "revisionist of history," Lewinsky ended up moving to England in 2005 to get her master's degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics. After finishing her thesis, titled "In Search of the Impartial Juror: An Exploration of the Third-Person Effect and Pre-Trial Publicity," she set about living a private life.
Social media as we know it today was in its infancy in 2006, MySpace still rather popular and Facebook slowly becoming a thing, Twitter brand new. Instagram was still four years away. Subsequently, Lewinsky watched in horror as it all became what it is now: Useful and irreplaceable in some respects, but so much of it a cesspool of nastiness and disinformation.
Never having lost her name-brand recognition, she alerted millions of people to what being the object of the world's ire, disdain, ridicule, pity and misguided martyrdom was really like in her viral March 2015 TED Talk, "The Price of Shame."
"At the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss," she told an audience of almost 1,400 in Vancouver. "And at the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences."
"Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of my mistake, and I regret that mistake deeply," she continued. "In 1998, after having been swept up in an improbable romance, I was then swept up into the eye of a political, legal and media maelstrom like we had never seen before...Now I admit I made mistakes—especially wearing that beret—but the attention and judgment that I received—not the story, but that I personally received—was unprecedented. I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo and, of course, 'that woman.' I was known by many, but actually known by few. I get it. It was easy to forget 'that woman' was dimensional and had a soul."
She was addressing a different world than the one that had mercilessly picked on her, in so far as countless new ways existed in which to mercilessly pick on somebody. "There is a very personal price to public humiliation," she said. "And the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price." Taking aim at cyberbullying and online harassment, Lewinsky said, "What we need is a cultural revolution...It's time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture."
Well, she tried.
But while online cruelty has only reached new depths since then, in 2017 came the onset of the #MeToo Movement, a reckoning not only for men who'd abused their positions of power, but also for the concept of consent and the alarming fact that saying no, depending on the dynamic at play, often doesn't feel like a choice.
In the wake of not just that social upheaval but also Hillary Clinton's latest run for the presidency, count Lewinsky among those who was reconsidering what she had always thought to be—and what she told a grand jury and publicly insisted was—a consensual relationship with Clinton, who is 26 years her senior and was the whole country's boss at the time.
In an essay about public humiliation for Vanity Fair in 2014, she referred to the life-altering hit to her reputation (and job prospects, romantic future and so much more) as "a consequence of my own poor choices."
"Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship," she wrote. "Any 'abuse' came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position."
Reflecting on those words in a 2018 Vanity Fair piece, "I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)
"Now, at 44, I'm beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I'm beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot."
She did not, however, disavow her own agency, maintaining that in her decision-making moments, she wanted what happened sexually between her and Clinton to happen. It's just that the fact that it happened at all was also evidence of the age-old discrepancy between what's right and what's so unfortunately common.
So, take all of that—the abuse of power, the betrayal, the scapegoating, the gaslighting, the humiliation and psychological abuse, the media hysteria and, yes, the two articles of impeachment filed against President William Jefferson Clinton—and you've got an American crime story.
And while Impeachment can't help but be salacious (it was a particularly salacious moment in American history, the graphic details of what came to be known as the "Starr Report" published for all to cluck over like a "Dear Penthouse" letter), the series also counts Lewinsky as a producer, giving the now 48-year-old activist a hand in telling the very personal story that was ripped out of her control back when these events were actually unfolding.
Not that reliving those details, let alone that entire chapter of her life as channeled onscreen by Beanie Feldstein in the role of the doe-eyed intern and Clive Owen as Clinton, wasn't cause for concern for her mental health. Lewinsky told The New York Times that her trauma therapist would sit by via video as she read the scripts, and they had a remote session before she attended a post-screening reception in July (after she skipped actually watching the first episode in a roomful of people).
"Surreal" was how she described the party, where she was given a standing ovation when she walked in.
"I felt gutted by some of the things that Monica went through," Feldstein, also a producer on the series, told W Magazine recently. "My task is to be Monica's bodyguard—to put my body in front of hers. It's my job to portray her pain, because I feel so much for her."
Pondering the question that a lot of women asked themselves when Lewinsky's predicament came to light, the 29-year-old actress said, "Obviously, I'm queer, so I don't know if I'd flirt with the president, but who knows? When Clinton shined his light on you, there was no better feeling in the world. It wouldn't matter if you were male, female, nonbinary, queer. When that man put his spotlight on you, the world fell away. And if I was 22 and the most powerful person in the world focused his high beams on me, I would probably do the exact same thing as Monica."
In later statements, Lewinsky recalled intensely flirting with the president through eye contact long before they ever said two words to each other. She started interning at the White House in July 1995, and it wasn't until Nov. 15—in the middle of a temporary government shutdown—that she found herself briefly alone with Clinton in his chief of staff Leon Panetta's office. That's where she made sure the president got a glimpse of the thong underwear peeking out from the waistband of her pants.
And he smiled, she remembered.
"I would've loved to have been really selfish and said, 'That's great that you guys think we don't have to show that, fantastic,' but I'm incredibly experienced in understanding how people see this story," Lewinsky told The Hollywood Reporter, referring to the thong scene, which Impeachment writer Sarah Burgess initially didn't include, admittedly to avoid "retraumatizing Monica." Lewinsky encouraged her to go ahead.
"So, ultimately, I felt two things: One was that I shouldn't get a pass because I'm a producer," she said, "and two, that it was unfair to the team and to the project because it would leave everybody vulnerable."
Meaning, the woman who's actually become the queen of self-referential humor on Twitter wasn't going to insist on a sanitized version of events. Impeachment bounces around as far as the storytelling timeline goes, but it opens on Jan. 16, 1998, when FBI agents crashed her lunch date with Tripp (who arranged the meeting) at the Pentagon City Mall food court and brought her to the Ritz, where she ended up being questioned by federal prosecutors for 11 hours.
Lewinsky was threatened with 27 years in prison for obstructing justice and other offenses if she didn't cooperate by wearing a wire to get Clinton on tape. They even threatened to charge her mother, Marcia, as a co-conspirator, suggesting there might be evidence on the Tripp tapes to use against her.
"That was the most terrifying day of my life, which competes for worst day with the release of the Starr Report," Lewinsky told the Times.
The reason that federal prosecutors were so invested in any of this in the first place was due to the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Clinton in May 1994 by Paula Jones, a former employee at the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission. She alleged that Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, had exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, having relayed to a state trooper that he wanted Jones to meet him in the room.
According to Jeffrey Toobin's 1999 book A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President, the main source material for Impeachment, Jones primarily wanted an apology and it was her then-husband, Steve Jones, and an increasingly interested pack of lawyers and conservative activists who wanted to take her case public. She was advised, as the statute of limitations on a sexual harassment claim was about to run out, that her best chance at getting her apology was to sue.
She never got one. Clinton maintained he did nothing wrong to Jones and, after four years of legal wrangling, they agreed to settle and the president paid her $850,000.
But in what he later characterized as a feeble attempt at protecting himself and his family from embarrassment, as well as confusion over what "sexual relations" really meant, Clinton answered "no" in his own sworn deposition for the Jones case—on Jan. 17, 1998, the day after Lewinsky was interrogated—when asked if he had "sexual relations" with his former intern.
And that sounded like a lie to Ken Starr.
Tripp had first contacted his office on Jan. 12 to tell investigators about Clinton's affair. She had first started working in the White House during the George H.W. Bush administration, and then stayed on as a secretary for Vince Foster, Clinton's deputy White House counsel. In July 1993, Foster was found dead of what was quickly determined to be suicide (not a satisfying conclusion for conspiracy theorists), and after White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum resigned in 1994, Tripp was transferred to the Pentagon. That's where she met Lewinsky when the former intern was transferred there in 1996.
"My mom saw corruption and wrongdoings, some cover-ups, disrespecting women," Allison Tripp, Linda's only daughter, told Vanity Fair after watching the Impeachment premiere. "And coming from the Bush administration, which was run very differently…. My mom was always independent [politically] but I do believe that made her feel very wronged as a citizen. Just: 'This is our country. This is our White House.' And maybe wishing that there was more respect from the president."
On Sept. 11, 1998, the House of Representatives voted 363-63 to release the 445-page Starr Report, which depending on whom you asked then (and perhaps now, 23 years later) either confirmed that Clinton was an irredeemable creep or that Starr was strangely hung up on the president's sex life. Maybe a bit of both.
He and Lewinsky had roughly a dozen sexual encounters between November 1995 and March 1997, talked on the phone and exchanged gifts, including an antique cigar holder for him and a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass for her. Clinton told Lewinsky on May 29, 1997—"D-Day," for "dump day," she called it—that they couldn't see each other again. That December, after Lewinsky was subpoenaed by Jones' legal team, Clinton had his secretary Betty Currie go to her apartment to retrieve the presents he'd given her.
On Jan. 18, 1998 the day after Clinton's deposition, Drudge Report published an article about allegations of an affair between the president and a then-unnamed intern. On Jan. 21, the Washington Post and others named Lewinsky in reporting on Starr's investigation into Clinton's conduct, with the White House issuing a denial. Clinton also continued to deny the affair. On Jan. 26, he told reporters at the White House that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
On Today the following morning, Hillary Clinton called the persecution of her husband "a vast right-wing conspiracy."
It wasn't until the summer, when Starr's office finally promised Lewinsky immunity from prosecution, that she sat down with them to discuss what happened with Clinton and handed her semen-stained navy blue Gap dress over to the Office of the Independent Counsel. (She revealed in Vanity Fair in 2018 that she never actually met Starr himself until she saw him in a restaurant in Manhattan's West Village on Christmas Eve in 2017. She recalled telling him, "Though I wish I had made different choices back then, I wish that you and your office had made different choices, too." To which he replied, "I know. It was unfortunate.")
On Aug. 6, 1998, Lewinsky testified before a grand jury. Eleven days later, Clinton told the grand jury that he in no way sexually harassed Lewinsky, but, yes, he had an "improper physical relationship" with her. That night, he finally admitted it to the American people.
While many seem to enjoy saying that Clinton was "impeached over a blow job" (translation: impeached for nothing, or at least unfairly impeached for private conduct that wasn't against the law), what he actually was accused of, per the two articles of impeachment adopted on Dec. 19, 1998, was lying to a federal grand jury and obstruction of justice. He denied doing either.
Clinton, who was midway through his second term, also never contemplated resigning from the presidency. (Nor was there any social media on which people could clamor for him to do so.) If you've listened to a lot of political chatter in recent years, you may have heard some people wonder if our national politics wouldn't be in better shape, with two strong legs to stand on when it comes to accountability and less of a "stand by your party's man no matter what" mentality, if he had.
But he didn't. In fact, after his testimony his approval rating skyrocketed to 62 percent, a majority of those polled still giving a thumbs-up to how he was running the country, and perhaps also believing that he was being unfairly targeted by his political enemies.
And there wasn't not a vast right-wing movement to nail him to the wall.
On Feb. 12, 1999, Clinton was acquitted, with five Republicans joining the "not guilty" vote on obstruction of justice and 10 rejecting the perjury charge.
Despite the media circus that captured a rapt bipartisan audience (the question of guilt was almost beside the point when the world was reading about oral sex in the White House), Clinton enjoyed years of post-presidency good will, and a lot of the nearly 66 million people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 liked the idea of having him back in the White House as First Gentleman. (Then again, though Hillary won the popular vote, enough people in electoral college-tipping states didn't want another Clinton administration of any kind. And the scandal didn't exactly help Vice President Al Gore's candidacy in 2000—though he also got 500,000 more votes overall than George W. Bush.)
But now with 2016 feeling as far away as 1998 at times, the conversation about the former president can't help but be refracted through the prism of #MeToo. For some, that is. Asked in 2018 if she thought her husband should have resigned, Hillary Clinton told CBS News, "Absolutely not."
She explained, "There are people who look at the incidents of the 90s and they say, 'A president of the United States cannot have a consensual relationship with an intern; the power imbalance is too great.'" However, Lewinsky was "an adult," the former first lady, senator and secretary of state continued. "But let me ask you this: Where's the investigation of the current incumbent [Donald Trump], against whom numerous allegations have been made, and which he dismisses, denies, and ridicules?"
Her husband was investigated, she said, "and it, as I believe, came out in the right place."
What is crystal clear, though, and has been for some time, is that Monica Lewinsky spent some hellish years being taunted and misrepresented by the media, used by investigators and betrayed by people she thought she could trust.
Sarah Paulson acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times that, while she may have been essential in rehumanizing prosecutor Marcia Clark (the poster woman for misogynistic media coverage in 1995) in The People v. O.J. Simpson, her portrayal of Linda Tripp, who died of cancer in April 2020, wasn't going to do the duplicitous Starr witness any favors. (Allison Tripp told VF she noticed "some inaccuracies," as a daughter would, in the premiere, but thought the Emmy winner "did a good job relaying to the audience that my mother was about loyalty and integrity and doing what was right." The show also did "a good job digging deep to find out truly how she ticked.")
Paulson said of her turn as Tripp, "Not only may it not affect anybody's assessment of her, it might make people double down. And that is something I never thought of. And I don't know if that makes me foolish, or it just makes me a person who was so invested in trying to be a person... I think Linda was certainly a victim of being caught up in a machine. Don't get me wrong—she put the gas in the car, she put the keys in the ignition, and then she started driving, put her foot on the pedal. But then it's like a runaway train — I know I just mixed my vehicle metaphors."
"I will never think that what she did was right," the actress said. "Far from it. But I do have a greater understanding as to the why."
Which, when you're piecing together a crime, is essential to telling the whole story.
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This story was first published on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 at 3 a.m. PT.