How Much Has The Country Really Changed Since Clinton's Impeachment? : The NPR Politics Podcast The TV show Impeachment: American Crime Story dramatizes Bill Clinton's impeachment through the stories of three women at the heart of the proceedings, including Monica Lewinsky. We discuss how the country and its politics have and haven't changed in the two decades since the impeachment unfolded.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, demographics and culture correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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How Much Has The Country Really Changed Since Clinton's Impeachment?

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Hey there. It's THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: We've got a bit of a retro show today. We're going to go back to the '90s when Bill Clinton was president. There's a new TV miniseries about Clinton's impeachment airing on FX. It's called "Impeachment: An American Crime Story" (ph).


SARAH PAULSON: (As Linda Tripp) There's a woman I'm very close to in the midst of an affair with the president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How do I know it's true?

KHALID: And that got us all thinking, you know, frankly, two decades later, that impeachment, that political moment, looks really different. And, Danielle, I am incredibly excited about this episode because you actually spoke with the writer of that FX show. But before we get into all of that, it has been a while since the '90s, so it's probably worth reminding folks what exactly happened. And, Mara, you reported on all of this.

LIASSON: Yeah, I reported on this. It all started with a lawsuit from Paula Jones, former Arkansas state employee. She alleged that Clinton, when he was governor, had propositioned her sexually and exposed himself. Meanwhile, there was a woman named Linda Tripp, who was Monica Lewinsky's, supposedly, best friend. Monica Lewinsky was an intern at the White House who had an affair with Bill Clinton, and Linda Tripp recorded phone conversations she had with Lewinsky about this affair. Tripp gave the tapes to Ken Starr, the special prosecutor who was investigating Clinton for an unrelated real estate deal called Whitewater. Then Clinton lied about the affair with Lewinsky, and he was impeached for that. But in the meantime, you had the Starr Report, which described in graphic detail, some people called it pornographic detail, his relationship with Lewinsky.

KHALID: And, Mara, when the allegations about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton first came out into public, you were one of the first reporters, frankly, anywhere to get an interview with Bill Clinton.

LIASSON: Well, it was a previously scheduled interview. It was just, coincidentally, the morning after this story broke, and I did ask him about it.


LIASSON: Mr. President, earlier today you said you tried your best to contain your natural impulses and get back to work. Were you furious? Is that what you were referring to?

BILL CLINTON: I was. I was.

LIASSON: And what were you furious about?

CLINTON: Well, I worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu till 12:30 last night. I'm getting ready for Prime Minister - for Mr. Arafat. I'm working on the State of the Union, and we've got a lot of big issues out there and - within and beyond our borders. And I don't think any American questions the fact that I've worked very hard at this job. And anything that's a distraction, I dislike. And...

LIASSON: Do you see this as a partisan attack? Is that what...

CLINTON: I didn't say that. I don't know what the facts are. I don't know enough to say any more about this. I don't want to get into that. I want you - you know at least as much about it as I do.

LIASSON: Well, that's about as straightforward a lie as I can think of.


KHALID: So, Danielle, about this show. I have been watching it, but I am not fully caught up. So as we talk about this show, please, no, like, major spoilers here.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

KHALID: But tell folks about this show, you know, specifically how it differs from what we might have recalled about the news and the headlines in the moment.

KURTZLEBEN: It's funny thinking about spoilers for a show about (laughter) a massive news story.

KHALID: I know.

KURTZLEBEN: But yes. So I interviewed Sarah Burgess. She is the head writer on "Impeachment: American Crime Story." She's also an executive producer. Before all that, she was a playwright. So this show very much, very consciously focuses on three women - Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, all of whom were featured prominently in that story that Mara just told us. And that is one thing that I wanted to talk to Sarah Burgess about - how we are rethinking the story of Monica Lewinsky as an American culture - sort of the way that people have remetabolized the stories of women like Anita Hill and Tonya Harding, other women from the '90s in recent years. So one thing we talked about was just how we experienced this news story. She and I were roughly the same age - early to mid-teens - and she told me about first hearing this very graphic sexual story about the president of the United States.

SARAH BURGESS: I only remember a couple of things. Like, I remember the explicit sexual descriptions in the Starr Report being in my hometown paper, The Washington Post, and being shocked by that. I remember sitting in my car to go to school and seeing that in the newspaper and being like - and being stunned. And that's how we met Monica was through this thing that was so shocking. We felt like we had to hide Newsweek or The Washington Post. I mean, it's crazy, you know?

KURTZLEBEN: What she's referencing there is she and I talked about this thing of the news being very graphic, being a sort of prurient aspect to it that we felt like we had to hide the newspapers from our parents as good little kids, you know? And so what Burgess told me was that she wanted to reframe this story to focus not on the explicit sex and instead to focus on the experience of these three women as they went through this political and media circus.

BURGESS: What I did with the show was elevate Linda Tripp, a frustrated bureaucrat, Monica, this young woman and, you know, Paula Jones - I elevated them to have the same level of importance sort of as the Clintons. And that means taking what happened to them just as seriously as whatever fallout a president might have.

KURTZLEBEN: So in other words, to defocus the story on the men who were at the center of it and the men who told it, aka Ken Starr and Bill Clinton, and center the show on the women who were at the center of it.

LIASSON: At the time, every one of these women was perceived in diametrically opposite ways. If you were an enemy of the Clintons, you thought that Paula Jones and Linda Tripp were heroes for coming forward, for talking about Bill Clinton's philandering and sexual exploitation. Monica Lewinsky, who I think was the biggest victim in all of this, she was only 22, was either seen as a seductress, a tramp or someone who got caught in this terrible partisan witch hunt against Bill Clinton.

KHALID: You know, it's so interesting to hear you say, victim, Mara, because at the time, I don't think very many people thought of Monica Lewinsky as a victim.

LIASSON: I think over time, that's how she's come to be seen. And over time, the Starr Report has come to be seen as something that really was inappropriate in the way it handled her. And some of Starr's own legal team resigned, talked out against the methods that he used over time. This is an extremely complicated moment in American political history, especially when we look back at it through the lens of #MeToo.

KHALID: And of course, you know, the other central figure in all of this is Bill Clinton. He was this larger-than-life politician at the time. You know, I think people viewed him, specifically within the Democratic Party, as this icon, this savior who was able to win the presidency for Democrats after they'd been shut out of the White House for more than a decade. And I am curious how people's perception of who Bill Clinton is has changed since the 1990s and how that factored into the show.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure. Well, one thing is if you just look at the numbers - it's hard to find super recent favorability numbers for Bill Clinton, but as of around 2018, 2019, according to Gallup, his favorability was underwater. He was viewed as more unfavorable than favorable, and that had plummeted since, you know, the earlier 2010s - 2011, 2013 - when he was seen very well. Now, the question is why that happened, and there is a lot that's intertwined that I don't think we - anyone can fully tease out. I mean, yes, we've gone through #MeToo. Many of us have rethought how we look at the power imbalance between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky at the time of their affair. But also, you know, Bill Clinton is also just a much less central figure as a political force in the Democratic Party. He, back in 2012, was this huge star of the DNC making the case for Obama's reelection. And since then, he's not on the campaign trail much for people.

KHALID: All right, we are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about how Bill Clinton's legacy has changed.

And we're back. And, you know, it's worth thinking about how this entire impeachment story factors into how society and broadly more just culture and gender dynamics have changed in the interim two decades.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah. Some of what this show addresses is the basic way that society treated Monica Lewinsky and also Linda Tripp and Paula Jones. The sort of simplistic but telling thing is the show at one point shows a clip of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch where John Goodman played Linda Tripp - John Goodman being a larger, deep-voiced man. It was a very pointed, harsh way to dig at Linda Tripp in this whole thing. And "Saturday Night Live" back then was a much more central way that our culture processed things.

But aside from that, there were just so many aspects of this that we look - that are - it's easy to look back on and go, my God, that happened? Like, James Carville, an aide to Bill Clinton, is quoted as saying at one point - and I want to get this right - this was of the accusations against Bill Clinton by Paula Jones - he said, "you drag $100 bills through trailer parks, there's no telling what you'll find." The implication being that you can, you know, pay off some women - some lower-class women - to say whatever you want them to. Like, it's just horrific-sounding these days. So there's a lot of that that is very outdated.

Aside from that, Monica Lewinsky herself has reinvented herself as an advocate against bullying. She had a whole TED Talk about that, and she also had this very thoughtful article in "Vanity Fair" a couple years ago where she took the position that, yeah, this was an abuse of power by Bill Clinton. I think we can all agree on that. You know, when it comes to how we would view this scandal were it to happen today, Monica Lewinsky talked to the "Today" show about this series and also about that very topic recently. Lewinsky, we should add, is an executive producer on this series.


MONICA LEWINSKY: I don't know that it would be as different as people want to think it would be. But we - you know, we are having conversations about power differentials in different ways. People - you know, it's not just people in power who have voices. That's one of the, you know, the beauty and the beast of social media is that more people - you know, more people can be heard. So I might have had a little bit of support...

KHALID: You know, but as much as we're talking about what has changed - specifically within democratic circles - you know, some elements of this power dynamic and gender dynamic hasn't entirely changed, right? I mean, we all covered the 2016 election, and there were many allegations against Donald Trump that came out publicly during that 2016 campaign. And frankly, it just didn't land with a lot of specifically Republican voters.

LIASSON: Oh, I think there's no doubt that sexual harassment is treated differently by Democrats and Republicans, but Democrats have really changed. There's no more tolerance for this in the Democratic Party. The Republican Party was very ambivalent. Some people after the "Access Hollywood" tape, you know, decided they couldn't support Donald Trump anymore. Other people stuck with him and said, gee, what about Bill Clinton?

KHALID: The thing is, he was actually running against Hillary Clinton.

LIASSON: He was running against both Clintons. And that's - and he succeeded in framing the election that way.

KURTZLEBEN: One final thing I would add to all of that is, as I understand it, again, I was a much less politically aware teen at the time of all of this. But there was a lot of fatigue around hearing about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair by the - by the time his impeachment happened and once it had happened, the nation just sort of got sick of hearing about the president's sex life. And one thing I was struck by after I put this interview up on the internet was the amount that my Twitter notifications were full of very angry people that I was even giving any oxygen to this. I know Twitter is not real life, et cetera, et cetera. But this is a story that you still bring it up, you still talk about it, and people go, why are we still talking about this? I - this is - either this is old news or Bill Clinton was clearly a creep, jerk, whatever - Monica Lewinsky, was clearly a - insert the slur here. People have an incredible amount of residual feelings about all of this and, in many cases, as I am hearing, do not want to hear about it anymore ever again.

KHALID: I will say what I've enjoyed about the show so far, though, is that a lot of the characters have ambiguity and nuance.


KHALID: And I think in remembering this story, there was no nuance. People were not, you know, complicated figures. And a lot of these women - there's nuance to them, and I appreciate that.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

KHALID: All right, well, let's leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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