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Film & TV

Here Comes the FX Dramatization of Bill Clinton’s Impeachment

Former President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1999 (Mark Wilson/Reuters)

The first season of the American Crime Story docu-drama series on the FX network reenacted the O. J. Simpson murder trial. In addition to showcasing some great performances, the series offered some important reassessment of key players, i.e., way too many people judged Marcia Clark based upon her hairstyles. It also offered occasional bits of wicked social commentary, like when David Schwimmer, playing Robert Kardashian, tells his children, “we are Kardashians, and in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting, it’s hollow.” Little Kimmy probably didn’t resist the siren call of fame the way he hoped.

The second season focused on Andrew Cunanan’s assassination of Gianni Versace. Yesterday the FX network announced the third season will focus on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, with Monica Lewinsky on board to produce. They announced Sarah Paulson will be playing Linda Tripp; Beanie Feldstein will be playing Lewinsky; and Annaleigh Ashford will play Paula Jones.

Would they have made the same decision if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016?

We’ll see what the series brings; already some are grumbling there’s no way a major cable network would depict the Clintons in a negative light. We saw the same predictions when it was announced that a film was being made about Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. As I countered, “If you want to make a Ted Kennedy hagiography, you just ignore Chappaquiddick. Whether or not the director and creative team intend it, this movie will do a lot to tarnish — or in our eyes, correct — Kennedy’s reputation.” The film Chappaquiddick tore up Kennedy’s reputation six ways to Sunday.

I don’t think there’s a way to tell the story of Bill Clinton’s interactions with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky and make him out to be a hero or victim. For starters, I don’t think you’ll get a portrayal of him as a well-meaning but human man seduced by an obsessed harlot when the series is produced by Monica Lewinsky.

The series is almost certain to paint the GOP lawmakers calling for impeachment as hypocrites and crazed partisans, but that’s par for the course, and in some cases, it may be a fair criticism. Perhaps the most interesting question that the series could explore is what the legacy of Clinton’s scandal was. Clinton “got away with it,” other than a fine and losing his law license. How many other powerful men saw Clinton evade serious consequences and began seeing their employees as a potential harem? How much did Clinton shape the world that would eventually generate the #MeToo movement?

Hillary Clinton is not coming back to politics. Bill Clinton is 72 years old now (!). Few of today’s Democrats feel a strong instinct to defend either of them anymore. You wonder how many Democrats – how many Democratic women – who excused and defended Clinton’s behavior in the White House wonder if they were on the right side. Today’s young Democrats certainly feel less need to insist that the president having sex with an intern is nobody’s business but theirs.

As I noted a little while ago, sex between consenting adults is usually considered private, but less so when it occurs in the workplace. Most workplaces are wary at best about relationships between supervisors and underlings — too many opportunities for favoritism, retaliation, tension, and potential lawsuits. The Clinton–Lewinsky affair was consensual but not between equals. Monica Lewinsky was a 22-year-old unpaid intern; he ran the executive branch and was the head of the most powerful country in the world. (A lot of older adults look back at themselves at age 22 and can recall less-than-sterling judgment, particularly when it comes to sex.) Yes, she deserves a portion of the blame for eagerly having an affair with a married man. But Bill Clinton was a 49-year-old president. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect more from him and to place more of the blame for the affair, and subsequent perjury, on him.

Were former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and former congressman Anthony Weiner paying attention to how charm and partisan loyalties helped Clinton escape? Was former North Carolina senator John Edwards? Nevada senator John Ensign? Idaho senator Larry Craig? Louisiana senator David Vitter? Congressman Mark Foley? Presidential candidate Herman Cain? Missouri governor Eric Greitens?

There’s no shortage of rich dramatic material, with deep political and cultural ramifications in the story of Clinton’s behavior. We will see what FX and the creative team does with that material in September 2020.

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