Monica Lewinsky: ‘I was on the precipice of the rabbit hole’
The Clinton Affair: Two decades later, we are reminded of the extraordinary power imbalance
It’s easy, in these delirious days of Russian election influence and hushed up pornstar payments, to become nostalgic for a better class of US presidential scandal. But anyone thumbing obsessively through updates on the Mueller Inquiry while hoping for the third impeachment of a US president, will not get far into The Clinton Affair (More 4, Sunday, 9pm) before remembering just how grubby the last one was.
“I was going to the White House, in the dark of night, to take a blood sample from the sitting president of the United States to compare with a semen stain on the dress of a 22-year-old,” recalls one participant, evenly weighting every pivot in his phrasing, as though still trying to avoid any unnecessary staining on his own clothes.
That may be even harder than it sounds, though. Because when the Whitewater controversy, a complicated property deal involving Bill and Hillary Clintons, led to the “Monica Lewinsky scandal”, a much more comprehensible and prurient business, everyone involved got covered in the mess.
This documentary, aired late last year on the US cable channel A&E, is notable for its fluent, chronological précis of the scandals and the high profiles of its participants. (The Clintons themselves, of course, do not take part.)
Above all, Lewinsky is given a voice, albeit one that still strains to sound mature. “Unbeknownst to me, I was on the precipice of the rabbit hole,” she tells the camera, a tangled way to describe how her crush on Clinton turned into a snog in a back office. More than 20 years on, though, it’s important to listen.
It’s worth remembering, as the documentary does, that Paula Jones, who accused Clinton of sexual harassment, was dismissed by the Washington Post, no less, as “another eruption of Mount Bimbo”. Supporters of Clinton could interpret the case against Clinton as a “vast right wing conspiracy” (to use Hillary’s words) because the Republican campaign against him was so hysterical and hypocritical.
(A clip of the repugnant Trump-ally, Roger Stone, decrying Clinton’s morals and trustworthiness, not long before he himself was exposed for recruiting sexual partners in a swingers magazine, is almost touching to watch.)
But to review the extraordinary imbalance of power between Clinton and Lewinsky now, or revisit the allegations of other women brushed aside so curtly at the time, is to see a powerful man escape deserved scrutiny for partisan reasons.
All of this has been covered in greater depth, with finer interpretation, and an ear more attuned to contemporary resonance in the recent podcast Slow Burn, however.
For students of narrative documentary, comparing the opening episodes of each show is instructive: the podcast starts with Lewinsky, betrayed and cornered, bullied by federal prosecutors to make a deal. The TV show begins with a museum-worthy exhibition of Clinton’s political accomplishments and the incensed conservative blowback.
Images here may be vivid, but a considered voice is much more evocative. Hurried and slick, just as it was at the time, the television treatment of Clinton again seems superficial.
Both investigations expose the decline of political discourse, though; slammed into entrenched, almost parodically opposed positions of blue and red, left and right, which the US has never reconciled since.
What does it say that, for all the knotty and lurid details left to uncover, it’s shocking to hear a victorious Clinton promise to “make America great again”? That project, like so many scandals, never seems to reach a satisfying conclusion.