Monica Lewinsky on Slow Burn: thrilling hit podcast rips into scandal
After Watergate, podcast turns its attention to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair
White House scandal: Monica Lewinsky with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s
A young woman is waiting to have lunch with her friend in the food court of a shopping mall. Suddenly, a pair of FBI agents descend, telling her that she is in deep trouble, and ask her to come to a nearby hotel room.
Waiting in the room are two other men who tell the woman that the crimes she has committed are so serious they could land her with a 27-year jail sentence. But she can make things turn out much better for herself. All she has to do is take part in an undercover operation to catch the criminal they’re really after: the president of the United States.
The new season of Slow Burn begins with a set piece straight out of a political thriller. But anyone familiar with Leon Neyfakh’s podcast will know that this scenario, rather than being scripted by Tom Clancy or John Grisham, is drawn from real life. The series takes what its host, Slate magazine’s Neyfakh, describes as “major or all-consuming” historical events and turns them into a bingeable podcast.
This is very much live history. Many of the main figures in the scandal are still firmly in the public eye
“Our show tries to tap into what everyone already knows, and surprise them with things they don’t,” Neyfakh explains during a break from editing the series. “We want to provoke them to think about something in ways they haven’t thought of before and, most importantly, try to capture what it was like for people to live through events in real time.”
In Slow Burn’s first season, released last year, Watergate got that deep-dive treatment, with Neyfakh telling the story of the cover-up, scandal and constitutional crisis that followed through the eyes of the strange cast of characters involved – such as Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of a Richard Nixon acolyte, who was sedated and locked in a hotel room in the days after the initial break-in because she “knew too much”.
The podcast came at a time when people’s fascination with Watergate – and the parallels with the behaviour of the current occupant of the White House – was at its peak. Slow Burn became a word-of-mouth hit, appearing near the top of Apple’s podcast charts and receiving rave reviews.
Neyfakh and his team are looking to repeat the trick with a second season that tackles another seismic event in recent US political history. As you may have guessed, that woman in the mall was Monica Lewinsky, and the president under investigation was Bill Clinton.
Over the course of eight episodes, the series will dig into the events that led up to the impeachment hearings against Clinton in 1998 – the scandals and sordid whispers that hounded the future president early in his political career, his affair with Lewinsky, the investigation by independent counsel Ken Starr and, of course, Clinton’s famous utterance: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Key players have been interviewed and forgotten tales unearthed in an attempt to get to the heart of a story that still reverberates through US culture.
As Neyfakh puts it, this is very much “live history”. Many of the main figures in the scandal are still firmly in the public eye and Clinton’s conduct is still being argued about. Neyfakh points to a moment during the 2016 election campaign when Donald Trump invited women who had accused Clinton of inappropriate behaviour to a presidential debate.
“People are invested in Bill Clinton’s legacy – it’s more unsettled, more fluid. I think there’s a sense that it’s being reassessed right now.”
Of particular interest to Neyfakh are “ideas about sex and power and privacy and character that swirled around the Clinton saga”, and how those ideas have informed our views 20 years later.
At the time, little was made of the power dynamics between the 49-year-old man leading the free world and the 22-year-old intern working for him, and it was Lewinsky, not Clinton, whose reputation was thoroughly trashed – not only by certain quarters of the media but also those on the left.
A lot of younger people look back at the reactions of liberals, and feminists in particular, who didn’t necessarily have Lewinsky’s back, and they recoil
Slow Burn will be uncomfortable listening to some, and it’s hard not to surmise that the saga – which ended in Clinton being acquitted by the US Senate of charges of perjury and obstruction of justice – might have played out differently in our post-#MeToo era. Still, what the series does so well is to conjure up a sense of the climate that caused many people to respond in the way they did.
“A lot of younger people look back at the reactions of liberals, and feminists in particular, who didn’t necessarily have Lewinsky’s back, and they recoil,” Neyfakh says. “We don’t want to scold those people and say, ‘Gosh, you guys were so unenlightened back then.’ We want to understand why they had the reactions they had.”
Indeed, Neyfakh believes that Clinton’s conduct may have, in a roundabout way, played a role in the reckoning we have witnessed in the past 12 months. “I think some people feel a lot of residual guilt about how Lewinsky was treated. I wouldn’t be surprised if that guilt, that sense that, ‘We got this wrong 20 years ago’ partially fuelled the passion with which people responded to Weinstein and the #MeToo movement.” – Guardian