Did Linda Tripp really approach Monica Lewinsky in the food court of Pentagon City Mall with two FBI agents in tow? Why was Tripp, a former White House aide, moved to the Pentagon in the first place? And what’s with the Joneses (as in Paula Jones and her first husband, Steve) and the hit TV show “Designing Women”?
These were some of the questions we had after watching the first episode of “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” Ryan Murphy’s take on one of the biggest (and most inside-the-Beltway) political scandals of our time. The series recounts the events that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998, including his affair with Lewinsky (played by Beanie Feldstein). Murphy’s frequent collaborator Sarah Paulson takes on the role of Linda Tripp, the whistleblower who surreptitiously recorded Lewinsky detailing her relationship with Clinton and alerted independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr of the president’s relationship with the former White House intern.
Like “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the first installment in the “American Crime Story” anthology, “Impeachment” attempts to reckon with an event that had widespread implications for the American public — in a way that serves both people who remember said event well and those who are too young to remember the details. For the universally lauded “People v. O.J,” that meant exploring the fraught racial dynamics of the ’90s and the sexism that permeated the public’s view of beleaguered prosecutor Marcia Clark.
In her review, Washington Post TV critic Inkoo Kang said the series left its most interesting dynamic — the friendship between Lewinsky, who is a producer on the project, and Tripp, who died last year — largely unexplored. “The willingness of older women to exploit younger counterparts via their sexual histories is a fascinating dynamic — and one relatively unexplored in pop culture,” Kang wrote. “But like most things in ‘Impeachment,’ the framework, once introduced, fails to deepen.”
So how does the series stack up when it comes to historical accuracy? Let’s take a look through the archives.
Did the FBI sting actually begin in the food court of Pentagon City?
Much of the first episode takes place in 1993, but “Impeachment” foreshadows the 1998 FBI sting that resulted in Lewinsky being interviewed for some 11 hours at the Ritz-Carlton attached to the Arlington shopping mall. As “Impeachment” tells it, Lewinsky was lured unsuspectingly to the location, where Tripp arrived with two agents. Some news reports from the era placed their initial meeting at the hotel, but according to Lewinsky’s August 1998 grand jury testimony, the women planned to meet at the food court.
The “Impeachment” scene includes several details from Lewinsky’s testimony: She recalled telling the agents she wouldn’t speak to them without her attorney present. “They told me that that was fine, but I should know I won’t be given as much information and won’t be able to help myself as much with my attorney there,” Lewinsky told a grand jury on Aug. 20, 1998. “So I agreed to go. I was so scared.”
In the scene, the FBI agents signal they want Linda to leave the hotel room so they can talk privately with Monica, who delivers a scathing rebuke Lewinsky referenced in the (authorized) Andrew Morten-penned biography, “Monica’s Story”: “Make her stay and watch. I want that treacherous b---- to see what she’s done to me.”
Did Paula Jones really try to get her husband a role on “Designing Women”? And how about that news conference?
Despite “Impeachment’s” mixed reviews, Annaleigh Ashford has received widespread praise for her role as Paula Jones, who appeared by first name only in a December 1993 article in American Spectator magazine that detailed Clinton’s “sexual exploits” before, and reportedly after, he was elected to the highest office in the country.
The article referenced a hotel room “encounter” with “Paula,” and quoted an unnamed Arkansas State trooper who said “Clinton asked him to approach the woman … tell her how attractive the governor thought she was, and take her to a room in the hotel where Clinton would be waiting.” According to the trooper, “Paula told him she was available to be Clinton’s regular girlfriend if he so desired.”
That magazine article prompted Jones to sue Clinton for sexual harassment for, she alleged, exposing himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room while on the campaign trail. In “Impeachment,” Paula and her husband (Taran Killam), an aspiring actor, meet with a lawyer to initiate the lawsuit and indicate that — in addition to an apology from Clinton — they want “a role on ‘Designing Women’ for Steve.’ ”
“We know that the Clintons are friends with the couple that makes that show,” Paula says, and that much is true. But did the Joneses actually request a role on the once-popular show about an interior-design firm, which had already ended its seven-season run by the time the American Spectator article ran in 1993? That’s unclear.
A 1994 Newsday column by gossip queen Liz Smith referenced another Clinton accuser, Gennifer Flowers, as saying “what Paula Jones is about is that she wanted a part on ‘Designing Women.’ ” Smith went on to write that Jones’s attorney “said what his client wants, and is really after, is a chance to meet Harry Thomason, the producer of ‘Designing Women’ and the current hit ‘Evening Shade.’ ” Thomason would go on to testify before a grand jury as part of Starr’s investigation. And Jones had her own brush with “Designing Women” in 2001 — when she married her second husband, Steven Mark McFadden, in Villa Marre, the historic Little Rock home featured in the series.
The “Impeachment” opener also depicts Jones’s 1994 news conference, announcing her $700,000 suit against the president. Ashford appears in a black-and-gold ensemble similar to the one Jones wore that day. The dialogue is pretty spot-on as Paula tells reporters the president “presented himself to me in a very unprofessional manner, and I would call it sexual harassment.”
It might not be verbatim; it’s unclear whether Jones asked her lawyer to define “fellatio” in response to a reporter’s question, as depicted in the FX series. But the unfriendly — and predominantly male — media pool highlights the sexism and scrutiny Jones faced after sharing her story.
Why was Tripp, a former White House aide, transferred to the Pentagon in 1994?
In “Impeachment,” Tripp’s abrupt transfer to the Pentagon following the suicide of her boss, Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, is the event that sets in motion the 1998 scandal: The Pentagon is where Tripp met and befriended Lewinsky. “Impeachment” depicts Linda angrily cornering a White House manager about her new assignment.
It’s unclear whether that confrontation actually happened. But news coverage alluded to tension between Tripp — who first worked in the George H.W. Bush administration — and the Clinton White House. A January 1998 Washington Post article headlined “Once-Trusted Aide at Heart of It All” detailed how Tripp had gone from a trusted civil servant who landed several classified appointments to being shipped off to the basement of the Pentagon.
“Tripp’s account of her White House work, detailed in a 1995 deposition she gave to Whitewater investigators, suggests that she had arrived with ambition but left dejected, with little work to do and the strong sense that she was being shown the door,” The Post reported. The article noted that Tripp had rankled the Clinton administration with emails “that mocked and criticized senior White House officials for how they had handled documents in Foster’s office after” he died. “In one message, Tripp referred to several White House lawyers as ‘the three stooges.’”
The first episode of “Impeachment” (titled “Exiles”) reminds us that Lewinsky was also transferred to the Pentagon from the White House. A Washington Post narrative constructed from Starr’s report to the House of Representatives suggests Lewinsky was “dismissed for hanging around the Oval Office too much.” The Starr Report noted that the liaison who found Lewinsky her new assignment — and who could receive up to 40 job referrals per day from the White House — reported that he had never been given “such an explanation for a transfer.”
How accurate is “Impeachment” so far?
Camp abounds, but overall the show’s writers — led by showrunner Sarah Burgess — stayed pretty true to real-life events, albeit largely through Lewinsky’s perspective. But we have a quibble: An early scene takes place in a dimly lit tea and coffee shop as a barista calls out for “Monica” to come get her grande nonfat latte. We’re pretty sure this annoying-but-necessary tradition did not start until after the turn of the century.