Let’s say you are the most powerful man in the world. You have been educated in elite institutions like Georgetown, Oxford, Yale. You have seen your meteoric rise in the world of politics. You have at your beck and call some of the brightest minds of your generation. You have every tool at your disposal to get what you want. What do you, then, when your presidency is at risk because you can’t keep it in your pants?
Why, go for the “bitches be crazy” defense, of course. No point in attempting a cleverer angle when Old Faithful will give you the outcome you want.
At least this is your thinking if you are Bill Clinton in Impeachment: American Crime Story. Coming on the heels of the season’s most triumphant effort, this week’s episode feels deflated—confusingly so. After all, it details the fall-out of Lewinsky’s FBI interrogation and the media frenzy surrounding her affair. It was an explosive moment in the Clinton presidency, and maybe the one aspect of this whole mess that most of us remember. (Unless you were a zygote then, in which case I curse you and your childlike wonder.)
And yet, this episode feels less like an intensification of the storyline and more of a flatlining. Part of it is that its energy is diffused in several threads of disparate degrees of importance—Isikoff’s drama at Newsweek simply doesn’t hold the same weight as Tripp becoming the Most Hated Woman in America.
But the biggest culprit is that we spend too much time in Bill Clinton’s head. Powerful men at the brink of a possible abyss can be a tremendous source of great storytelling. (Looking at you, Logan Roy). Regardless of what one may think of Clinton, the actual person, there is reason to believe Clinton, in Impeachment, could be a source of morbid fascination. First off, he is a mobile personification of the Uncanny Valley theory. Then, we have the politically motivated, inquisitorial persecution led by Starr to factor in. He is protective of his wife.
Nevertheless, the audience has spent the bulk of the season in the universes of Paula Jones, Linda Tripp, and Monica Lewinsky. With the latter, there has been a tremendous effort to endear her to us. This is the space we are invested in. So why distract us with Clinton breaking a sweat? ’Cause what we get isn’t a portrait of a complicated man in a political conspiracy. We get Bill Clinton, Your Worst Boyfriend From Your Twenties, weaponizing the “Bitches Be Crazy” defense wherever he goes.
“Bitches be crazy” like Paula Jones, who excuses herself from Clinton’s testimony in tears, after he empathically denies any part of her own testimony.
“Bitches be crazy” like Linda Tripp, who does have her own issues with an aggrandizing sense of self, sure. However, if it wasn’t for her tapes, Starr and his Altar Boys wouldn’t have any evidence to continue their own maniacal pursuit which was not, I repeat, was NOT to bring justice to the women Clinton may have wronged. She too is left to her own defenses, tossed to the side by the political ideology she so admired.
It is very difficult to pity Tripp, as much as Sarah Paulson has brought wit and compassion in her portrayal. But when she admits to her daughter why her classmates nicknamed her Gus—earlier in the season she tells Lewinsky she had no idea why they called her that—we are given a reason for her intense desire to become a hero. She has spent her life being ridiculed, often through cheap shots regarding her looks. John Goodman is nothing more than a continuation of this.
And “bitches be crazy” like Monica Lewinsky, who is described by Bill Clinton as troubled and fixated. She spends most of the episode trapped in her apartment, a bloodthirsty pack of journalists outside the door, watching the news. It doesn’t take much for the media to latch onto the worst, sexist tropes possible when reporting on the 24-year-old intern.
They consider fat camp to be an important and revelatory fact about her life. Her “broken home” is directly tied to her stalker tendencies and wild fantasies about her relationship with the president. Evidence for being the kind of “psycho ex” men fear? Her eighth-grade boyfriend and a high school acquaintance. Even the former teacher that sexually abused her gets his own press conference, where he plays the victim.
While the women are slut-shamed on late night, made fun of on Saturday Night Live, and generally treated like garbage by the public at large, the men in this story are indulging in their most psychopathic tendencies. Bill Clinton either lies or hides himself from the world. Bill Ginsburg continues to bellow and then makes the massive faux pas of going on news shows to defend Lewinsky, after he managed to secure immunity when he should have been laying low for the sake of his client. Starr decides to take the deal off the table in petty retaliation.
If you’re thinking this is too tired an angle, I can’t blame you. It’s tiring to even write about. However, it’s even more tiring that this is such a predictable pattern in real life, that there is no way the series could have really avoided it.
It’s a malaise that even tinges the reappearance of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been kept away from the screen for almost the entire season. For those who have been anxiously awaiting her return, this too is a bit of a letdown. There’s no real splash as she learns about the allegations and no real fire as she advises Clinton to make a statement during one of her events. But maybe that’s an accurate representation of HRC, who has been criticized for her cold and aloof demeanor.
“Bitches be crazy” like that too. And the worst aspects of the news media won’t ever let you forget it.
- A simple plea for the writers, though I know it’s be too late: better character introduction! The amount of Googling I must do to figure out who the new white men in the cast are. For those who also need a guide, this episode includes Patrick Fischler as Hillary Clinton confidante Sydney Blumenthal and Scott Michael Morgan as stressed-out press secretary Mike McCurry.
- Drudge breaking the news of Monica Lewinsky before Isikoff’s Newsweek article is considered one of the early examples of the internet as a news driver. We also get glimpses of the relentlessness of the 24-hour news cycle, whose own origin is wrapped up in the O.J. Simpson Trial—another aspect of 90s history dramatized in the series.
- It’s interesting to revisit the headlines that accompanied the articles in both The Washington Post and The Drudge Report—neither put the affair front and center. The Post’s headline highlights the lie as opposed to any sexual indiscretion and Drudge’s take frames Newsweek’s decision as if to imply they were somehow protecting Clinton. It’s difficult to conceive this would be the case today.
- On the other hand, Dick Morris’ polling that indicates the American public could forgive the sex but not the perjury is worthy of further examination.
- Monica Lewinsky has suffered worse indignities but news reporters blasting her work ID photo for the entire world is adding insult to injury.
- Fun fact: According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 78% of stalking victims are female and 87% of stalking perpetrators are male.