Weighty matters

Female friendship gone sour is rarely centre stage in political dramas on TV. Particularly when the drama concerned features President Bill Clinton. “Impeachment: American Crime Story” breaks that mould. It’s the third outing for this FX series which creates drama from recent political history and true crime cases – OJ Simpson and the killing of Gianni Versace featured in the first and second seasons.

“Impeachment” concentrates on the affair between President Bill Clinton and a 22-year-old unpaid White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. This relationship – along with a sexual harassment claim made by secretary Paula Jones against Clinton when he was the state governor of Arkansas – ignited the impeachment process against him in 1998/99.

What’s interesting about this series, however, is that it views much of the action from the perspective of Lewinsky and her “friend” and colleague, Linda Tripp (46). It’s this relationship – rather than the one between Lewinsky and Clinton, or even the Clinton marriage – that makes the show so compelling.

The early episodes are like the Slimfast Chronicles. There is a steady diet of conversation between the two about weight, how many pounds each has lost, how long Monica has laboured at the gym. Linda Tripp’s meals are often product-placement Weight Watchers fare or Slimfast drinks, followed by surreptitious fast food at her desk or micro-waved dinners on a tray in front of the TV at home. Food and its consequences weigh heavily on both women. This seemed to me utterly and depressingly true to life; the lives of Western women are constantly circumscribed by their relationship to the scales. And in this case, it’s also the scales of justice.

In “Impeachment” Lewinsky is played as both steely and wide-eyed by Beanie Feldstein. She is annoyingly self-absorbed, touchingly romantic as well as sexually frank. Linda Tripp (an almost unrecognisable prosthetically enhanced Sarah Paulson) is sourly strident, combative and self-aggrandising.

The pair met in the Pentagon having both worked in the White House. Tripp was a career civil servant who’d worked in the Bush administration before the Clintons took over. According to author Jeffrey Toobin whose non-fiction book, A Vast Conspiracy , inspired the “Impeachment” script, Tripp “represented one of the archetypes that the right wing most despised. She was a civil service lifer whose mastery of the arcana of job rights, seniority, pay levels and retirement bred in her a sense of entitlement that scarcely existed anyone in the private sector”.

A Republican by instinct, Tripp was appalled by the laxness of the Clinton administration and believed she could write a book exposing its shortcomings. But, in reality, she was fixated on Clinton’s sexual misadventures which she felt were damaging the reputation of the Oval Office. “She believed that history would remember her as a truth-teller and a whistleblower,” Roxanne Roberts wrote in The Washington Post.

Linda Tripp does not fit into our rather vaunted notion of a whistleblower. She was not a likeable personality, though Paulson in the series, manages to arouse sympathy for her because of her social awkwardness and her belligerent righteousness. Though driven by ideology, Tripp was not an altruistic actor. She had already engaged a literary agent and planned to write a tell-all book about her experiences as a White House aide, before she befriended Lewinsky. After Lewinsky confided that she was having an ongoing sexual relationship with the president, Tripp turned into an opportunist . (This book was never completed or sold.)

To that end she began secretly taping Lewinsky’s private phone calls to have documentary evidence of her claims that the president was engaged in an affair. “Tripp posed in these conversations as a sort of wise aunt – commiserating, consoling, concentrating, as she often said on ‘what’s best for you’,” Toobin wrote in A Vast Conspiracy. But she was also genuinely offended by the way Lewinsky was being treated – she had a daughter a few years younger than Monica – and saw how the White House, engaging in damage limitation about the affair, was treating Lewinsky as if she was a deranged stalker. While busily entrapping her vulnerable friend, Tripp also managed to impart some sage advice – it was she who persuaded Lewinsky to keep the famous blue dress for evidentiary purposes. However, in the end, to save her own skin, Tripp shopped Lewinsky to Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor steering the impeachment process.

Of course, the #MeToo movement has had an influence on how “Impeachment” has been framed. What is highlighted with hindsight is the imbalance of power in a relationship between the president of the US and a much younger subordinate. When she was brought in for questioning Lewinsky was intimidated and bullied by FBI officials. The prurience of the questioning into Lewinsky’s sexual history and the unseemly interest of lawyers and politicians (predominantly men) in the mechanics of the sex between her and Clinton was nothing short of salacious .

(The whiff – literally – of sex is hard to escape in this story. Jeffrey Toobin, author of A Vast Conspiracy, who was originally an adviser on the show – and was replaced, ironically, by Monica Lewinsky – was forced to step down when he became involved in his own sex scandal in October 2020. He engaged in masturbation in the middle of a Zoom session for The New Yorker.)

But where Lewinsky’s position departs from the #MeToo script is that she has always insisted that her relationship with Clinton was consensual. The late writer and essayist Joan Didion commentating on the impeachment noted that Lewinsky was “far from passive”.

Columnist Anne Harris writing recently in The Irish Times applauds Lewinsky’s stance: “Despite years of slut-shaming and fat-shaming, she chose what Didion once called, ‘that most uncomfortable of beds – the one she made herself’. She was an active participant in the affair and she took responsibility.”

If their weight obsessed both Lewinsky and Tripp during the impeachment crisis, the body image wars continued to affect them afterwards. Linda Tripp’s appearance was a constant target of media comment. After the publicity died down, Tripp confessed that she realised from her TV appearances how ugly she was . She finally lost that weight she’d always struggled with and had cosmetic facial surgery. Paula Jones, whose original harassment case, had kicked off the whole judicial process against Clinton, had her teeth fixed, her hair straightened and had a nose job – sponsored by right-wing supporters of her case – to make her more presentable on TV. Lewinsky, who was virtually unemployable, became the commercial face of a dieting company for a short period. Plus ca change.

Lewinsky worked as a co-producer on the “Impeachment” series. Reviewers have commented that the show predominantly reflects her point-of-view, but others more intimately associated with the action, disagree. Tripp’s daughter, Alison, in an interview with Vanity Fair, said it showed her mother in a more sympathetic light than the media of the late 1990s had.

Over 20 years on, Lewinsky has created a hard-won place for herself in the contemporary discourse speaking out about bullying and pubic shaming, a role for which she’s uniquely qualified. Tripp left her government job and retired to a life out of the spotlight She died in April 2020, before “Impeachment” went to air. The two of them hadn’t spoken since 1998.

Above: Sarah Paulson, left, as Linda Tripp and Beanie Feldstein playing Monica Lewinsky in ‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’  Photograph: Tina Thorpe/ FX