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‘The Clinton Affair’ Is a Necessary, Maddening Documentary

By featuring the women affected by Clinton’s behavior—including Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathleen Willey—the six-part docuseries offers a tough postmortem on a national spectacle with long-lasting consequences

A&E/Ringer illustration

“The people were so outraged,” James Carville tells a cameraperson in The Clinton Affair, the new three-night A&E documentary series retracing the events leading up to Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment. Two decades later, Clinton’s former lead strategist can’t talk about the scandal without looking visibly chagrined; he throws the word “outraged” out as an insult.

While he may be the most staunch Clinton defender in the docuseries, Carville’s attitude toward the investigation into Clinton’s sex life—that it was an overblown nothing, a sick partisan pageant, properly discussed with an eye-roll when pressed, though preferably not at all—was common at the time. The president’s approval rating climbed during his impeachment, as though the public was so sick of hearing about how bad he was, it ended up liking him more. But despite Carville’s efforts, watching The Clinton Affair makes it difficult to see the events leading up to Clinton’s impeachment as anything other than genuinely, morally outrageous. It is a maddening documentary, but the queasy anger it provokes is earned. Sometimes “outraged” isn’t an insult. Sometimes it’s a rational response.

The story The Clinton Affair tells—the scandal that shook America so hard it made it nauseous—has already been told many times. But it’s been 20 years since the impeachment, which means content creators are contractually obligated to pump out anniversary content. The docuseries is not the only new look at the impeachment scandal; along with the excellent second season of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast and the third episode of Showtime’s Enemies, The Clinton Affair is part of a new wave of reappraisals about Clinton’s troubles. However well-trod the material is, and however much anyone who lived through the ’90s might like to avoid ever thinking about presidential ejaculate ever again, The Clinton Affair is a valuable, timely look backward. Its reexamination is powered by its extensive interviews with Monica Lewinsky, who walks viewers through the worst years of her life in meticulous, bracing detail. Lewinsky, who did not speak with either Slow Burn or Enemies, is The Clinton Affair’s moral anchor. She is honest and earnest, a buoyant personality revisiting the decisions that almost ruined her life. “I thought the only way to fix this was to kill myself, to jump out the window,” Lewinsky says, crying while talking about the pressure that investigators put on her to flip on Clinton. “I was mortified, I was afraid of what it was going to do to my family. I was still in love with Bill at the time. I felt really responsible.” The series outlines how relentlessly Lewinsky was mocked, her name itself a shorthand punch line for bimbo-dom, and how long it took her to figure out a path forward, all while the other person in her notorious dalliance continued to be president of the United States and then a respected statesman (and never talked to her again).

The Clinton Affair’s major strength is the way it places Lewinsky’s narrative within the context of stories from other women who now have their names and reputations forever linked to Clinton. Lewinsky and Clinton’s sexual encounters became part of the Ken Starr investigation because Lewinsky was subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit Paula Jones brought against the president for sexual harassment. However, Jones’s story was often treated as a lamentable sideshow instead of a testimony that should be considered seriously. The Clinton Affair does not make that error. It presents the firsthand stories of Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathleen Willey as integral to understanding what happened with Clinton and Lewinsky. While it acknowledges that these women have willingly aligned themselves with the Trump camp, it does not treat their political affiliations as disqualifying. With figures like Willey, whose promotion of hateful conspiracy theories about the Clintons have damaged her general credibility, The Clinton Affair nails a tricky balancing act in documenting her far right-wing beliefs but encouraging her to tell her story nonetheless, allowing for the possibility that someone who has nurtured an animating hatred for the Clintons over the years might also have a legitimate grievance with them. By including these women and their accounts in detail, allowing the women involved to speak about the lasting effects that their encounters with Clinton had on their lives, the severity of Clinton’s misbehavior is impossible to turn away from. (Slow Burn also deliberately pressed on the repercussions with a Broaddrick interview.) The wallop of hearing so many stories about Clinton’s sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to rape, all at once, is considerable. The documentary frames Clinton’s behavior toward Lewinsky as a trait rather than a mistake, part of a larger pattern.

In The Clinton Affair, Juanita Broaddrick describes how she decided to talk about being raped by Bill Clinton again only after Hillary Clinton tweeted about the necessity of sexual assault survivors speaking up—a reminder that complicity in dismissing accounts of sexual crimes when it’s politically convenient is an across-the-aisle issue. However one might feel about these women allying themselves with Trump, they have been telling the same stories for years, often to unsympathetic listeners. The Clinton Affair chips away at the idea, so popular among Democrats at the time, that outrage at Clinton was a regrettable by-product of the right wing seizing on a national puritanism. “We were the original ones who broke our silence,” Kathleen Willey says. “And we were absolutely hammered for it.”

The plight of Clinton’s accusers is not a vestigial struggle from a less enlightened era; despite the progress the #MeToo movement made in urging people to take reports of sexual misconduct in the workplace seriously, women who come forward today risk facing similarly harsh reception for their testimony. The series briefly notes that Brett Kavanaugh worked on the Clinton investigation, and Kavanaugh’s involvement provides a clear through line between the way that Clinton’s accusers were treated and the way women who step forward today are treated. The treatment that Paula Jones received by dismissive Democrats resembles, uncomfortably closely, right-wing scoffing at Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who testified this year that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were young. Congress’s decision to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice in light of Ford’s testimony reconfirmed how these stories are not de facto keys to unseat the powerful. The guardrails immuring powerful men from the consequences of their actions are still in place, and often supported by characterizations of women as nothing more than ideologically motivated harpies. At least 22 women have stated that Donald Trump sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted them, and the press secretary of the United States is still able to stand at her podium and call them all liars. Although Jones has allowed herself to be used as a prop by the current president, her treatment by the Clinton administration and the Clinton-friendly press is also a blueprint for current powerful abusers: mock, belittle, deny.

In March, Lewinsky wrote a column for Vanity Fair reflecting on her scandal within the context of the #MeToo movement. She believes that the recent surge in attention to sexual abuses of power is providing a “new lens” for viewing her experience. “Until recently (thank you, Harvey Weinstein), historians hadn’t really had the perspective to fully process and acknowledge that year of shame and spectacle,” she wrote. “And as a culture, we still haven’t properly examined it. Re-framed it. Integrated it. And transformed it.” The Clinton Affair is not going to transform anything. That project is far bigger than a documentary. But it is a proper examination, one that interrogates Clinton’s legacy by integrating stories about him that are often not given enough consideration.