Tina Thorpe /FX
If you are old enough to remember the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, there’s a good chance that a lot of what you remember are the prurient details, as recounted in the Starr Report.
In writing Impeachment: American Crime Story, playwright and screenwriter Sarah Burgess pointedly chose not to focus on any of that. The series, which recently premiered on FX, tells the story of three women at the center of the scandal: Lewinsky; Linda Tripp, her friend who infamously taped their conversations; and Paula Jones, the Arkansas woman who sued Clinton for sexual harassment.
With those women as the focus of the story — and also with the added hindsight of the #MeToo movement (not to mention another president who had an array of sexual misconduct allegations against him) — the series’ portrayal of the scandal hits differently from how many Americans might remember it from the late 1990s.
I spoke to Burgess about the series: her decision not to focus on sex, what new details she uncovered in her research, and whether we can divorce our assessment of Clinton’s legacy from his personal life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Danielle Kurtzleben: What was your aim in writing this series?
Sarah Burgess: I can’t help but always lose myself in the characters and write in the character-first way. I guess the best way to say it is I got sucked into the idea of elevating Linda Tripp as this frustrated bureaucrat who’s invisible, and Monica Lewinsky, this extremely young woman who shows up in D.C. to be an intern at the White House, and Paula Jones, who, because of her class and gender, was sort of mocked and ignored.
To elevate them to the level of protagonist — even above the president and his wife — that was my aim.
How old were you when the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal was going on?
I’m in my late 30s, so I was a pre-teen when it happened.
I ask because I’m wondering, was there a lot that you found you had misremembered?
Oh my God, yeah.
I will say, at the time — and I’m curious if you had the same experience — I only remember a couple of things. I remember the explicit sexual descriptions in the Starr report being in my hometown paper, The Washington Post, and being shocked by that. So I remember sitting in my car to go to school and seeing that newspaper and being stunned.
And I remember Clinton’s August 1998 speech to the American people, when he admitted that the affair happened. That’s really all I recall.
Is that basically what you remember, or do you remember being a kid and taking in more of the story?
I was maybe 15 when all this was happening. And I remember — we got Newsweek, so that must be where I read it — reading the sexual details and thinking, “Oh my God, I should hide this from my parents”…not to hide the details from them, but to hide from them the fact that I was reading all of this graphic sexual stuff.
Me, too. Very similar experience. And that’s kind of the whole story right there in some ways — that we as kids had that experience. And for Monica Lewinsky to be the center of that experience, and for that to be a major part of [Clinton’s] legacy, that’s how we experience him. And that’s how we met Monica, was through this thing that was so shocking, we felt like we had to hide Newsweek or The Washington Post. I mean, it’s crazy, you know?
To answer your original question, there’s so much that shocked me. I didn’t know that Ann Coulter and George Conway were buddies, and she’s a Deadhead with a great sound system in her apartment, listening to Linda Tripp’s tapes there. There are these thirtysomething conservative lawyers in D.C. having the time of their lives, helping out with Paula Jones’s case.
Especially as a writer, I think getting into Linda Tripp’s point of view — I didn’t know that she in the early ’90s worked in the West Wing, this incredibly prestigious place. And then she had lost that position, and that she’d worked in the office of Vince Foster, and — I think taking seriously that loss of identity that one can experience when you lose your attachment to an incredibly prestigious institution, that was all new information to me, too, and suggested the character to me.
Was your aim to change how we remember the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal?
I don’t think I ever write intentionally to trigger a certain conclusion. The one thing I would say is that when it comes to Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, I wouldn’t have taken the job if I thought that I would at all contribute to the continued diminishment of them as people.
One of the robust debates among feminists at the time was whether Monica had participated in this enthusiastically and consensually and that was the end of the discussion, or whether the whole question of “consent” was muddied by a wildly unequal power dynamic, between a young intern and the Leader Of The Free World. How much did you wrestle with this question in writing this?
I would say two things about that.
First of all, Monica herself has actually spoken quite specifically about how she feels about this question, in 1999 — in her book and in her interview with Barbara Walters — and she had a take on it.
And then more recently, you know, a couple of years ago, she wrote this piece in Vanity Fair — this wonderful piece that talks about her own reappraisal of the power dynamic and how that affects the way she feels about this relationship, which she often was quite clear was a consensual relationship. So I will leave it to Monica to say, looking at it historically, what her take on it was.
As a writer, I have to be the point of view of Bill Clinton. I have to be the point of view of Monica Lewinsky when I’m writing.
And Monica Lewinsky at that time was — I was able to access some of that emotion. Most people have been in a situation where you’re falling for someone. Monica said at the time [that] she was in love, and so that is the place that I wrote from.
What’s so painful is this severe difference in the amount of power that they had impacted her life in all sorts of ways. You can’t just call the President of the United States; you can’t show up at his house. And it’s the nineties — you need to sit in your apartment and wait for him or his secretary to call you.
And so the way that it constrained her life and affected her life, I dramatized and I wrote, knowing that it reflected the imbalance of power.
I’ve been wrestling with how we think about Clinton’s legacy — or any politician’s legacy — once they’ve abused their power or, more specifically, been accused of sexual misconduct. Can we separate a politician’s political achievements from their personal behavior?
I think one thing that’s happened to me living in the point of view of Paula and Monica and Linda Tripp is, there’s this question about: should this man’s private life damn him? Should it erase everything he’s accomplished? What’s so hard about that is, Monica Lewinsky’s entire life was exploded because of this, so I don’t know how to feel about this question of, what is this powerful man entitled to?
In a democracy, what is the point of a head of state, if not to kind of be consumed by all of us and used up, you know? And then many, many years later, hundreds of years later, we can maybe have some clarity about who he was and what he did.
What I did with the show was elevate Linda Tripp, a frustrated bureaucrat, Monica, this young woman, and Paula Jones. I elevated them to have the same level of importance as the Clintons, and that means taking what happened to them just as seriously as whatever fallout a president might have.
I don’t really foreground as much a man’s entitlement to enjoy his achievements when he’s caused the pain that some of these men have caused. I understand the case of Bill Clinton is very complicated. I’ve written in his point of view. And so I understand how complicated he really is as a person.
I feel OK today, though, with these things landing on someone’s legacy. I do. I just do. I don’t know if I’m right or if that’s because I’ve been living in this point of view for three years. Maybe if you talk to me next year, I will have calmed down a little bit, but that’s how I feel.
Is there a parallel between Bill Clinton and his misconduct with Hollywood sexual misconduct scandals? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, with respect to Andrew Cuomo and his allegations — the question that was posed to President Biden at a press conference about whether Cuomo had done a good job as governor. That made me think of the conversation around artists like Woody Allen: can a person still watch Annie Hall, for example, and divorce it from the horrific allegations that have been made against him?
I’m curious about your take: How is how we look at entertainers’ misconduct different from how we look at politicians?
It’s a good question, because a politician doesn’t have a pleasurable object to consume.
So there’s always this question about Michael Jackson’s music or people who adore Annie Hall or whatever, as I did as a kid. What’s interesting about a president or a senator is, he kind of gets used up and then maybe he ends up on a coin if he’s lucky. And they can go on a speaking tour and do all kinds of things, or go kitesurfing with Richard Branson or do whatever — hang out with different shades of morally ambiguous billionaires.
So that is one difference, right? [It] can feel like a loss to our lives if there’s music or movies or books we can’t enjoy anymore, in a way that feels different from a president or a senator.
I know people who loved Clinton in the ’90s and now, if you’re a Democrat, you had Obama and now Biden, or [other] people you can hold onto as avatars for your values and your party, whereas people who love the album Thriller — there’s no Joe Biden for Thriller, you know? So that’s why I like that question. I actually don’t totally know the answer, but there’s something about pop culture and art that actually persists beyond that.
Tell me specifically about the portrayal of Monica here — a lot of what people remember in talking about all this was her showing her thong to the president, coming on to him. But in what I’ve seen of this, she is not doing a lot of the seducing. In fact, there’s almost no sex. Why portray it like that?
That thong is briefly in the show, but it’s so interesting: that is one of the only things my mother mentioned to me was remembering that detail, too. People really remembered it.
So basically, the story is that there was just a moment in the White House where Bill Clinton was walking by, and she — you could just see a bit of the skin of her back and a bit of her thong was showing above her pants.
It was covered and written in detail in the Starr report. I actually didn’t put it in the script, and Monica Lewinsky [an executive producer on the show] herself told me I had to put that scene in because she was like, “If you don’t put it in, they’re going to think I was bowdlerizing your script.”
But you’re also asking about, basically, why didn’t I write sex scenes? It’s because [of] what you and I talked about at the beginning, that was the headline at the time. The way the Starr report is written, it’s kind of [an] odd narrative [that] really locates you in these scenes that are incredibly graphic. I felt that was all of the story that has been told.
I always knew I was not going to be writing sex scenes that would just be doing the Starr report again. As you watch the entire season — and no one has seen this yet, you will see it — I get to the ways that the graphic sex enters the story, but I was never interested in sort of doing the Starr report again.
And honestly, it’s not my taste as a writer. It was more about the relationship that led Monica to a certain emotional place. Not that sex is never part of that, but that sex is the only part of it people knew in the ’90s and often believed it was just about that.
I see. So you’re saying the first version was by men, in the service of bringing down a powerful man. And in this version, you were trying to do your own — by a woman, about the women around that powerful man.
I like that, yeah. I was in competition with Ken Starr.