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Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton’s Meetings on Impeachment: American Crime Story vs. Real Life

A look back at what Lewinsky, Clinton, and the Starr report said about the meetings depicted in the second episode of Impeachment, “The President Kissed Me.”

In normal circumstances, a White House intern wouldn’t interact with the President of the United States. But in 1995, during a government shutdown that shrunk the White House staff of 430 to about 90, Monica Lewinsky was one of the unpaid interns stationed in the West Wing to fill in temporary employment gaps. Tuesday’s episode of Impeachment: American Crime Story, “The President Kissed Me,” flashes back to those fateful first meetings between Lewinsky (portrayed by Beanie Feldstein) and Clinton (Clive Owen). But just how closely did those scenes, scripted by executive producer Sarah Burgess, mirror the real-life events?

Incredibly closely, it turns out—thanks in part to Lewinsky’s participation in the series as executive producer, reams of grand-jury testimonies, and the salivatingly detailed Starr report. In 1998, after the controversial report was released, Vanity Fair deemed it “a voluminous work of demented pornography, with many fascinating characters and several largely hidden story lines.” Future Impeachment episodes will likely shift focus to Kenneth Starr’s investigation and Starr himself—whom Lewinsky called “the man who had turned my 24-year-old life into a living hell in his effort to investigate and prosecute President Bill Clinton on charges that would eventually include obstruction of justice and lying under oath.”

For now though, let’s dive into the Impeachment ouroboros and compare notes.

Their First Conversations

In Lewinsky’s authorized biography Monica’s Story, biographer Andrew Morton writes that Lewinsky and Clinton noticed each other the day that Lewinsky was relocated to the White House—specifically November 15, 1995. When Lewinsky spotted Clinton walking past the door to the Chief of Staff’s office, per Morton, “She mouthed ‘Hi,’ and he smiled back a ‘Hi.’” The intern was surprised, later that day, when Clinton joined an impromptu office party to celebrate the woman who had helped Lewinsky land her job. At the event, the president “spent a good deal of the time smiling and looking at Monica.” More, from Monica’s Story:

After a while, the President went into the Chief of Staff’s inner office. Seeing this…Monica, who was wearing a smart navy-blue pantsuit, decided to raise the stakes in their flirting ritual. She was standing with her back to the office door, and when he returned she put her hands on her hips and with her thumbs lifted the back of her jacket, allowing him a fleeting glimpse of her thong underwear…. It was over in an instant, although she was rewarded with an appreciative look as the President walked past.

The Starr report describes what happened after the thong reveal—Clinton and Lewinsky’s first kiss and sexual interaction—the same day.

En route to the restroom at about 8 p.m., she passed George Stephanopoulos’s office. The President was inside alone, and he beckoned her to enter. She told him that she had a crush on him. He laughed, then asked if she would like to see his private office. Through a connecting door in Mr. Stephanopoulos’s office, they went through the President’s private dining room toward the study off the Oval Office. Ms. Lewinsky testified: “We talked briefly and sort of acknowledged that there had been a chemistry that was there before and that we were both attracted to each other and then he asked me if he could kiss me.” Ms. Lewinsky said yes. In the windowless hallway adjacent to the study, they kissed. Before returning to her desk, Ms. Lewinsky wrote down her name and telephone number for the President.

At about 10 p.m., in Ms. Lewinsky’s recollection, she was alone in the Chief of Staff’s office and the President approached. He invited her to rendezvous again in Mr. Stephanopoulos’s office in a few minutes, and she agreed.… They met in Mr. Stephanopoulos’s office and went again to the area of the private study. This time the lights in the study were off.

(The following intimate moments are luridly accounted for in the Starr report—a federal government report and not a hard-core romance novel, we labor to remind you—but not here.)

Both before and after their sexual contact during that encounter, Ms. Lewinsky and the President talked. At one point during the conversation, the President tugged on the pink intern pass hanging from her neck and said that it might be a problem.

Clinton’s Recollections

Compared to the Starr report, Clinton’s recap of the relationship was hilariously succinct. In his 2004 memoir My Life, the former president wrote:

During the government shutdown in late 1995, when very few people were allowed to come to work in the White House and those who were there were working late, I’d had an inappropriate encounter with Monica Lewinsky and would do so again on other occasions between November and April, when she left the White House for the Pentagon. For the next ten months, I didn’t see her, although we talked on the phone from time to time.

In February 1997, Monica was among the guests at an evening taping of my weekly radio address, after which I met with her alone again for about fifteen minutes. I was disgusted with myself for doing it, and in the spring, when I saw her again, I told her that it was wrong for me, wrong for my family, and wrong for her, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I also told her that she was an intelligent, interesting person who could have a good life, and that if she wanted me to, I would try to be her friend and help her.

That Secret Room

When Lewinsky and Clinton met for more than conversations, they did so in a quiet study off the Oval Office—never the revered White House room—a point that Lewinsky made clear during her 1998 testimony to Starr’s grand jury.

“I wouldn’t have done that,” said Lewinsky, after being asked in one of many bizarre lines of questioning. “I mean, so I’m sure he wouldn’t have done that,” said Lewinsky. “There are windows all around and it just…wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“We’d start in the back [in or near the private study] and we’d talk and that was where we were physically intimate,” testified Lewinsky.

The Starr report, meanwhile, describes the logistics of the secret-room rendezvous in salivating detail—humiliatingly extracted from a 24-year-old woman during a public forum with seemingly no care for her humiliation or collateral suffering:

According to Ms. Lewinsky, she and the President had ten sexual encounters, eight while she worked at the White House and two thereafter. The sexual encounters generally occurred in or near the private study off the Oval Office—most often in the windowless hallway outside the study. During many of their sexual encounters, the President stood leaning against the doorway of the bathroom across from the study, which, he told Ms. Lewinsky, eased his sore back…. The President ordinarily kept the door between the private hallway and the Oval Office several inches ajar during their encounters, both so that he could hear if anyone approached and so that anyone who did approach would be less likely to suspect impropriety…. During their sexual encounters, Ms. Lewinsky testified, “[W]e were both aware of the volume and sometimes…I bit my hand—so that I wouldn’t make any noise.” On one occasion, according to Ms. Lewinsky, the President put his hand over her mouth during a sexual encounter to keep her quiet. Concerned that they might be interrupted abruptly, according to Ms. Lewinsky, the two of them never fully undressed.

Avoiding Detection in the White House

Lewinsky also acknowledged, during her 1998 testimony to the Kenneth Starr grand jury, how tricky it was to choreograph meetings with the president. She spoke about using Clinton’s personal secretary Betty Currie as a cover for seeing the president.

“I couldn’t come to see him after the election unless Betty was there to clear me in,” Lewinsky said, revealing that she had asked the president why this was the case. “He said because if someone comes to see him, there’s a list circulated among the staff members and then everyone would be questioning why I was there to see him.”

Lewinsky said that several White House staffers became aware of her increased presence near the Oval Office.

“I did make an effort, I think, to try to have interactions with the president and I think that was probably disturbing to them. I know that if the president was in the hall and he was talking to people and I passed by, he’d stop talking and say hi to me. I’m not really sure,” said Lewinsky in her grand jury testimony.

On one occasion, according to Lewinsky, Clinton’s White House Deputy Chief of Staff Evelyn Lieberman stopped the intern outside the Oval Office. She said, “You’re always trafficking up this area…. You’re not supposed to be here. Interns aren’t allowed to go past the Oval Office.” Lewinsky said she retreated to the bathroom to cry—“when an older woman sort of chastises you like that, it’s upsetting”—before coming up with other strategies.

“I preferred to sort of meet up with him and then we’d walk in together,” explained Lewinsky. “And I preferred to go in through the Rose Garden because then I wasn’t going, I wasn’t risking the possibility of running into someone in the hall right outside the Oval Office.”

Lewinsky said that, after her first two sexual encounters with the president in November 1995, Clinton suggested that meeting up during weekends might be safer. “So he would call and we would arrange either to bump into each other in the hall or I would bring papers to the office.”

Per the Starr report:

According to Ms. Lewinsky, the President was concerned that the two of them might be spotted through a White House window. When they were in the study together in the evenings, he sometimes turned out the light. Once, when she spotted a gardener outside the study window, they left the room. Ms. Lewinsky testified that, on December 28, 1997, “when I was getting my Christmas kiss” in the doorway to the study, the President was “looking out the window with his eyes wide open while he was kissing me and then I got mad because it wasn’t very romantic.” He responded, “Well, I was just looking to see to make sure no one was out there.”

Phone Conversations

Lewinsky testified that she spoke to the president on the phone approximately 50 times, often after 10 p.m. and sometimes past midnight.

“The President placed the calls himself or, during working hours, had his secretary, Betty Currie, do so; Ms. Lewinsky could not telephone him directly, though she sometimes reached him through Ms. Currie,” determined the Starr report. Lewinsky said that their phone conversations spanned every subject “under the sun”—“just how we were doing. A lot of discussions about my job.”

Less romantic observations about the conversations from the Starr report:

On 10 to 15 occasions, she and the President had phone sex. After phone sex late one night, the President fell asleep mid-conversation. On four occasions, the President left very brief messages on Ms. Lewinsky’s answering machine, though he told her that he did not like doing so because (in her recollection) he “felt it was a little unsafe.” She saved his messages and played the tapes for several confidants, who said they believed that the voice was the President.

During one of Linda Tripp’s recorded conversations with Lewinsky, according to the Hartford Courant, “Lewinsky said that Clinton went to a Pentagon memorial service one day, and that night telephoned her for phone sex.”

Looking Back Now

In last year’s four-part Hulu docuseries Hillary, centering on his wife, Clinton reflected on his affair with Lewinsky—calling it a means to “to manage my anxieties.”

“It was awful what I did,” said Clinton. “We all bring our baggage to life and sometimes we do things we shouldn’t do…you feel like you’re staggering around—you’ve been in a 15-round prizefight that was extended to 30 rounds, and here’s something that’ll take your mind off it for a while. Everybody’s life has pressures and disappointments and terrors, fears of whatever, things I did to manage my anxieties for years.”

Six years earlier, Lewinsky decided to speak up about the affair in an essay for Vanity Fair.

“I am determined to have a different ending to my story,” Lewinsky wrote in the first of several essays for the magazine. “I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.”

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