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:
The Starr report describes what happened after the thong reveal—Clinton and Lewinsky’s first kiss and sexual interaction—the same day.
(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.)
Compared to the Starr report, Clinton’s recap of the relationship was hilariously succinct. In his 2004 memoir My Life, the former president wrote:
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:
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:
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:
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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