The ugly, divisive partisan politics making headlines today may feel like something never before experienced, but one needs only to look back 20 years at the battle to impeach then-President Bill Clinton to realize that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
That’s one of the insights from the latest chapter in the Smithsonian Channel’s “Lost Tapes” series, “Clinton Impeachment,” which aims to have viewers feel like they are seeing events unfolding in real time. There is no narration and the story is propelled by news clips, photos and sometimes unearthed footage or audio relating to the subject at hand.
The bitter GOP effort to impeach the 42nd president of the United States was initiated in the House of Representatives in December 1998 after independent counsel Ken Starr submitted his lengthy investigation to the House Judiciary Committee. Clinton then faced trial in the Senate on two charges, perjury and obstruction of justice, but was subsequently acquitted.
We spoke by phone last week with executive producer Tom Jennings about lessons that can be learned from two decades of hindsight, how some of the major players involved are still making headlines today and how Monica Lewinsky may have been viewed differently during this #MeToo era. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
TVWeek: Looking back through the lens of 20 years of distance from this historic turn of events, what insights did you gain from immersing yourself in the story?
Tom Jennings: Every generation thinks it created political chaos unlike any ever seen before. If you go back 20 years and look at what was going on, it was complete chaos then. What was fascinating is that many of the same players involved then are still around today. I hate to be trite, but history repeats itself. The kind of outrage back and forth we’re experiencing now is not new — 20 years ago it was the same type of outrage. I had forgotten Bob Dole at one point said, “We need to stop liberal bias in media.” Does that sound familiar? A very strange thing early on we found is that as early as in 1991, Bill Clinton several times used the term “We’re going to make America great again.” It is such a hot button phrase now, but to hear someone on the polar opposite spectrum as our current president say the same thing almost distorts reality. When did that first get used? [President Ronald] Reagan was apparently the first, then Clinton, then Trump. When you start to apply hindsight, you can look at how much we’ve changed–or have we at all?
If the audience is unfamiliar with the story they’ll wonder what universe they stepped into. If you can recall that era and then apply today’s vision, you can ask if we have evolved. Everyone has a polarizing opinion today, but we forget how polarized we were back then. To see Matt Lauer, I was thunderstruck when he interviewed Donald Trump about his opinion. He said two things: what a shame it was that it happened, as otherwise Clinton would have been remembered as a great president. He goes on to say to Lauer, “Somebody said it, if he would’ve had an affair with a supermodel… but of course I would never say that.’ To hear him say that, and it’s almost like a game of political musical chairs. We kept finding more stuff. I wish I could draw a perfect parallel, but it’s like a mish-mash.
TVWeek: There are thousands upon thousands of hours over a period of years from which to cull material. How do you narrow it down?
Jennings: In the Lost Tapes series we go back and look at major events in recorded history, with the sounds or visuals creating a time machine so viewers can experience it almost as if living through it and flipping channels, with no break in the action. The Clinton impeachment story is so vast that you can’t just boil it down to Monica Lewinsky. It extends much further into the past, when he was the governor of Arkansas, and the whole thing gets kicked off by the Whitewater investigation into whether there were illegal doings going on in a land deal.
We picked about nine or ten tentpole moments, determining which parts of the story had to be told: the Senate vote, the House vote, the Starr investigation. We look at how Lewinsky and Clinton first met and how she got a job at the White House, told alongside the main moments about the economy, Newt Gingrich’s attacks on Clinton and Bob Dole running against him that were in the news.
We also had audiotapes from Taylor Branch, an author whom Clinton wanted to write a book about him. The two conducted private sessions but Clinton didn’t want them recorded so Branch took notes. And in order to keep the conversations fresh, on his drive home from the White House he would speak into a tape recorder. These recordings, which he donated to the University of North Carolina, added an extra layer of insight. And by the way, he never ended up writing a book.
TVWeek: Monica Lewinsky has been in the public eye a lot lately. What do you think about the rehabilitation of her image since 1998?
Jennings: At the time she was attacked by many people, especially those who were Clinton supporters. Her sexual life was exposed in ways most people could not stand, and she was tricked by Linda Tripp into talking on the phone about Clinton, conversations that Tripp recorded and turned over to Starr. It was remarkable to listen to those recordings, a 22-year-old giddy about her feelings about the president and having a laugh with Linda. When she realizes Whitewater is expanding into other doings, Linda Tripp starts mentioning to Monica she’s not going to perjure herself. You hear her going from naïveté to spinning out of control. She was pilloried by a lot of people who today may have stood by her. She basically bailed out, and moved to London for a time and tried to divorce herself from public life. In the last few years she’s become an anti-bullying advocate. It’s seemingly her way to exploit her notoriety and having her life taken apart– and suffering tremendous humiliation. I give her credit for making the effort to do something positive.
TVWeek: Viewers may be surprised to learn the depth of their relationship.
Jennings: We used the Starr report and the Linda Tripp tapes to illuminate that. People think it was one or two-time thing between them but they spoke on phone, he gave her gifts, and there was a connection that went on for quite some time. The Clinton staff, in the runup to the ’96 election, knew that the only thing you could get him on was his personal life. People already knew about Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, who said he exposed himself to her while he was governor of Arkansas, and she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit which launched the whole thing. Clinton’s staff, whether they knew the extent of what was going on with Lewinsky, realized that he was becoming very fond of her, and had her moved to the Pentagon.
Forensically taking it apart, how did she get so close to Clinton? She got a job on Leon Panetta’s staff when he was White House chief of staff. In ’94 the GOP had a big wave, and Gingrich took over. In ‘95 there was debate about tax cuts and Medicare—the same stuff as today–but back then they couldn’t agree and the government shut down in November ’95. The White House staff had several hundred employees, and 90% were told to stay home. The only way it could keep functioning was to use interns for day to day duties. When the staff vacated, Lewinsky was able to work directly with the president. The shutdown allowed that. That’s the kind of stuff that fascinates me. She wouldn’t have been in his office otherwise.
TVWeek: What do you hope audiences take away from viewing this episode of “The Lost Tapes?”
Jennings: By understanding what happened back then we might have a greater understanding of where we are now and move forward. There was no social media 20 years and because of it, our attention spans have gotten very myopic. Twenty years ago, something very crazy was going on and carried out by some of the same people around today. It’s about perspective, who we were then– and who we are now.
(“The Lost Tapes: Clinton Impeachment” airs on Smithsonian Channel Monday, October 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT.)