WASHINGTON DC, January 1998. A young woman sits in a cafe, waiting for her order. “Grande non-fat latte for Monica?” says a voice from behind the counter.
She comes forward, smiling, picks up the takeaway cup and gets on with her day. The server has no idea who she is. Why should he? This Monica is not yet infamous. This Monica is not at the centre of a scandal that could topple a President. This Monica is not the punchline to every dirty joke.
This Monica is just another customer, another woman in trainers and a raincoat on her way to the office. She is a nobody, but in a good way. Soon she will be somebody, but in a bad way.
The coffee episode is among the opening scenes of a new drama, Impeachment: American Crime Story, starting next Tuesday on BBC2.
Having delved previously into the OJ files and the murder of Gianni Versace, the new ten-part “true crime” series focuses on the affair between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, then a White House intern, and his later impeachment and acquittal. Lewinsky was 22 when the relationship began. Clinton was more than double her age.
Some may find it odd to see the tale of an affair alongside more obviously “true crime” stories as OJ.
Yet you could argue that the tale has everything required by the genre. Charges were brought, there were victims, and there is what every true crime story needs: an abiding sense of unfinished business, justice not yet done, things still unsaid.
The drama is of course a chance for Lewinsky herself to have her say. She is one of the producers. She has attempted similar comebacks in the past, notably with a Vanity Fair interview headlined “Shame and Survival”.
Here we are again. What makes Lewinsky think she will receive a fairer hearing now?
Or is this the ideal time for someone who was arguably #MeToo before there was a #MeToo to speak out?
Clinton-Lewinsky seems like so much ancient history now. There was not even much of an internet to speak of back then (although the story broke there first).
Still, clunky old newspapers and steam-driven television managed to get quite the fire going.
Every now and then the story will resurface, as in this new drama, or in a documentary (Hillary, now showing on Netflix). Recently, Clinton has been all over the media publicising her first novel, State of Terror.
My most recent literary encounter with Hillary Clinton, or an imagined version of her, came in reading Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s retelling of the Hill and Bill story.
This time, dear reader, she does not marry him. Learning early on that he is, as she would later describe him, “a hard dog to keep on the porch” the fictional Hillary chooses to go her own way in life.
It is a brilliant novel, one only matched for insight by Sittenfeld’s earlier work, American Wife. This tells the story of Alice, a former librarian who falls for charming but dim Charlie, a man destined to be president and one day join his pal in London in starting a disastrous war. Writers and their ideas; where do they get them?
Bill Clinton’s reputation will forever be tarnished by the scandal. His first response was to deny any relationship, only to be later forced to admit that there had been “inappropriate intimate physical contact”. Acquitted by the Senate, he left office thinking a whole new life as an elder statesman, a hipster version of Jimmy Carter, awaited.
He was wrong. In interviews to publicise his autobiography, My Life, he became peeved if he was asked about Lewinsky. (Tellingly, the first mention of her in a book that chunters on for almost 1000 pages is on page 773.) He has apologised, publicly, but landed himself in more trouble doing so, as when he told the Hillary documentary the affair was something to take his mind off the “pressures, disappointments, terrors, fears, or whatever” he felt in office. He also complained about leaving the White House $16 million in debt due to legal bills. His critics on social media, and there were many, accused him of trying to play the victim.
Lewinsky, publicising Impeachment last year, was asked if she felt Bill Clinton owed her an apology. “He should want to apologise in the same way I want to apologise any chance I get to people I have hurt,” she said. That list has included Hillary Clinton.
But what of Hillary? She has been criticised for sticking with her marriage, defending her husband, basically not kicking him to the kerb and going for the presidency alone. Her defenders ask why she should be held to account for something her husband did. Yet if she does not call out his behaviour, and there have been several allegations made down the years, how can she criticise the deeds and attitudes of others?
You may wonder if any of this still matters, save as a hook for a new television drama. Bill Clinton was hardly the first to stray from the White House porch. How would the Kennedys fare if their misdeeds were exposed today?
Yet it does matter, if only because the consequences are still playing out. If you lived through the original scandal you will remember how shocking it was. How tawdry. Something changed with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
Standards in public life dropped, and though it seemed as if they recovered with the passing of time, who is to say this was not the start of the rot that ended with Trump? That someone could be elected US President after being caught on tape boasting about where he liked to grab women showed how far the norm, and the mask, had been allowed to slip.
Lewinsky, now 48, has worked hard at reinventing herself. She has campaigned against bullying, supported #MeToo and, with this new drama series, is “reclaiming her narrative” to use the parlance. It took her till she was 44, she said, to “consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern”.
Monica, it would seem, is ready to be kind to herself. We can only hope others are ready to second that emotion.
Impeachment: American Crime Story, BBC2, 19 October, 9.15pm and on iPlayer