“The Clinton Affair,” A&E’s compelling new docuseries, delivers effectively on the double entendre suggested in its name: There’s the politics of the Clinton presidency and the women the storm swirled around. Or swirls around, to put it more accurately. That’s a helpful distinction.
The series, which aired in three parts last month, moves as smoothly through Clinton’s career as the man himself, and all without a narrator. Rather than relying on a disembodied voice, “The Clinton Affair” manages to muck through its remarkably dense subject matter by weaving together revealing new interviews with a familiar cast of characters.
The gang, as they say, is back together: Ken Starr, Paula Jones, Michael Isikoff, Lucianne Goldberg, Juanita Broaddrick, James Carville, David Brock, Kathleen Willey, David Kendall, Bob Bennett, Dick Morris, and other players in the Clinton drama all sat for conversations with A&E’s documentarians. Even Brett Kavanaugh makes appearances in resurfaced news clips (opposite Diane Sawyer at one point). Of course, the most important witness featured in “The Clinton Affair” is Monica Lewinsky herself.
The show can feel long at times, but that’s how many people felt about the Starr investigation. Although its pace slows here and there, the details warrant the dwelling, and its subject matter is a sex scandal after all, so it’s never long before things pick right back up. Interviews with key players are threaded together with old news footage and other clips, moving the action along in a logical direction.
“The Clinton Affair” reacquaints us with the former president’s savvy and corruption, the merciless slog of Starr’s investigation, the justifications of Democrats and their allies in the press (Jill Abramson has a poor showing in particular, although Isikoff and Peter Baker come across very well), the calculations of House Republicans, and the wild news cycles that captured it all every night, long before the rise of social media.
The show does not purposefully disentangle the women from the politics they were caught up in, but it’s hard to avoid seeing the two pieces separately. Lewinsky’s painful retellings of her worst moments are gut-wrenching— as are those of her parents— inviting a clear contrast between her story and all the legalese and politicking on the other side of it. (The documentarians’ dive into Broaddrick’s account, including her interview with Lisa Myers, is worth watching the entire series for on its own.)
The flashes between images of a fresh-faced twenty-something Lewinsky and the woman she’s grown into are arresting. It’s a growth Lewinsky acknowledges with humility, admitting freely to her own naiveté. She also acknowledges her role in the affair.
The younger Lewinsky is a sympathetic character, but hardly a blameless one. With two decades in the rearview mirror, she remembers her shameless flirtations, like the time she deliberately exposed her thong to Clinton, who then invited her into George Stephanopoulos’s office, and then into the “back office,” and then into the “back study,” where their relationship “became more intimate.”
That’s not to say the blame should be apportioned evenly. Lewinsky’s memories of the affair reflect terribly on Clinton, whose efforts at emotional manipulation continue to look even worse the more we learn about them.
There’s an odd effect to tacking two decades’ age onto these familiar faces. The series’ release was met with obvious parallels between the special counsel investigations of Starr and Robert Mueller. “The Clinton Affair” recalls a time of blue dresses and perjury traps and double-timing friends that would fit right into our political theater today.
Maybe that’s what’s interesting about seeing a more mature Lewinsky on our screens. In all the time she’s spent growing successfully from a mistake of incredible proportions, we’re still stuck with another partisan special counsel dispute, threats of impeachment, and the Clintons.