‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’ reexamines the Bill Clinton sex scandal through the eyes of its women
Annaleigh Ashford was 13 when former President Bill Clinton was impeached. The actress’ introduction to — and most of her education about — the sex scandal was through late-night comedy shows.
“The comedy scene was just horrifically brutal to the women involved in this story, and unfortunately, really the only narrative that I took away was the male-dominated lens of this story,” the 36-year-old actress told the Daily News.
More than two decades later, Ashford sees “Impeachment” as a chance to rewrite that narrative.
The series, premiering Tuesday on FX and the third in Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story” franchise — following “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” — resets the focus on the women in the scandal: Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), Paula Jones (Ashford) and, in later episodes, Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco).
The political sex scandal involving Clinton, 49, and White House intern Lewinsky, 22, ended with the president’s January 1998 televised declaration that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”
The story bounces around the ‘90s, from Tripp turning her secret recordings over to federal prosecutors, to the Whitewater loan scandal, to Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit, when she accused the then-Arkansas governor of propositioning her and exposing himself in a hotel room in Little Rock. Clinton settled with Jones for $850,000 in 1998. But her allegations served as the ground floor of the Ken Starr probe and later Senate impeachment vote that came close to ending his presidency.
Clinton (Clive Owen) is an afterthought.
“It’s an act of social justice in the way that it makes us reevaluate a moment in history and how we could have been better as a culture and a society,” Ashford told The News. “This specific impeachment is actually sort of the catalyst for where we are today; it was the seed that planted the tree of political tribalism and ‘my team, your team.’”
In “Impeachment,” we see the tribes at work: Susan Carpenter-McMillan (Judith Light), who became a national celebrity as a victims advocate on the back of Jones’ headlines; Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) and George Conway (George Salazar), Republican players with their targets set at taking down a president; Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) sees the scandal as a chance to make a name for himself.
At times, it almost feels like a game to see how many names writer Sarah Burgess can sneak into the script, including when a fictionalized Jake Tapper hits on Monica at a D.C. bar.
But it’s all real.
“I think that so many of the key players we see in this story, the fact that they are still operating on a public level is really indicative, again, of that theme that ‘American Crime Story’ really taps on: the story that we’re trying to focus on what was a catalyst to what we see happening in culture and politics today,” Ashford told The News.
Ashford called Paula a “political tool,” a “victim of not only the times but a victim of being a woman in a relationship she had no power in.”
“Impeachment” gives the women back their power.
Lewinsky serves as a producer on the series; Murphy has publicly called it a requirement of making the show. Ashford referred to her repeatedly as “the first person to be bullied on the internet,” and it hasn’t stopped on Twitter.
“[Monica] didn’t have a voice and Paula Jones didn’t have a voice, Linda Tripp didn’t have a voice. We don’t know their perspective and their story. It was, at the time, told through the male lens,” Ashford told The News.
“I hope [‘Impeachment’] makes people question themselves and question how they were complicit in the destruction of these women who had no voice.”