‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’: Hillary Clinton explained
The following contains spoilers from Episode 8 of “Impeachment: American Crime Story.” Read our full coverage of the series here.
“Impeachment” has finally delved into the Hillary of it all.
Episode 8 of the FX series focuses on a woman who played a central role in the impeachment saga — and Bill Clinton’s life — but has until now been a spectral presence in the series: Hillary Clinton. Perhaps you’ve heard of her?
Using two of her best-known media appearances — a 1992 sit-down on “60 Minutes” that helped save Bill from political oblivion in the New Hampshire primary and a 1998 interview on “Today” that reframed the conversation around the Monica Lewinsky scandal — “Stand by Your Man” explores Hillary’s complicated role as the devoted wife and steadfast political ally of a man repeatedly unfaithful to her.
Written by Flora Birnbaum, the episode opens during the Democratic primaries in 1992, when Bill Clinton’s insurgent quest for the presidential nomination was nearly tanked by allegations he’d had a 12-year affair with a former Arkansas state employee and singer named Gennifer Flowers. Clinton, who needed a first- or second-place finish in New Hampshire to keep his campaign afloat, was in trouble.
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That is, until Hillary came to his rescue on “60 Minutes.” In an interview that aired after the Super Bowl and was seen by an estimated 50 million viewers, Hillary came to her husband’s defense, shooting down rumors of an affair and denying that their marriage was a politically convenient arrangement.
″I’m not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,″ she said. “I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then, heck, don’t vote for him.”
Clinton finished in a strong second place, earning him the nickname the Comeback Kid because of his seemingly superhuman political resilience. “It was really Hillary that saved him,” Clinton’s onetime rival, Bob Kerrey, later told the New York Times. (For his part, Bill would eventually admit in a 1998 deposition that he did have sex with Flowers, though he denied an ongoing affair.)
Hillary, meanwhile, had fallen into a role that would become familiar: culture war flashpoint. While her husband was surging in the polls, Hillary was caught up in a public feud with Wynette, portrayed as an elitist career woman who didn’t understand more traditional wives — a perception that was strengthened a few weeks later when Hillary committed another infamous gaffe, saying she “could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” instead of working as a lawyer.
“Mrs. Clinton, you have offended every woman and man who love that song — several million in number,” the singer wrote in an open letter demanding an apology. “I would like you to appear with me on any forum, including networks, cable or talk shows and stand toe to toe with me. I can assure you, in spite of your education, you will find me to be just as bright as yourself.”
Hillary apologized to Wynette — repeatedly — but the interview solidified her polarizing place in American life. Everyone had opinions on her, even Richard Nixon, who told the New York Times, “If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp.”
The “60 Minutes” interview was typical of the impossible high-wire act Hillary would have to perform throughout her tenure as first lady: She needed to be supportive without seeming like a pushover, strong without being too assertive. The interview also established a pattern that would define much of her political life, salvaging her husband’s image at the cost of her own reputation.
“It’s probably one of the great political missed opportunities of all time,” Richard Mintz, Hillary’s staff director during the campaign, told Politico in an excellent deep dive into the fateful “60 Minutes” interview.
Hillary believed her husband (again) when he denied an affair with Monica Lewinsky and defended him on TV (again).
As Clinton recounted in her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” and the 2020 docuseries “Hillary,” the president woke her early Jan. 21, 1998, sat on the edge of the bed and warned her about the just-published stories that he had been having an affair with a former White House intern. He adamantly denied the reports and suggested that perhaps his attention to Lewinsky had been misinterpreted.
Clinton accepted her husband’s explanation, which he also offered in private to friends and aides. “For me the Lewinsky imbroglio seemed like just another vicious scandal manufactured by political opponents,” she wrote in “Living Memory.”
In the days that followed the Lewinsky revelations, the president’s legal team and political aides fought about how to respond. “The first lady was a a leading advocate of an aggressive strategy attacking Starr,” reported the Washington Post, in reference to Kenneth W. Starr, whose four-year independent counsel investigation led to the House impeachment of President Clinton in 1998.
First, Bill Clinton used a routine White House event about education to deny the affair — the infamous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” moment depicted in Episode 7, “The Assassination of Monica Lewinsky.”
A few days later, the first lady sat for an interview with Matt Lauer — oh, the irony — on NBC’s “Today” show, forcefully denying that her husband had an inappropriate affair and arguing that he was the victim of a politically motivated attack by his opponents.
“The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president,” she told the host. (Clinton also conceded that if the allegations were proved true, “that would be a very serious offense.”)
“I believed it was part of the whole Starr investigation. I was absolutely persuaded because of my own experience… that this guy would make up stuff,” Clinton said in “Hillary.” In the Hulu docuseries, Nancy Gertner, a classmate from Yale Law School, said she and most of their friends believed Bill Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky because “it just didn’t seem far from the person that we knew.” But Hillary was in denial at the time: “It would be like a mask would come over her in those days,” Gertner said.
Though Hillary Clinton instantly made the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy” famous, the concept originated in a comprehensive memo written by political consultants Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani outlining the ways in which conservative media outlets had helped spread dubious theories about the death of Vince Foster and the Whitewater scandal. In her memoir, Clinton wrote, “I might have phrased my point more artfully,” but she stood by her characterization of Starr’s investigation despite the truth about the affair with Lewinsky.
Back in 1998, Hillary’s “Today” interview was seen as an effective counterattack that helped clearly establish talking points for his political allies.
But Bill came clean — at the last minute
Eventually, Hillary learned the truth. On Aug. 15, 1998, two days before he was due to testify before a grand jury, Bill Clinton once again woke his wife up and shared some bad news, telling her for the first time that the situation was more serious than he had previously acknowledged.
“I could hardly breathe,” Hillary recalled in “Living History.” “Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him, ‘What do you mean? What are you saying? Why did you lie to me?’”
The revelation left her “dumbfounded, heartbroken and outraged that I’d believed him at all,” she wrote, admitting that she “wanted to wring his neck.” Hillary also told Bill that he would have to confess to their daughter, Chelsea, before the news became public.
Days later, the first family headed to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., for summer vacation. On their way to Marine One, Chelsea walked between her parents and grasped their hands in a show of support. But the weeks that followed were frosty, with Hillary rarely speaking to her husband. Their dog Buddy joined them on vacation and “was the only member of our family who was still willing” to spend time with the president, Clinton wrote in her memoir.
Clinton defended her husband throughout the impeachment process, ultimately deciding that his behavior did not warrant removal from office. When it came to their marriage, the answer was less clear.
“I still had to decide whether I wanted to stay in the marriage, whether I thought it was worth saving. We saw a counselor, had painful, painful discussions,” she said in “Hillary.”
Ironically, the public humiliation was good for Hillary’s image. Opinion polls indicated that the American public approved of her conduct throughout the scandal. At a time when her husband was toxic, she served as a valuable surrogate in the 1998 midterms, which resulted in gains for the Democrats — a rarity for the party in the White House.
The ordeal also seems to have inspired Hillary to run for office herself, something she’d denied any interest in — partly because she was more interested in policy than campaigning, according to Carl Bernstein’s biography, “A Woman in Charge.”
On the day the Senate voted to acquit President Clinton in his impeachment trial, Hillary was in a study near her office looking at maps of New York state and plotting her campaign. “There was something particularly defiant about choosing this moment to begin her decision-making in earnest,” Bernstein wrote, but she was determined “to redeem some of the promise of their journey” to the White House.
“She told me afterwards, that was the first time in 53 years that I spoke with my own voice as my own political person,” said Gail Sheehy, author of “Hillary’s Choice,” in a PBS “Frontline” special about the 2016 election.
As we all know now, that historic presidential campaign was dogged by her husband’s decades-old indiscretions. Many have argued that it was Hillary Clinton, not Bill, who paid the price for these missteps, which have been weaponized against her — never more vividly than when Donald Trump invited Bill Clinton’s accusers to an October 2016 debate to deflect attention from the “Access Hollywood” tape. Clinton’s decision to stay in her marriage “haunts her in a way that she can never get out from under,” said Jennifer Palmieri, communications director on the 2016 campaign, in “Hillary.”
In an interview with The Times last year, Clinton reflected on this chapter in her life. “The whole impeachment saga and the terrible pain in our family and all of that was difficult, as it always is, even to think about,” she said. “Feeling very positive about the decisions that I’ve made in my life, even the most difficult ones, doesn’t make it any easier … I’m glad to be out on the other side of it all these years later.”