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The Clinton Ghost Still Haunting the Democrats

As FX revisits the impeachment, it's worth remembering just how much it foreshadowed the politics of today.

Amid the possibility that we may be living through another real-life impeachment drama next year (if several activist congressional Democrats have their way), FX recently announced that it was reviving its previously shelved plans to adapt Jeffrey Toobin’s book on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, A Vast Conspiracy, for the next installment of American Crime Story. The season will be stolidly subtitled Impeachment.

While neither Donald Trump nor Bill Clinton have (as of the time of this writing) been directly implicated in any of the wrongdoing committed by and surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, the potential for “Both Sides” and “Whatabout-ism” has many liberals terrified that Monica’s miniseries will help re-elect Donald Trump. They’re worried it could dramatize Democratic double standards and Clinton’s problems with women.

“There is nothing that Trump would like more than to turn the homestretch of 2020 into a revisitation of the Clintons,” tweeted respected film historian Mark Harris (who is also the husband of iconic playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner). “Don’t do this!” My terrific film critic colleague April Wolfe added that she was sure this “will be interesting and good, but [I’m] also sure I won’t be able to handle it.” Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff added that she was “already exhausted” at the thought of covering ACS during the election.

And all that was just for openers. When I wrote my previous Monica articles, a lot of readers pointedly reminded me that it was Bill Clinton and Ken Starr (and columnists like Maureen Dowd) who actually held all the power, and that I shouldn’t center Monica as the figure d’scandale. But Lewinsky is a producer of A Vast Conspiracy, meaning she’ll have the power to shape the narrative from her own perspective. Yet instead of cheering “right on!” Feminist Twitter—particularly Black and Latina Twitter—was largely incensed at the idea of Monica indulging herself in her personal story, seeing it as Rich White Girl Privilege on steroids.

What all this furor demonstrates is just how relevant the larger story of Impeachment ’98 still is. It’s why, like a Shakespearean ghost, the Democratic Party just can’t quit the Clintons—even when it wants to.

In a sharp slap-back to the abstinence-only social conservatism of the ‘80s and ‘90s, once it was proven that Bill Clinton did in fact “have sex with That Woman, Miss Lewinsky,” the feminist journalist Nina Burleigh famously joked that she’d have had sex with him too to thank him for keeping “the theocracy off our backs.” Gloria Steinem wrote a New York Times editorial not only defending Clinton but coming all too close to shaming Monica. Then the late, great literary icon Toni Morrison dropped the atomic bomb. She christened Clinton the “First Black President” (this was a decade before Obama), and was quickly backed up by civil rights legend John Lewis, whose aged, Jim Crow survivor mother famously told her son to make sure they “leave my president alone!”

By the end of 1998, the volume among Democrats had been turned up to the point that an attack on Bill Clinton had practically become an attack on the black and feminist communities themselves, and support for impeachment was just this side of full-on white supremacy. Why? Did these racial and feminist icons really support the mass incarceration and war on drugs of Clinton-era compromises? Did they approve of workplace sex with barely legal female subordinates? Hardly. But that was no longer the point.

While rising New Right movement conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Dick Cheney were preparing to redefine domestic politics, the Walter Mondales, Michael Dukakises, Mario Cuomos, and Ann Richardses blithely went on politicking as if the Reagan Revolution had never really happened. My brilliant film critic colleague Titus Techera once joked, “They were zombies, Telly. They thought maybe the voters just sneezed really loudly three times in a row.” For them, it was still 1965 in 1984, with civil rights and the Great Society in full moral victory. To them, 1988 was just a TV rerun of 1974, when Vietnam and Watergate were ending, the ERA and Roe were hot off the griddle, and Maude was still in the TV top 10.

After 1994’s Republican Revolution and Bush v. Gore, progressives recast the Democrats’ persistent defeats in the cloak of morally righteous martyrdom. They were representing the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” standing on principle.

Forget about presidential DNA. The real CSI autopsy that undergirds American Crime Story: Impeachment is that no one besides George Soros, Warren Buffett, and Donald Trump has ever mounted as audacious a “hostile takeover” as Bill and Hillary did. They’ve effectively turned the institutional Democratic party into Brand Clinton for the last two-plus decades.

And this is what’s so trigger-warningly uncomfortable about revisiting the Monica mess. There’s no telling the story of why the progressive community banded together to protect the Clintons without at the very least subconsciously reminding voters how bereft of competent leadership and how almost addicted to magical thinking the Democratic Party was—until Bill and Hillary brutally took over. As the staunchly pro-Clinton neoliberal godfather Michael Kinsley noted, the Democrats had already tried nominating un-problematic, flaccid candidates like Carter, Mondale, and Dukakis, people who would probably never be accused of anything nasty, let alone sexual harassment or rape. And Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and Roger Ailes ate ‘em for breakfast.

Only Bubba—with his defiant, JR Ewing bad boy ‘tude and shamelessly broken promises—only he was ruthless enough to break on through. If the Democrats had nominated even one inspiring, media-savvy, likable candidate (besides Clinton) in between Lyndon Johnson saying “We will stand in Vietnam” and Barack Obama 40 years later, maybe it wouldn’t have come down to a choice between defending a possible sexual predator on one hand and total, nonstop defeat at the hands of Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and Dick Cheney on the other. But the fact is, from the day Jimmy Carter retired back in the disco dancing days of 1980 up until now, only ONE white male Democrat was ever able to close that deal.

Even now, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer are haunted by what happened back then. They’ve conducted most of their careers against the backdrop of all those punishings. That explains their unsuccessful efforts to try and marginalize rising left-wing voices like AOC and Ilhan Omar, or to keep Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren under control.

Today’s progressively Woke Democrats, desperately trying to (dare I say) Move On, would like nothing better than for the Clintons to just go away. But like a shrieking victim running from Michael Myers, no matter how often they hide in the closet, look under the bed, or run for the front door, Bubba will still be right there waiting for them.

Yet before conservatives—especially social and religious ones—pop the popcorn and bask in the relaxing shade of schadenfreude, the aftermath of Monicagate in 1999 and 2000 is all too uncomfortable a metaphor for where conservatives find themselves right this minute. Many churchgoing conservatives (like David French, Ross Douthat, and our own Grayson Quay and Rod Dreher) have next to no use for Donald’s and Melania’s sybaritic, callous, materialistic, p***y-obsessed personal lifestyle. But once again, the logic of Impeachment ‘98 prevails: social cons weren’t voting for Trump so much as they were voting against the Democrats. (Remember “The Flight 93 Election?”)

I’ve argued before that the logic of Monicagate was “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” A thoughtful feminist commentator corrected me, and said, no, my enemy is first and foremost my enemy. If you really thought the Religious Rightists out to impeach Clinton wanted to straight-up recreate The Handmaid’s Tale, then they and their political goals and allies had to be stopped—at all costs.

Impeachment ‘98 wasn’t a #MeToo moment; it was actually #Resistance 1.0,   #VoteBlueNoMatterWho. The roadmap to today’s hyper-polarized and doomsday politics was written all over Monica’s famous Blue Gap Dress.

And there’s your real, sizzling-hot storyline for FX’s new miniseries. There’s no way to truly tell whether or not Monica Lewinsky’s chapter of American Crime Story will have any real effect on the presidential election until it actually goes on the air. But already it is illustrating that ultimate showbiz truism: timing…is everything.

Telly Davidson is the author of the book Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”