On December 19th, 1998, the United States House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment against then President Bill Clinton, accusing him of having committed perjury and obstruction of justice. It was the culmination of years of investigations by Independent Counsel Ken Starr, that started with Whitewater before focussing on the extra-marital affair between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
To mark the twentieth anniversary, History UK will be airing The Clinton Affair, a six episode series from Blair Foster and Alex Gibney that explores the whole saga. Beginning with accusations of extra marital affairs during the 1992 campaign, to the investigations into Whitewater and Vince Foster’s suicide, more serious allegations from Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick, through to the Lewinsky affair, how the story broke, the impeachment, and accusations of Clinton’s misconduct resurfacing during the 2016 election.
Ahead of the premiere on History UK this week, TVWise had the opportunity to put several questions about The Clinton Affair to series director Blair Foster. In the below interview, we discuss why she wanted to make this series, whether or not the MeToo movement impacted how she viewed the documentary, how the producers secured access to Monica Lewinsky for the series and much more.
TVWise: Why was this a story you wanted to take another look at decades after the fact?
Blair Foster: I remember what happened and what a huge story it was at the time and I was interested in just revisiting it for that reason – for purely historic reasons. But then very quickly I realised that it was so relevant to what is happening to us right now and how we ended up with Donald Trump as President. It became an investigation into ‘how did we get to where we are now?’
TVWise: Did you start work on The Clinton Affair before the wave of MeToo accusations? If so, did it change how you viewed the documentary?
Blair Foster: We started work on it just before the MeToo movement started and before the Weinstein article came out. I do think it had an impact. I do think it made people, in general, more open to rethinking the stories of the women in this series. Not just Monica [Lewinsky], but Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. I think it allowed people to come to their stories in a more open-minded way – myself included – than perhaps we would have without the MeToo movement.
TVWise: This is a story that people – thanks to having lived through it and it being touched upon during the 2016 election – think they know well. Was there anything you uncovered that you were unaware of beforehand?
Blair Foster: I think there was a lot that we uncovered. We uncovered a lot of footage that people hadn’t seen before. I think, for example, the story of ‘The Elves’ is something that very very few people really know. Which is that there was a group of conservative lawyers – including George Conway, who is the husband of Kellyanne Conway – who were actively working with Paula Jones’ lawyers to advance that lawsuit and when they found out about Monica Lewinsky, to connect her and get her swept up in the Paula Jones lawsuit, which ultimately leads to that story breaking. I don’t think a lot of people know that story.
TVWise: One of the big gets for this series was the interview(s) with Monica Lewinsky. What was that process like? What was she like to deal with?
Blair Foster: Monica knew that there were going to be stories/projects because it was the twentieth anniversary and I think she wanted to be part of something that was telling the larger history of the impeachment, not something that focused just on her. One of our executive producers, Jemima Khan, who had worked with our other executive producer Alex Gibney, she put Monica and Alex together and they had a long discussion. [They] agreed to move forward because Monica knew that we would tell the story in a very accurate and non-sensationalised way. I think this was an attempt to process for her. It was re-visiting the most painful period of her life and she was very honest. We did three interviews with her over the course of a year and I know it was intense and emotional – as you can see in the series. I give her full credit and really can’t thank her enough for being so honest and I think that hit a chord with a lot of the viewers.
TVWise: The documentary, while not down playing the nature of the affair, paints a much more sympathetic view of Monica – especially considering the actions of Ken Starr and the FBI. In hindsight, what do you think about the way she was treated at the time?
Blair Foster: You asked me earlier what I learned. One of the things I learned is that when the story breaks, Monica was not allowed to speak publicly. She was in legal jeopardy. That was something I had never realised. They were threatening her with jail. They were threatening her mother with jail. They were threatening Monica with considerable jail time – over twenty years. And she wasn’t allowed to speak publicly and so that allowed the media and the country to kind of go to town on her. I think it’s really extraordinary when you look back and see not just the late-night talk shows and Saturday Night Live how they treated her, but the nightly news – the so-called respectable journalists who called her ‘ditzy’ and compared her to Glenn Close in Fatal Atraction. It’s profoundly depressing and enraging, how she was treated. This is a woman who as a young woman who made a mistake – a terrible mistake for which she has apologised, and she takes responsibility. I think what is so disproportionate is how she was treated compared to how President Clinton was treated, because of course it takes two people to have an affair.
TVWise: Did you try to get either Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton on record for the series?
Blair Foster: Yes. We reached out to both of them and they obviously declined to participate. But we were lucky to have several people close to them participate in the series, including: their lawyer David Kendall – who was their lawyer during this period and remains their lawyer; James Carville and Sidney Blumenthal. But, of course, we would have loved to speak to them ourselves.
TVWise: I’m curious about the process. Do you sketch out a narrative first and then locate interview subjects or is it a little more organic than that?
Blair Foster: It was much more organic than that [laughs]. There were two things that were very key to me in the series. One was to approach it with an open mind – to set aside all my pre-conceived notions and my biases and my politics and approach it with a blank slate. And two was to give everyone who had some kind of role in these events the opportunity to tell their story. We reached out to everyone involved. We did sixty on-camera interviews. I can’t remember how many ended up in the actual series. The series grew out of that – out of what I was learning as I was interviewing people both on and off camera, because I talked to a number of people off camera as well. It was a very organic process.
TVWise: Given the heavily polarised nature of U.S. politics now, were you concerned about how this documentary would be received?
Blair Foster: I was. Things are very polarised now, as they were back then. That was why it was so important for me to speak to everyone involved. We had both Trent Lott and Tom Daschle – the leader of the Republican party at the time and the Democratic party at the time – to show that we spoke to everyone and that everyone had an opportunity to speak. Because I really wanted this to reach a wide audience and try and break through some of those divisions and to say, especially when it comes to matters of sexual harassment and sexual assault, maybe we need to put aside our politics.
The Clinton Affair premieres on History UK on Saturday December 8th at 9pm.