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'The Clinton Affair' review: Highly watchable but lacks perspective

Intern Monica Lewinsky meets President Bill Clinton at

Intern Monica Lewinsky meets President Bill Clinton at the White House, in a photo released in 1998 by the House Judicary Committee. Photo Credit: Getty Images

DOCUSERIES "The Clinton Affair"

WHEN|WHERE  Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on A&E 

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This overview of the months leading up to the House impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 is largely concerned with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky — interviewed throughout — as she recalls her time in the White House, and then the fateful move to the Pentagon where she would meet a confidante named Linda Tripp. Tripp — who had tape-recorded hours of conversations with Lewinsky speaking of her affair with the president — is not interviewed in this program. Many others are, including former special prosecutor Ken Starr. This six-parter was produced by Alex Gibney ("Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief") and Blair Foster ("Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown").

MY SAY "The Clinton Affair." If those three words don't send a cold chill down your spine, then perhaps the series is for you. All others who have happily repressed their memories of a certain blue dress, Linda Tripp, Ken Starr and an improbable beachhead called "Whitewater" best move along. Those memories have been suppressed for a reason — a good one. Moreover, the passage of 20 years hasn't healed the wounds but has seen them deepen, while "The Clinton Affair" does make the case — initially anyway — that our current political divide began right here.

But get past cold chills, deep wounds and Whitewater — right, not easy — and "The Clinton Affair" does offer a highly watchable overview of something most of us thought we'd never want to watch again. Best of these four hours is the last one on Tuesday night, which is a tightly paced ticktock of the attempt by Starr and the FBI to get Lewinsky to flip on President Clinton just hours before his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit. (Jones was suing Clinton over alleged sexual harassment.) Lewinsky tells the story herself and tells it with considerable skill and anguish — of FBI agents strong-arming her in a lavish suite in the Pentagon City Ritz Carlton, and of panicked calls to her mother. "I felt the only way to fix this was jump out the window," she recalls.

Starr goes unchallenged here when he says, "If she had said [that] 'I was betrayed by Linda Tripp,' the horror that the nation went through for eight months [during the impeachment] would essentially have been avoided. It would have been over very, very quickly." Maybe, but neither the former Whitewater special prosecutor nor "The Clinton Affair" explores how a failed land deal had anything to do with Paula Jones. Many critics of Starr at the time believed he had overreached as part of a Republican-led witch hunt. None of them are heard from here.

That's both the virtue and chief fault of "The Clinton Affair." To get straight to the story, it cuts through the underbrush and skirts the blame game. Gibney and Foster's instinct — undoubtedly the correct one — is that would just slow the narrative to a dead crawl. What's sacrificed, however, is any sense of what all this meant, if anything. Both Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter who nearly broke the White House intern story (the Drudge Report was first), and Lewinsky herself talk about going down "the rabbit hole," referring, of course, to "Alice in Wonderland's" topsy-turvy world. Exhaustive and well told, "The Clinton Affair" seeks no meaning and offers no perspective once down there. As a result, viewers are shoved down that rabbit hole, too, and — even at a 20-year remove — it looks just as crazy now as it did then.

BOTTOM LINE Highly watchable and skillfully told, "The Clinton Affair" is otherwise without perspective or insight. What did it all mean? Don't come here for answers.


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