Entertainment & Arts

Revisiting the Tripp-Lewinsky Tapes: “A Psychological Story About Female Friendship”

On Impeachment: American Crime Story and in real life, Linda Tripp was tempted to tape-record her friend Monica Lewinsky for a complicated hodgepodge of reasons, political and personal: her dissatisfaction with Bill Clinton’s White House and suspicions about Vince Foster’s death, her sense of powerlessness in a lifelong career as a public servant, her desire to write a book, and her growing frustration with the president’s flagrant abuse of power in his relationship with Lewinsky, the 24-year-old former White House intern.

And on Tuesday night’s episode of Impeachment, “The Telephone Hour,” after some advice from literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale), Sarah Paulson’s Linda Tripp finally drives to RadioShack, buys the infamous tape recorder, and begins documenting her private conversations with Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) for evidence.

For Impeachment writer/producer Flora Birnbaum—the daughter of a psychologist—the episode was a dream assignment. The series’ first three episodes stretched to introduce an ensemble of key characters with competing agendas—between Bill Clinton and his White House advisers; Paula Jones and the conservatives like Ann Coulter and George Conway who promoted her lawsuit from the wings; Goldberg in her own conservative quest; and news aggregator Matt Drudge in his unscrupulous mission to scoop traditional media. “But by the time you get to episode four,” Birnbaum tells Vanity Fair, “It’s really a psychological story about female friendship and betrayal.”

The episode reimagines dramatic peaks and mundane moments of the approximately 20 hours of conversations that Tripp secretly recorded—with Lewinsky flitting between desperation and distress depending on her latest communication from Clinton. The episode also includes conversations Tripp has with Goldberg (which Tripp also taped and which were also a critical source material for Impeachment’s writers), during which she vacillates between self-righteousness in her deception and guilt.

To better understand Tripp and Lewinsky’s mindsets, Impeachment’s writers and researchers created a master timeline—charting the conversations the women had with every interaction Lewinsky had with Clinton, every pertinent development in Tripp’s and Lewinsky’s lives, and other relevant events in Clinton’s presidency. That matrix shed critical light and contextual perspective on the recorded conversations, and Tripp’s inner battle with herself throughout this deceit.

“It would be an easy story to tell if you’re thinking of Linda as purely setting out to betray Monica,” says Birnbaum. “But when you listen to the tapes [with Goldberg], you get the scale and the complexity of the narrative. Yes, this is a woman who has her own agenda and wants to write a book…. but the taped recordings also reveal Linda going back and forth—not quite sure if she wants to reveal the information, deciding whether it’s worth it, and then justifying it to herself.”

The episode jumps montage-style from one recorded conversation between Tripp and Lewinsky (and also between Tripp and Goldberg) to the next—and Birnbaum says that she used the actual transcripts for dialogue whenever possible. But the producer was just as interested in subtext; in listening to the actual conversations, Birnbaum says she noticed that Tripp became more agitated with Lewinsky as time and recording wore on—a sign, to Birnbaum, that her deception was taking a personal toll.

“Occasionally [Tripp] gets more resentful in the phone calls and all of a sudden will snap at Monica,” says Birnbaum. “As she nears closer and closer to that betrayal, she seems fragmented psychologically, because she’s doing the most bizarre things and all over the place. I don’t think consciously she felt this because she’s not someone who’s outwardly emotional, but I think unconsciously she was a bit tortured by what she was doing…actually, when she turned in the tapes, one of the issues that the Office of Independent Counsel had was that the tapes were mislabeled. She was just in complete disarray, psychologically and mentally.”

In one prescient Impeachment conversation, between Tripp and Goldberg, Goldberg suggests Tripp consider the repercussions her tape recordings will have on Lewinsky in terms of public humiliation and professional repercussions. Paulson’s Tripp waves off the consideration, telling Goldberg that Lewinsky isn’t like other 20-somethings—she’s a 20-something with a family from Beverly Hills. Tripp incorrectly theorizes that any tabloid attention will be a brief chapter in Lewinsky’s privileged life—another rationalization Birnbaum says she plucked from Tripp’s real-life conversations.

“There was an interesting dynamic in their relationship—and one I don’t think that we see a ton of—which is an older woman who comes from lesser means assuming that a younger woman who has more privilege economically is going to be okay just because of that privilege,” points out Birnbaum. “She’s really looking for some narrative justification to do this thing that she knows is terrible.”

Birnbaum had not listened to the Lewinsky-Tripp tapes before starting work on Impeachment, and considers her fresh perspective—in a more nuanced, post–#MeToo world—to be a bonus.

“When I listened to the tapes, all I heard was very relatable female conversations that I had had with my sister or my friends about what was happening in our lives that felt deeply human and tragic all at once,” says Birnbaum. “These lines of communication are very vital to women who work in systems that often work against them…. The tapes are such an intense representation of women trying to understand and make sense of their roles in a system where they feel powerless…. The tapes are really like the best artifact of female friendship that exists.”

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