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The women of ‘Impeachment’ explained: Monica Lewinsky

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Monica Lewinsky is one of the most ridiculed women of modern times, the subject of countless cruel late-night jokes and racy rap lyrics. Yet few people know much about her beyond the salacious details of her affair with President Bill Clinton.

The Washington Post once called Lewinsky “an enigma wrapped in conflicting images,” and few Americans even saw her speak on camera until she gave an interview to Barbara Walters in March 1999. “Monica’s Story,” a tell-all biography by Andrew Morton, portrayed her sympathetically but failed to reset the narrative.

Lewinsky spent most (if not all) of the last two decades avoiding the limelight, re-emerging gradually to tell her side of the story to an American public that has grown more sophisticated in its understanding of power in sexual relationships and more receptive to the idea that one’s entire life shouldn’t be defined by one’s youth.

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She’s delivered well-received TED Talks, written eloquent columns for Vanity Fair, and is now a producer on the FX series “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” which revisits the much-chronicled scandal from a novel perspective: hers.

Episode 2, “The President Kissed Me,” traces the unlikely sequence of events that made the affair as well as its public disclosure possible — including the 1995 government shutdown and Lewinsky’s reassignment to the Pentagon, where she worked alongside Linda Tripp.

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Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky signs her book, “Monica’s Story,” during a 1999 event at a bookstore in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

(Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images)

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Lewinsky’s relationship with Clinton started as a mostly wordless flirtation

In the months leading up to the fateful government shutdown, Lewinsky was working out of an office in the Old Executive Office Building, across West Executive Avenue from the West Wing.

Lewinsky told Morton she did not find Clinton — “with his big red nose and coarse, wiry-looking gray hair” — attractive until she finally saw him in person at an arrival ceremony on the White House lawn in July 1995. “Now I see what all the girls are talking about,” she recalled. Captivated by his charisma, she began to attend more of these routine events whenever she could.

As depicted in “Impeachment,” Lewinsky wore her favorite sage green suit from J. Crew to a departure ceremony in August 1995 and caught the president’s eye. He gave her what she called “the full Bill Clinton,” an intensely focused greeting charged with sexual energy. The next day, Lewinsky and other White House interns secured a last-minute invite to Clinton’s 49th birthday party. She rushed home to change into her sage green suit so he would remember her. At the party, she shook hands with the president, whose arm “casually but unnecessarily” grazed her breast, according to Morton. She later blew him a kiss.

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But it probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere if it weren’t for the government shutdown

In the 1994 midterm election, the Republicans regained control of Congress for the first time in 40 years in what was dubbed the “Republican Revolution.” Led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America,” the GOP pushed for sharp spending cuts. In November 1995, Clinton vetoed a budget that would have reduced funding for Medicare and education. Gingrich — who was also miffed that Clinton hadn’t talked to him about the budget on the plane back from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral — refused to raise the debt limit, and the federal government was forced to partially shut down for five days starting Nov. 14. (A second shutdown that December lasted three weeks.)

The impasse foreshadowed the increasingly dysfunctional partisan political atmosphere we now take for granted in Washington, DC. It also enabled one of the biggest political scandals in modern American history by bringing Lewinsky, who was about to start a paid job in the White House office of legislative affairs, into close quarters with the president for the first time.

Non-essential government workers were furloughed during the shutdown. The staff at the White House was reduced from more than 430 to about 90, and unpaid interns were used to fill in the gap. Lewinsky, who had been working out of an office in the basement of the Old Executive Office Building, was now in the West Wing, working alongside key administration figures — including the president himself.

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Two women eat lunch in an empty office cafeteria

Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, left, and Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky in “Impeachment: American Crime Story.”

(Tina Thorpe/FX)

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OK, but what about the thong?

Yes, Lewinsky flashed her thong at the president on the second day of the government shutdown.

In various accounts, including the Starr Report, Lewinsky has described the thong-flashing incident as the escalation of a day-long, eye contact-heavy flirtation with the president, who stopped by the office of her boss, Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, several times throughout the day, even making a surprise appearance at a birthday party for staffer Jennifer Palmieri.

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As detailed in “Monica’s Story,” at one point Lewinsky was tasked with answering angry phone calls from talk-radio listeners who’d been urged to voice their discontent with the shutdown. While she was on the phone, the president smiled at her. Sometime later, during a lull in the calls, she raised the back of her jacket to allow a glimpse of her thong underwear, which rose over the waistband of her blue pants. Lewinsky’s first sexual encounter with the president occurred later that evening.

“This incident, now infamous, was, as far as she was concerned, merely one step further in their flirtation,” wrote Morton. “It was over in an instant, although she was rewarded with an appreciative look as the President walked past.”

Lewinsky told Walters as much in her “20/20” interview, describing it as “a small, subtle, flirtatious gesture,” that sent a clear message: ’I’m interested too. I’ll play.’”

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As Lewinsky recently told the New York Times, she encouraged the writers of “Impeachment” to include the thong incident, unflattering though it may be. “I just felt I shouldn’t get a pass,” she said.

Did Lewinsky really tell her mom she kissed the president? Who else knew about the relationship besides Tripp?

Yes, as portrayed in Episode 2 of “Impeachment,” Lewinsky did tell her mother, Marcia Lewis, that she kissed the president hours after their first sexual encounter. She also told her aunt, Debra Finerman. Both women initially brushed off the story, assuming Lewinsky meant an innocent kiss on the cheek, according to “Monica’s Story.” Both women had been aware of Lewinsky’s crush on Clinton, and the attention he had paid to her, but considered it “nothing more than a giddy flirtation,” Morton wrote. (“I can’t believe this middle-aged man is engaging in such immature behavior,” Finerman told the biographer.)

In “Impeachment,” Lewinsky dishes about her affair with an old friend familiar with her pattern of falling for unavailable men. In reality, Lewinsky did confide in several people other than Tripp — 10 in total, she told Walters. This group included girlfriends from college and high school. Several of these individuals would be called to testify.

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“I trusted my girlfriends implicitly,” Lewinsky told Walters on “20/20.” “I talked about him as I would any other guy.”

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