What started as a private affair between President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky became a public scandal that dominated headlines throughout 1998 and led to his eventual impeachment. Like everyone else in the country, documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein remembers watching the saga play out in the media, wondering what was happening behind closed doors in the White House between the president and his wife, Hillary Clinton. “I was in my twenties, and I remember reading whatever was in the paper every day,” the director tells Yahoo Entertainment. “You pay attention, but you don’t always understand it the same way you can with hindsight.”
Flash-forward two decades later to late 2018, and Burstein found herself sitting across from both Clintons and asking them, in separate interviews, to relive one of the most painful periods in their marriage for the expansive docuseries, Hillary. Currently streaming on Hulu, the four-part film covers Clinton’s life and career in the public eye, from her college years as an idealistic law student to her 2016 presidential campaign. The Lewinsky scandal is covered in the series’s third episode, “The Hardest Decision,” and features candid commentary from the former president and first lady. “I really wanted to ask both of them how they personally dealt with it in their marriage,” Burstein says. “This affair rocked their marriage in a public and private way, but we haven’t really heard about the private way.”
Bill Clinton through the years
Bill Clinton through the years
American President Bill Clinton gives his weekly speech for the radio, at the White House. (Photo by Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images)
Presidential candidate Bill Clinton campaigns in New Hampshire. Clinton would win the 1992 presidential election against incumbent George Bush, and be elected to a second term in 1996. (Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Presidential candidate Bill Clinton talks with reporters while campaigning in New Hampshire. Clinton would win the 1992 presidential election against incumbent George Bush, and be elected to a second term in 1996. (Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Presidential candidate Bill Clinton campaigns in New Hampshire. (Photo by mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Bill Clinton greets a crowd of supporters in Hannibal, Missouri. Clinton on his Mississippi River Tour to campaign for the 1992 presidential elections. (Photo by ï¿½ Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
3/21/1979-ORIGINAL CAPTION READS: View of Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas at podium.
Presidential hopeful Bill Clinton is joined by his daughter Chelsea (L) and wife Hillary during his campaign for the presidency. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)
Jesse Jackson (right), Baptist minister and two-time presidential candidate, listens as Arkansas governor Bill Clinton speaks to the press just before Clinton announces his candidacy for the US presidency. (Photo by ?? Jacques M. Chenet/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Presidential hopefulls Bill Clinton and Robert Kerrey speak during a meeting of candidates for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the USA. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)
Pres. Bill Clinton speaking at Family Leave Bill signing ceremony at WH, framed by listening VP Al Gore. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: U.S. President Bill Clinton (C) chats with New York Governor Mario Cuomo (R) 31 January 1993 at the White House while watching Super Bowl XXVII on television. At left is Texas Governor Ann Richards. Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, sits in the foreground and holds her cat, Socks. (Photo credit should read ROBERT GIROUX/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : US President Bill Clinton speaks to the press at the White House in Washington 02 March after the defeat of the Balanced Budget Ammendment in the US Senate. Clinton, who was opposed to the ammendment, told reporters that the reason the defeat was the failure of Republicans to provide Democrats with a simple guarantee to protect Social Security. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
OTTAWA, CANADA - FEBRUARY 23: Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien (L) escorts US President Bill Clinton (2nd L) and first Lady Hillary Clinton (R) accompanied by Chretien's wife Aline (2nd R ) 23 February during a state dinner at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, CAN. (COLOR KEY: Aline wears violet dress). AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read PAUL J.RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Hong Kong legislator Martin Lee (L) mtg. w. Pres. Bill Clinton (R) & & VP Al Gore at White House as return of Hong Kong to mainland Chinese rule draws near. (Photo by Diana Walker//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, UNITED STATES: US President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton wave as they board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base 14 September in Maryland. The Clintons are heading to New York for a fundraiser. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Joyce NALTCHAYAN (Photo credit should read JOYCE NALTCHAYAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : US President Bill Clinton speaks to the National Farmers Union 15 September in the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. Some Republican members of Congress have suggested today that a formal Congressional censure would not be punishment enough for Clinton's alleged crimes. AFP PHOTO/STEPHEN JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 19: President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at news conference at the White House. (Photo by Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: US President Bill Clinton (C), First Lady Hillary Clinton (L) and daughter Chelsea(C) hug after the president delivered his speech to the Democratic National Convention 14 August 2000 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. AFP PHOTO/Scott NELSON (Photo credit should read Scott Nelson/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES: US President Bill Clinton speaks to the Democratic National Convention 14 August, 2000, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. AFP PHOTO Lucy NICHOLSON (Photo credit should read LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Boris Yeltsin (R) hugs U.S. President Bill Clinton before their talks at the Kremlin September 1. Yeltsin greeted Clinton with a bear-hug at the start of their two-day summit, which is expected to be overshadowed by discussion of Russia's worst crisis in years.
U.S. President Bill Clinton has a quiet word with his wife Hillary during a candle-lighting ceremony at the Israeli president's residence December 13. Clinton began today his uphill battle of salvaging the Wye RIver peace accords in the shadow of U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee vote to proceed with impeachement proceedings against him.
U.S. President Bill Clinton answers a question as he stands beside South Korean President Kim Dae-jung during a joint news conference at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul November 21. The two leaders discussed reports of North Korea having a secret underground nuclear complex, among other issues.
U.S. President Bill Clinton attends Jordan's King Hussein's funeral at an Amman royal palace February 8. World leaders are attending the funeral for King Hussein, who died of cancer February 7 after a turbulent 47-year reign at the heart of the Middle East politics and was succeeded on the throne by his politically untested son Abdullah.
U.S. President Bill Clinton eats dinner with troops who are taking part in Operation Allied Force during his visit to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany May 5. Earlier in the day, Clinton met with the three U.S. soldiers who were freed earlier in the week by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
U.S.President Bill Clinton shakes the hand of a supporter while addressing American farmers in Shakopee, Minnesota, May 12, 2000. The president highlighted the economic benefits to American farmers if permanent normal trade relations with China were passed in the U.S. Congress. REUTERS/Larry Downing
U.S. President Bill Clinton holds the hand of nine month-old Sandhya Balakrishna after he administed an oral polio vaccine to the baby during his visit to Mahavir hospital March 24. In a speech to employees of the hospital, Clinton said the diseases still plaguing India brought "human tragedies, economic calamities". Holding the baby is her mother Pushpalatha Balakrishna.
U.S. President Bill Clinton grimaces on the first tee as he watches his ball land along the fairway at the Bellevue Country Club in Skaneatles, New York, August 31. The first family will spend the rest of the week vacationing in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) and Bulgarian President Petar Sotyanov wave to the crowd after Clinton addressed tens of thousands gathered in front of Alexander Nevski Cathedral in central Sofia November 22. Clinton will travel to Kosovo tomorrow, the final day of his 10-day Mediterranean tour.
President Bill Clinton waves to bell ringers atop Christ The Saviour Cathedral with the Kremlin in the background, June 4. The Cathedral was recently rebuilt after the original was destroyed by the Soviets in 1933.
Tennis great Billie Jean King waves to the crowd after remarks honoring her by former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) during a tennis match at Madison Square Garden in New York March 2, 2009. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES)
US Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) laughs as former U.S. President Bill Clinton returns McCain's notes which he accidentally picked up off the lectern, before speaking during the Clinton Global Initiative, in New York September 25, 2008. Established by Clinton in 2005, the event is designed to bring donors together with people in need to try to solve global problems. REUTERS/Chip East (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (R) (D-NY) gets a kiss from her husband, former President Bill Clinton, at the National Building Museum in Washington June 7, 2008. Clinton endorsed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) to be the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate on Saturday and suspended her own White House bid less than a week after the Illinois senator secured enough support to win the nomination. Clinton's endorsement of Obama in a speech at the National Building Museum marked the beginning of efforts to reunite the Democratic Party after a long and divisive campaign battle that ended on Tuesday when Obama won the support of enough delegates to clinch the nomination. REUTERS/Jim Bourg (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA)
Chelsea Clinton (L) and former President Bill Clinton, listen as Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks to supporters at her New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester January 8, 2008. Clinton defied the polls and narrowly upset Barack Obama in New Hampshire on Tuesday, breathing new life into her U.S. presidential campaign after finishing third in Iowa. REUTERS/Carlos Barria (UNITED STATES)
Chelsea Clinton (L) and former US President Bill Clinton watch as US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) speaks at the National Building Museum in Washington June 7, 2008. Clinton endorsed presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) to be the Democratic U.S. presidential candidate on Saturday and suspended her own White House bid less than a week after the Illinois senator secured enough support to win the nomination. Clinton's endorsement of Obama in a speech at the National Building Museum marked the beginning of efforts to reunite the Democratic Party after a long and divisive campaign battle that ended on Tuesday when Obama won the support of enough delegates to clinch the nomination. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES) US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN 2008 (USA) BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledge the crowd as U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama waves during the Clinton Global Initiative in New York September 23, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Microsoft founder Bill Gates (L) and former U.S. President Bill Clinton speak during the Clinton Global Initiative in New York September 23, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton greets students and officials at Edison Middle School before speaking about the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in Miami, Florida January 21, 2011. The Alliance, a non-profit organization founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, announced industry agreements with 13 leading school meal manufacturers to combat childhood obesity by making available healthier choices in school meals across the country. REUTERS/Hans Deryk (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION HEALTH FOOD IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embrace during the opening plenary session labeled "Reimagining Impact" at the Clinton Global Initiative 2014 (CGI) in New York, September 22, 2014. The CGI was created by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2005 to gather global leaders to discuss solutions to the world's problems. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks with Jack Ma, executive chairman of Alibaba Group, during the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting in New York, September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former U.S. President Bill Clinton at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY PROFILE)
Chelsea Clinton holds her newborn son Aidan Clinton Mezvinsky with her husband Marc Mezvinsky, as U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton pose together as they exit Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, U.S., June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her husband former president Bill Clinton react to the balloon drop after she accepted the nomination on the fourth and final night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 28, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton greets Melania Trump ahead of the start of the first debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (L) and former U.S. President George W. Bush participate in a moderated conversation at the graduation class of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas, U.S., July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Brandon Wade TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Five former U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, speak during a concert at Texas A&M University benefiting hurricane relief efforts in College Station, Texas, U.S., October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Richard Carson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Former President Bill Clinton delivers a keynote address at Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service symposium to mark the 25th anniversary of President Clinton's 1992 presidential election victory in Washington, U.S., November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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As Hillary Clinton outlines in the film, she didn’t hear about Lewinsky until the public did. During a deposition for a lawsuit brought by Paula Jones in January 1998, Bill Clinton was asked questions about his relationship with the White House intern that he either evaded or denied. Not long after, the Washington Post reported details about the alleged affair. “Bill came early one morning into the bedroom,” Clinton says in Hillary. “He said, ‘I have to tell you something: there’s a story that’s going to be in the newspaper. It’s about an intern who worked in the White House, claiming I had a relationship with her. I was just waking up, [and] I was having a hard time processing it. I said, ‘What are you talking about? What is this? What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Well there’s nothing to it, it’s not true.’...He was adamant and he was convincing to me.”
By August, though, enough evidence had surfaced — including Lewinsky’s own testimony — that required Clinton to give a nationally televised statement that he had lied about not having a relationship with Lewinsky. But before that, he had to tell his wife and their daughter, Chelsea. “I went and sat on the bed and talked to her,” the former president says in the film. “I told her exactly what happened, when it happened. I said ‘I feel terrible about it...I have no defense, this is inexcusable what I did.’” For her part, Clinton describes feeling “devastated” while hearing his confession. “I could not believe it. I was so personally hurt. And I said, ‘If this is going to be public you have got to go tell Chelsea.’”
That same month, the family went on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, and while departing the White House, reporters took pictures of Chelsea holding her parents’ hands, which made a big impression on her mother. “Chelsea put herself between us and held both of our hands,” Clinton says in the film. “That was not anything other than her trying to keep us together. When she did that I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s just so incredible, so strong and so wise.”
During that two-week vacation, Clinton largely refused to speak to her husband, but also made a decision to fight against his impeachment based on her own research during the Watergate era. “I knew what the standards of impeachment were. I knew this did not meet it. He shouldn’t have done what he did. He shouldn’t have tried to hide it. But it was not an impeachable offense.” Even as she defended him in public, privately the two were making painful visits to a marriage counselor. “I still had to decide whether I wanted to stay in the marriage, whether I thought it was saving,” she says. “We saw a counselor...[there were] painful, painful discussions.”
In the film, viewers hear Burstein asking Bill Clinton directly why he risked his marriage by pursuing a relationship with Lewinsky. “Nobody thinks, ‘I’m taking a risk,’” Clinton replies, instead describing how the pressures of the office contributed to his lack of judgment. “You feel like you’re staggering around. You’ve been in a 15-round prize fight that’s been extended to 30 rounds, and here’s something to take your mind off it for a while. That’s what happened.” Because of that experience and the subsequent counseling and years of self-reflection, Clinton describes himself as a “totally different person” now, and expresses admiration for the way Lewinsky has changed her life as well. “I feel terrible about the fact that Monica Lewinsky’s life was defined by it, unfairly I think. Over the years, I’ve watched her try to get a normal life back again. But you’ve got to decide how to define normal.”
Lewinsky isn’t interviewed in Hillary and has yet to comment on the series. “There was another series that was going on while I was making this on A&E [The Clinton Affair] that had exclusivity to interview her, so that was logistically off the table,” Burstein explains to us. “And because that documentary was doing such an exhaustive treatment of her point of view and experience, I felt, ‘OK, that's been done, and what I'm doing is what hasn't been done,’ which is understanding how that affected [Hillary] and her marriage...And also his level of guilt for how it affected how people perceived her for years to come. I think that’s why he’s so candid in the interview because he realizes the impact it’s had on her. They had never shared those kinds of feelings publicly before. I think he does feel terrible about how he just hurt a lot of people.”