This morning, former President Bill Clinton appeared on NBC’s Today Show to talk about a new novel he co-authored with James Patterson. Leading up to the airing, the segment was advertised on NBC’s social media accounts as including a discussion on the #MeToo movement:
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) June 3, 2018
The premise drew collective snark on Twitter from Republicans and conservatives who naturally assumed that Clinton — as has been the case on other occasions — would be asked to weigh in on the topic as a bystander, rather than as someone with a rather notable history of using positions of power to mistreat women.
But to interviewer Craig Melvin’s credit, he came at Clinton with a rather strong line of questioning, specifically in regard to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and his conduct following the affair. Clinton, perhaps unprepared to be asked about that part of his past in the pre-recorded conversation, certainly didn’t rise to the occasion. In fact, he presented himself as a thin-skinned, unself-aware victim (yes, a victim) who believed that he had more than paid his price over the derailing of Lewinsky’s one promising future.
Lewinsky, as has been reported over the years, has had a pretty rough time overcoming the two-decades-old scandal. The cultural spectacle that it created has left her publicly stigmatized, adversely affecting her career and her everyday life. Conversely, President Clinton went through a successful public makeover following his impeachment, and is now largely revered and respected as an elder statesman in American politics.
Melvin began the exchange by asking how, in light of today’s #MeToo movement, Clinton would have handled the fallout from the affair differently. Remarkably, the former president said he wouldn’t have needed to.
“Well, I don’t think it would be an issue,” he said. “Because people would be using the facts instead of the imagined facts. If the facts were the same today, I wouldn’t.”
It was unclear which “imagined facts” Clinton was referring to, but the assertion felt similar to President Trump’s frequent use of the phrase “fake news” to describe coverage he doesn’t like.
Clinton claimed that though he likes the #MeToo movement (and thinks it was overdue), the environment has created a situation for him in which “a lot of the facts [of his affair] have been conveniently omitted” to make the story fit with a workplace sexual-misconduct theme. He said that by fighting impeachment and not resigning (as even some liberal politicians and pundits are now suggesting that he should have), he did “the right thing” and “defended the Constitution.”
Melvin brought up Lewinsky’s admission that she was diagnosed with PTSD from the public scrutiny she went through (starting at age 22). He also cited an excerpt from a recent column Lewinsky wrote, in which she accepted responsibility for her role in the affair, and said that she has learned some things about sexual harassment from the #MeToo movement:
“[Clinton] was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college.”
It was a good point, and Melvin asked Clinton if he, in hindsight, feels more responsible for what happened than he did at the time. Clinton answered no.
“I felt terrible then. And I came to grips with it,” he said.
When asked if he had ever apologized to Lewinsky, Clinton initially said yes. But after some journalistic prying, he admitted that he was referring to a public apology he had delivered to the nation, and that he has never privately apologized to Lewinsky (or even spoken to her since).
Additionally, Clinton was eager to clarify that Lewinsky wasn’t the only victim of the affair.
“Nobody believes that I got out of that for free,” he said. “I left the White House $16 million in debt.” He then took a shot at the interviewer. “But you typically have ignored gaping facts in describing this. And I bet you don’t even know them. This was litigated 20 years ago. Two-thirds of the American people sided with me and they were not insensitive to that.”
Again, it wasn’t apparent which “gaping facts” were supposedly being omitted. But one thing was crystal clear by his statement: Clinton believes that because of the legal costs he accrued while defending himself (which would easily be made back in speaking fees post-presidency), he has been held accountable. And because most of 1990’s America chose to forgive him, he was vindicated.
It’s worth reminding people that Lewinsky wasn’t just dragged over the coals by late night comedians and in water-cooler conversation. She was also thoroughly trashed by Hillary Clinton, and other members of the administration and the Democratic Party. And society has yet to afford her a second chance.
Clinton’s tone became so petty and combative during the interview that his co-author James Patterson (who was sitting beside him and displaying some pretty amusing body-language in response to Clinton’s answers) felt inclined to jump in and appeal for Melvin to “stop” and move on to another topic.
Clinton, however, continued with a last ditch effort to bolster his record on women. He boasted of a sexual harassment policy and two women chiefs-of-staff he installed when he was the Governor of Arkansas (back in the 1980s). He also insisted again that Melvin was “omitting facts” and formulating his questions unfairly. And again, he didn’t elaborate.
It really was fascinating to witness Clinton’s feckless rationalizations in their purest form. With the sea-change of #MeToo serving as a backdrop, his words came across especially bad. He clearly hasn’t learned a thing from his mistakes and the damage he has caused (both to Lewinsky and our culture), and I suppose a lot of that can be attributed to the media’s accommodating role over the years in rehabilitating his legacy.
To Clinton, Melvin’s prying questions probably felt like a betrayal. People in the mainstream media have been letting Clinton live by a different standard than they’ve afforded others for quite some time. But today, even people in liberal quarters of the media (including NBC News and MSNBC) had trouble stomaching what they saw:
What has Bill Clinton learned from the #metoo era?
Not very much, it doesn’t sound like https://t.co/bwOqSUPL0i
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) June 4, 2018
Bill Clinton manages to make #MeToo about himself and evades @craigmelvin when asked if he ever apologized to Monica Lewinsky. Thanks @craigmelvin for asking an important and obvious question that WJC should be able to answer. https://t.co/kxEzzGYlAL
— Elise Jordan (@Elise_Jordan) June 4, 2018
Clinton shrugs off the question by, among other things, touting his record as governor of Arkansas in elevating women leaders… https://t.co/sVUSpqL0RJ
— Marina Fang (@marinafang) June 4, 2018
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) June 4, 2018
I suppose such reactions are progress. But it sure makes you wonder just how culpable the media is for conditioning society to accept (and move on from) sexual impropriety from powerful men, for as long as it did.