Watching Bill Clinton’s peevishly defensive behavior this week, as he struggled to address #MeToo and Monica Lewinsky, I was reminded of some old Rolling Stones lyrics:
“You don’t know what’s going on / You’ve been away for far too long…/ You are left out / Out of there without a doubt / ‘Cause baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time”
Seriously, if the Democrats need any more reasons to floor the accelerator into the future and leave the Clintons in the rear-view mirror, Bill’s latest performance is Exhibit Z. At a time when the #MeToo movement is sensitizing the public about sex, work, and power, there was Bill on the “Today” show earlier this week demonstrating that he still doesn’t get it. In the words of John Harris, who covered the Clinton White House for The Washington Post, the interview was an “important window into understanding an old man at a new moment.”
Bill has since tried to amend his mess and make nice, with subsequent gigs on Stephen Colbert and PBS, but a person’s initial impulse is always the most revealing. And Bill’s initial impulse, when asked anew about Lewinsky, was to lash out at the questioner and take refuge in obsfucation.
Bill was on TV to hawk a spy novel he co-wrote with James Patterson, but “Today” host Craig Melvin refused to simply give the guy free publicity. Instead, Melvin brought up the sex-and-lies scandal that got Bill impeached in 1998. (The affair happened when the president was 49 and the intern was 22.). Melvin asked: “Through the lens of #MeToo now, do you think differently or feel more responsibility?” He asked whether Bill would have “approached the accusations different;y” if they had first surfaced today. He asked Bill whether he owed Lewinsky a personal apology.
“No,” said Bill, “I do not” owe her a personal apology. And no, he wouldn’t have done anything differently if the sex accusations had surfaced today: “I don’t think it would be an issue…Because people would be using the facts instead of the imagined facts. If the facts were the same today, I wouldn’t.”
Feel free to make sense of those remarks, because I certainly can’t.
What “imagined facts” was he referring to? Twenty years ago, the facts were actually quite well documented, starting with the fact that he lied to the public in January 1998 (“I want to listen to me. I’m going to say this again – I did not have sexual relations with that woman”), and took back the lie by confessing the truth in August 1998.
Then he got really ticked off at Melvin: “Nobody believes that I got out of that (scandal) for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt, 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…I had a sexual harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s. I had two women chiefs of staff when I was governor. Women were over-represented in the attorney general’s office in the ’70s for their percentage in the bar. I have had nothing but women leaders in my office since I left. You are giving one side and omitting facts…”
Phew! That sounded downright Trumpian. But back in the ’90s, we in the press called it Clintonian.
If only Bill had said something like this – “Yes, I owe Ms. Lewinsky an apology, because I was president, she was an intern, I should never have taken advantage of that power imbalance, and I commend #MeToo for publicizing the ways that women have traditionally been exploited by powerful men” – the story would have been out of the news cycle within hours. But that’s not how Bill rolls.
Instead, he threw up a smokescreen that begs to be parsed. For starters, his focus was on himself, not Lewinsky. There’s no evidence anywhere that he was “$16 million in debt” when he left the White House; fact-checkers say his debts were far lower, and it was about to be erased anyway, because Hillary was getting an $8-million book advance. His anti-sexual harassment policy as governor doesn’t excuse his behavior toward Lewinsky – and that policy certainly didn’t prevent him from dropping his drawers in front of Paula Jones, the state employee who gave contemporaneous accounts of the incident to several witnesses and later got $850,000 when Clinton settled her lawsuit. (That’s one of the “gaping facts” that Bill omitted while ranting at Craig Melvin.)
And his reference to the polls – “two thirds of the American people sided with me” – was grossly misleading. He implied that they sided with him against Lewinsky. That’s not what happened. Back then, he got high marks in the polls for his job performance. But he got low marks for his personal character. In January ’99, Gallup reported that only 24 percent of Americans found him “honest and trustworthy.” Only 25 percent said that he shared their “values.” And in the spring of ’99, according to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent agreed with this statement: “I am tired of all the problems associated with the Clinton administration.”
Today, when the Democratic party is being blessedly swamped with a new generation of female candidates, the last thing it needs is Bill in the news cycle for days on end, seeking redemption for his male grievances. In John Harris’ words, he’s “a kind of ex-presidential Gatsby borne back ceaselessly into arguments about his own past.” It’s time for the Democrats to turn the page. It’s time to thank Bill for his service.