When Donald Trump was confronted with his taped admission that he had grabbed women “by the pussy” in October 2016, he was quick to change the subject. “Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course—not even close,” he deflected in a statement that doubled as an attack.
Clinton must have been taking notes. He trotted out a strikingly similar response when the NBC reporter Craig Melvin, in a bold and incisive interview that aired on the Today show Monday morning, brought up Clinton’s mid-’90s affair with then-intern Monica Lewinsky. Melvin asked the former president if he would have “approached the accusations differently” if they’d come out today, with the #MeToo movement churning in the background.
“Do you think President Kennedy should have resigned? Do you believe President Johnson should have resigned?” Clinton said, growing openly annoyed with the line of questioning. “Someone should ask you these questions, because of the way you formulate the questions.”
Much like Donald Trump has called the sexual harassment and assault allegations against him “fake news,” Clinton accused Melvin of manipulating information to make him look bad. “You typically have ignored gaping facts in describing this, and I bet you don’t even know them,” he said, seeming to indict the media at large. “You are giving one side and omitting facts.” He offered no examples of the facts Melvin supposedly ignored.
Clinton also framed recent reassessments of his actions as attacks borne of political anger—progressives are “frustrated that they’ve got all these serious allegations against the current occupant of the Oval Office and his voters don’t seem to care”—and noted two separate times that “two-thirds of the American people” supported his decision to remain in office after he admitted to the affair. His self-exoneration calls to mind both Trump’s insistence that sexual assault allegations against him are inventions from the minds of his haters and his invocation of the November 2016 election as a response to any criticism.
Clinton’s aggressive refusal to believe that he has anything to learn from the #MeToo movement is profoundly disappointing. Imagine how powerful it might have been for American boys and men to watch a former president and hero of the Democratic Party grapple openly with his bad sexual behavior. He has all the money and fame a mortal could ask for—with his own presidency two decades past and his wife’s presidential aspirations fettered, he has little reason to fear whatever consequences might come from an honest reckoning with the Lewinsky affair. Clinton could have set a rare positive example for men accused of sexual misconduct, who would do well to reflect on their wrongdoings rather than lash out at anyone who mentions them.
His stance is also unnecessarily defensive. Though Juanita Broaddrick brought credible sexual assault allegations against Clinton more than two decades ago, no one is accusing him of raping Lewinsky. Her contemporary take on the affair is much more nuanced. In an essay published in Vanity Fair earlier this year, she called it “a gross abuse of power.” “He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet,” she recalls in the piece. “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.” Surely even a man with future earnings to protect could admit what anyone who’s ever had a single thought about sexual politics can see: What Clinton did was inappropriate, and she’s suffered far worse for his poor decision than he has.
The interview that aired on Monday was part of Clinton’s promotional tour for his new novel, The President Is Missing, written with thriller author James Patterson. Sitting next to Clinton, Patterson became just as incensed by Melvin’s questions. “I think this thing has been—it’s 20 years ago, come on. Let’s talk about JFK,” Patterson said at one point, naming other presidents who allegedly had extramarital affairs while in office. “Let’s talk about, you know, LBJ. Stop already.” Clinton chimed in with a non sequitur, reciting bits of his biography in his apparent defense: “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 overrepresented 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.”
If feminist responses to Patterson and Clinton’s defenses sound tired, it’s because many of us have already used them against Trump. Yes, it was also bad for JFK to sleep around in office, but no, he didn’t lie under oath about it; no, Marilyn Monroe was not a White House intern; and no, that’s not what the question was about. Yes, standards for workplace behavior were different in midcentury America, and hey, that’s a good thing, but no, that doesn’t mean presidents who served in the ’90s and lived to see the #MeToo movement should be measured by popular consensus from the Mad Men era. No, public figures are not exempt from having to re-evaluate their behavior with the wisdom of hindsight and progress, and there’s no statute of limitations on talking about things you did wrong. It also doesn’t matter that a lot of people told pollsters they loved you in spite of it all, and, no, sexual misconduct isn’t one of those things that gets canceled out when you “have tremendous respect for”—or stock your office with—women.
Clinton’s performance in this NBC interview offers a lesson to those re-examining their problematic faves in light of the past year’s revelations about the prevalence of sexual misconduct among men in positions of power. So invested are Clinton and his ilk in the maintenance of male sexual power, and so absorbed are they in their own continued defense of their legacy, that they will bluster, fib, deflect, and insult to divert attention away from any unflattering truth—20 years after it nearly cost Clinton his presidency. Even though it now puts him in the uncomfortable company of Donald Trump, even with a wife who has made herself a feminist icon, even with all the access to information and education that a self-styled ally could wish for, and even under the rapt eye of his biggest fans—a political party that’s growing ever more convinced of the imperative of gender equity—Clinton refused to subject his own behavior to any degree of scrutiny. If his response is a barometer for what the #MeToo movement can expect from a powerful liberal guy under the most forgiving circumstances, then this grand reckoning has been entirely one-sided.
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