“I’ve had nothing but women leaders in my office since I left. You are giving one side and omitting facts.”
That was Bill Clinton, on the Today show Monday morning, responding angrily to a question posed by NBC News’s Craig Melvin. The occasion for their interview: the release of The President Is Missing, the novel the former president co-authored with the mystery writer James Patterson. The context for the interview, though: a world that has been steadily shifting under the influences of #MeToo. Bill Clinton has been accused of sexual harassment by several women, and of rape by one of them; he was impeached because he conducted an affair with a 21-year-old intern and then lied about it to the American public. It was predictable—in fact, it was pretty much inevitable—that questions about #MeToo would be asked during the publicity tour. In the case of the Today interview, the question was this: “Looking back on what happened then,” Melvin said, “through the lens of #MeToo now, do you think differently? Or feel more responsibility?”
Clinton’s answer, essentially: No. And no. “I felt terrible then,” he tells Melvin, but “I came to grips with it.” And: “This was litigated 20 years ago.” And: “Two-thirds of the American people sided with me.”
There is much more. But there is already, in the exchange between a man who wants to move on from the past and the representative of a public for whom that past remains urgent, so much. Bill Clinton’s anger. Bill Clinton’s indignation. Bill Clinton’s manifest lack of preparation for the easily anticipated—and, considering what it might have been, markedly gentle—question. The way the former president tried to distinguish between “the facts” and “the imagined facts.” The way he, in this age of “fake news,” attempted to deflect the substance of Melvin’s question through insulting Melvin himself. (“You, typically, have ignored gaping facts in describing this, and I bet you don’t even know them,” the former president seethed at the journalist.) The way Clinton tried to reframe himself, through acts of strategic empathy, as the real victim here. The way James Patterson, weaver of yarns, sat awkwardly and silently as reality proved to be, once again, far weirder than any fiction.