Bill Clinton Feels His Own Pain

His current book tour has reinvigorated discussions of what the former president owes, in the age of #MeToo, to “that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.”

Bebeto Matthews / AP

“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.

What’s perhaps most striking about the conversation, though, are the specific terms of Clinton’s self-defense: the stuff about “women leaders.” His insistence that the story of what transpired between the chief executive and his intern is not complete—is not fully fair—unless one also appreciates how much else Clinton has done. Not to the one woman, but for all the others.

Yes, the woman in question—“that woman, Ms. Lewinsky”—might have described how she suffered from PTSD after the president had suggested to the world that she was a liar. Yes, a modern appreciation for the dynamics of power might lead one to see Clinton, in their affair, as an abuser of the power he wielded. Yes, there is a way in which sex that is consensual can also be sex that is wrong. But according to Bill Clinton, victim of context collapse, an accurate reading of the situation demands that those smaller facts be considered against the backdrop of the greater ones: Clinton, he insists that you remember, has elevated women. He has employed them. He has proven willing to weaponize his charm in order that one of them might get her shot at the greatest office in the land. Remember when Bill Clinton, at the Democrats’ 2016 convention, played with balloons, and the people, weary and in such deep need of levity, pretty much lost their minds? He did that for women—or, rather, for the one woman who said she would work for the many. He made himself childish so that the woman might win.

And that is one of the “gaping facts” Clinton is accusing Melvin of ignoring when the journalist dared to ask about #MeToo. Over his career in public service, Clinton is arguing, he has turned his respect for women into that most crucial of things: a system. “I had a sexual harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s,” the former president informed Melvin, indignantly, during their exchange. “I had two women chiefs of staff when I was governor.” (At this, Clinton extended two fingers to emphasize the number.) “Women were overrepresented in the attorney general’s office in the ’70s,” he said. He added, seeming to anticipate the fact-check: “For their percentage in the bar.”

None of which, of course, changes the salient facts here: Working on behalf of women in general does not spare a person of accountability for his treatment of women in particular. Eric Schneiderman, in his capacity as New York’s attorney general, advocated for women’s rights; that is a separate matter from the allegations that he assaulted women he knew personally. Harvey Weinstein’s donations to Hillary Clinton’s campaign did nothing to mitigate his alleged monstrosities. And yet the outrage Bill Clinton displayed in his Today interview—how could people not appreciate his contributions to Women, capital W?—is becoming ever more familiar as #MeToo expands and normalizes and tugs at the edges of American culture. His umbrage is the stuff not merely of male victimhood, but also of the greater good, of but it only happened once, of deeply ingrained assumptions about the way power works in this country. Sacrifices must be made. Practicalities must be assessed. “I had two women chiefs of staff when I was governor,” Bill Clinton reminds Craig Melvin, when Melvin asks about Lewinsky, and what he is suggesting is that women, as a group, might be better served if those who have been the victims of abuse would hold their tongues and know their place and do the thing women have long been expected to do: Take one for the team.

During the Today interview, several times, Melvin asked Clinton whether he had apologized to Lewinsky. One of their exchanges went like this:

Melvin: I asked if you’d ever apologized, and you said you have?

Clinton: I have.

Melvin: You apologized to her?

Clinton: I apologized to everybody in the world.

Melvin: But you didn’t apologize to her.

Clinton: I have not talked to her.

Melvin: Do you feel like you owe her an apology?

Clinton: No. I have never talked to her. But I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry. That’s very different. The apology was public.

It’s such familiar obfuscation: the definition of is, and all that. But it implicates the rest of us, too. Clinton may have apologized “to everybody in the world”; he has not, however, directly apologized to the person on the direct end of his actions: that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. Instead, he has conflated the ends and the means. He has suggested—all those hirings, after all; all those appointments; all those recognitions of women’s professional capabilities—that women, if they’re smart about it, should simply do the math. They should, when someone in a position of power deigns to recognize their equality and their humanity, take the win and move on. They should embrace, themselves, that most classically Clintonian of ethics: pragmatism. A thing happened many years ago, yes; but so, Clinton wants us to remember, did many other things. Good things. Shouldn’t those matter? Shouldn’t they count? Shouldn’t women, having fought for so long, simply agree to be grateful for it all?