I used to love Bill Clinton (known in our household for years as The Big Dog) and now I just want someone to get him off the stage.
Two days ago, in an interview with The Today Show‘s Craig Melvin about a new thriller co-written with James Patterson, former president William Jefferson Clinton seemed to be completely, and astonishingly, unprepared for the question. When Melvin asked, in the light of the #MeToo movement, whether Clinton thought he ought to have resigned the presidency when his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was uncovered, and whether today he would make a different decision. I watched Clinton’s face tighten, his mouth dropping open ever so slightly, a tell that he was ready to fight.
And of course, the answer was no, since the scandal, in Clinton’s view, occurred because of the proliferation of “imagined facts.” If the actual facts had been the same (and Clinton never said what facts he was referring to), he still would not resign. Looking back, Melvin asked, did he feel differently responsible? “No,” Clinton said, “I felt terrible then. And I came to grips with it.” As The National Review Online‘s Jim Geraghty described this moment: “Rarely do you see such a symphony of hypocrisy and not-so-suppressed rage.” (June 4, 2018)
Indeed. And saying he “felt terrible” (enough about your feelings! What about mine?) is slightly different from Clinton admitting he was responsible for what happened, that he lied about the affair as long as he could, that he had never really admitted that the relationship was an affair, or — perhaps most importantly — explaining what, exactly, he felt terrible about. Did he feel terrible about putting his own needs above the almost certain eventuality that the relationship with Lewinsky, if uncovered, would consume her life? Did he feel terrible about exposing his wife to public humiliation — again? Did he feel terrible about throwing gasoline on a right-wing culture war that would bring George W. Bush to the White House in 2000?
It appears not. He just felt — terrible.
But Bill Clinton doesn’t like to feel terrible. Because he was starting to feel terrible, in the moment, on The Today Show set, he lashed out at the media coverage of the Lewinsky scandal. “And nobody believes that I got out of that for free,” he challenged Melvin. “I left the White House $16 million in debt. But you” (you being the media) “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.” And people think Donald Trump obfuscates with word salad. What are the “gaping facts” of the case that the media ignores? And when the “American public” believes something, does that make it true, or right? The American public has tended, for three centuries, to believe that young women who have sex with other women’s husbands are scheming whores, but does that make it true?
By fighting off his detractors Clinton told Melvin that he had “defended the Constitution,” not himself. Furthermore, he pointed out, he had been a national leader on sexual harassment policy when he was governor of Arkansas and had appointed an unprecedented number of women to positions of power in his administration. As the conversation deteriorated, both Patterson and Clinton engaged in a lightning round of what about-ism: would Melvin have expected JFK to resign? Lyndon Johnson? Huh?
The blowback from this episode was predictably intense, which makes you wonder why a man as intelligent as Clinton, and with as many blemishes on his sexual career, hasn’t hired a public relations expert to help him talk about it in a more empathetic way. In the next 48 hours, Clinton walked back his Today Show comments a bit and took a slightly more conciliatory tone, although the idea that he owes Monica Lewinsky an apology that was slightly more personal than one delivered in front of a live television audience, still seems to be off the table.
Feminists who support the Clintons have generally taken the position that she was old enough to make her own decisions; conservatives have generally asserted that she was a vulnerable person who was harmed by a predator. I don’t think either position is correct. I was once Monica Lewinsky’s age, and did something equally stupid: like her, I feel responsible for the decisions I made, and understand in hindsight that those decisions were selfish and harmed a lot of people. And I know, because I am in advanced middle age and have been responsible for the well-being of young people since 1990, what I didn’t know then: that the much older, married person I had an affair with was in a far better position to make good decisions than I was but was too — narcissistic? selfish? to do it. And I know that to their dying day, this person believed that everything bad that resulted from our connection was my fault, and never would have dreamed of apologizing for their behavior.
Which is more or less why I think I have Bill Clinton’s number. And needless to say it was why, as the Lewinsky affair unfolded in 1998, I was even more unable to tear myself away from a televised political spectacle than I normally am. I remember exactly where I was sitting on January 26, 1998, when Clinton gave a press conference to respond to allegations that he had had an affair with the 21 year-old Lewinsky. “But I want to say one thing to the American people,” he said. “I want you to listen to me. I’m gonna say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie. Not a single time. Never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you.”
Let’s go to the video tape:
As Clinton leaves the podium to enthusiastic applause, you can see Al Gore looking at the ground, half-heartedly clapping, perhaps already knowing yet that his own chance to be president, an office he had been raised to win, was dissolving in that moment. Gore probably knew Clinton was going to lie before he came into the room, and I knew he was lying at “I want you to listen to me.” Because once, long ago, I had told that lie. Because who dares you not to believe them like that if they are actually telling the truth? Who calls a person they were close to, professionally or personally “that woman?”
And you know who felt terrible in that moment? Me. Because this was the man that I was relying on to fend off a rising populist right wing determined to roll back every civil right I had ever fought for, and he was throwing all of us to the wolves to save his own a$$.
For a reality check, I called my mother. “He’s lying,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “I could see it on his face.”
In fact, the right and brave thing for Clinton to have done at the time would have been to say some version of this: “As you all know from the rumors that emerged in 1992, I am a serial adulterer. Now, as President, I have made a terrible error in judgement that has once again publicly humiliated my family and disappointed my dear friend, Vice President Al Gore. This is my responsibility. Although the relationship was consensual, Miss Lewinsky bears no blame for this because I should have known better. But sexuality is a private matter, not a public matter, and it is not a worthy subject for investigation, which is why I am telling the truth about this painful fact now. I must return to my public duties as President of the United States.”
That would have been the right thing to do then. The right thing to do now would be to stop using the many Clinton conspiracy theories that have proliferated over the years as a crutch and stop accusing everyone else of being a liar even as you are lying. Although it’s unlikely that Clinton would ever want, or be permitted, to be in the same room with Monica Lewinsky, it would also be nice if — the next time he was asked if he had ever apologized to her personally — Clinton could say: “You know I thought about it and wrote her a letter taking complete responsibility for a terrible lapse in judgment that changed her life completely.” Or he might say something that I suspect is closer to the truth: “I treated her shabbily, and she’s not interested in talking to me. I don’t blame her.”
If he cared about facts, Clinton might pay attention to the only facts that he had control over: that he lied to everybody, that he never would have been truthful about the affair with Lewinsky had he not been pursued by the special counsel, and that because he chose to handle it this way, he participated in turning Monica Lewinsky’s life into an endless reality show from which there is, and will be, no escape.
The fact that an entire right-wing media industry was built around telling lies about the Clintons in the 1990s obscures, complicates, but does not obviate, their own peculiar relationship to facts, and it doesn’t explain why both of them find it so hard to acknowledge and apologize for mistakes. But it’s not too late to change that. Bill and Hillary Clinton are two of the great public servants in American history, and the constant rumors that Chelsea Clinton plans to plunge into the electoral arena too, make it ever more urgent that they learn how to tell their story differently, truthfully and with compassion for others while it still matters.
It might mean feeling terrible — not just then, but forever.
Claire Potter is professor of history at The New School, and Executive Editor of Public Seminar. You can follow her on Twitter.