Out-of-touch with #MeToo, Bill Clinton faces backlash over defiance about not apologizing to Monica Lewinsky
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
Source: The Today Show Screenshot
The #MeToo movement is making men everywhere reckon and confront their actions but not former President Bill Clinton. Clinton appeared in a joint interview on NBC’s Today Show on Monday morning with mystery author James Patterson for their new book “The President Is Missing” when Weekend co-host Craig Melvin confronted the former president about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Melvin shocked a seemingly unprepared Clinton asking him if he ever personally apologized to Lewinsky. In the #MeToo public apologies on rote have become the norm, the let the aggressors, mostly men, find a way for the public to forgive them as a means to salvage their careers. Clinton is now facing a backlash for his defiant response from both liberal and conservatives, men and women, proving although Clinton is living in 1998; the rest of the world is not when it comes to the scandal that nearly brought down his presidency.
Melvin asked Clinton if he would have dealt with the scandal resulting from the fallout from his affair with Lewinsky differently in the time of the #MeToo and “Through the lens of #MeToo now, do you think differently or feel more responsibility?… Did you ever apologize to her [Lewinsky]?” Melvin also asked the former president whether he should have resigned amidst the scandal that led to him being on the second president ever impeached in American history. Clinton was impeached on charges of obstruction of justice and lying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. Clinton responded with the same arrogant defiance that he maintained as the scandal unfolded. Responding to whether he personally apologized to Lewinsky, and “Do you feel that you owe her an apology?” Clinton answered Melvin, “I do not. 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. I felt terrible then, and I came to grips with it.”
Clinton became agitated and defensive saying he would not have done anything different in this #MeToo climate, arguing he too was a victim, punished enough for his actions. Clinton told Melvin, “No, yes. And nobody believes that I got out of that 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. They were not insensitive of that. 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 of the bar. I’ve had nothing but women leaders in my office since I left. You are giving one side and omitting facts.”
When responding to whether he should have resigned, Clinton conveniently referred to the allegations President Donald Trump is facing. Attacking Melvin, Clinton accused, “A lot of the facts have been conveniently omitted to make the story work, I think partly because they’re frustrated that they got all these serious allegations against the current occupant of the Oval Office and his voters don’t seem to care. I think I did the right thing. I defended the Constitution.” Democratic New York Senator and former Clinton ally Kirsten Gillibrand caused shock waves when this past November when she told the New York Times she believed Clinton should have resigned during the scandal in 1998. It was the first time a high-ranking Democrat, indicated Clinton should have resigned.
Clinton has escaped the leper status that is so common against men accused in the #MeToo era, not only because of the power of being a former president but also because of his public apology to the nation on August 17, 1998, where he acknowledged his affair with Lewinsky. Clinton then admitted, “Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.” That speech, however, consisted of Clinton’s same defiance, never did he say he was sorry or apologized for his actions, he only admitted he misled and he regrets them. Kathleen Hayden in CNN wrote an article, “Analysis: More Apology, Mr. President, And Less Politics, Please,” where Hayden said, “The speech was laced with legal doublespeak and a sharp, defiant edge.” Time even called it a “stony-faced White House address.”
One month later at the National Prayer Breakfast Clinton finally admitted, “I sinned.” Finally, Clinton publicly apologized. Clinton expressed in his speech, “I don’t think there’s a fancy way to say that I have sinned. It is important to me that everyone who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine — first and most important, my family, my friends, my staff, my cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness.” That was the only time Clinton apologized to Lewinsky or anyone, for his actions that put in the country in a crisis for no reason, and the pain and suffering that those involved went through and continued to go in through in the aftermath especially Lewinsky. Right or wrong, his apology has given him a pass with a majority of the American public and most probably the main reason he was spared from being convicted by the Senate in their impeachment vote, and let him escape being forced to resign from the presidency in 1998.
The #MeToo has revisited not only the prevalent sexual abuse and harassment that was pushed under the rug but also the meaning of consent especially when there is a difference in power between the two parties. The lopsided power in employment, at universities, relationships between bosses and employees and professors and students particularly. In light of this, Lewinsky, who persistently claimed it, was consensual and she was not a victim, but she is currently reconsidering it in light of the #MeToo movement. Lewinsky is not the only one reconsidering the relationship and President Clinton’s actions, so is the media.
Recently, Lewinsky in a March 2018, Vanity Fair article entitled, “Emerging from the ‘House of Gaslight’ in the age of #metoo” re-examined her relationship with former President Bill Clinton. Lewinsky emphasized, “If I have learned anything since then, it is that you cannot run away from who you are or from how you’ve been shaped by your experiences. Instead, you must integrate your past and present. As Salman Rushdie observed after the fatwa was issued against him, ‘Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.’ I have been working toward this realization for years. I have been trying to find that power — a particularly Sisyphean task for a person who has been gaslighted.”
Unlike Clinton, Lewinsky realizes how the #MeToo movement era changes how one looks at the Clinton era scandal. Lewinsky acknowledged “Until recently (thank you, Harvey Weinstein), historians hadn’t really had the perspective to fully process and acknowledge that year of shame and spectacle. And as a culture, we still haven’t properly examined it. Re-framed it. Integrated it. And transformed it.” On the reconsideration of her relationship with Clinton, Lewinsky expressed, “I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)” It impossible to believe a recent university graduate and former White House intern had a choice in her relationship with the president of the country and most powerful man in the free world. The more powerful one, no matter what, always directed the direction of the relationship.
Lewinsky wrote the article in honor of the 20th anniversary since was thrust into the spotlight by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Lewinsky recounted meeting Starr for the first time, and seeing him “as a human being.” She was “paving the way” for Starr to apologize, telling him, “Though I wish I had made different choices back then. I wish that you and your office had made different choices, too.” All Starr did was respond, “I know. It was unfortunate.” Lewinsky never described how she felt like that he did not apologize, as Clinton did not. After the Today Show interview aired, Lewinsky tweeted “grateful to the myriad people who have helped me evolve + gain perspective in the past 20 years.” She also reposted her February Vanity Fair article, saying, “worth reposting this today from @VanityFair.”
Since the #MeToo movement began in the fall of 2017, with the outing of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, powerful men in all industries; entertainment, journalism, politics academia, and business have seen their stars fall as women came forward accusing them of sexual assault or harassment. Legal vindication came with actor Bill Cosby finally being convicted in April of his sexual assaults and Harvey Weinstein’s arrest indictment on felony rape charges at the end of May. The movement has given women once silenced and their credibility destroyed by these men, a voice, and power, now a simple accusation is enough to destroy and turn the tables on the men. Somehow, for all the accusations of misconduct, Clinton has escaped this fate and he has been continually favored despite his gross abuse of power.
The #MeToo movement has seen very little similar apologies whether sincere or not, there has been little “genuine repentance” as Clinton said was necessary. To apologize is to admit defeat and that one is wrong, an almost impossible task for powerful men, who always believe they are right and everyone else is wrong. Public apologies have become the norm, but very few have been genuine and concerned for the victim. Mostly, these men have been looking for a way to salvage their careers, public apologies can help, especially if they show enough remorse as Clinton did. Rarely, however, do they feel the need to apologize privately it serves no purpose on the global stage; the lack of true remorse renders it unnecessary for most aggressors.
Online publication the Perspective wrote an article “on the public apology” describing the different times and repercussions for victims. Author Malkie Khutoretsky writes, “On the heels of #MeToo movement, public apologies for sexual misconduct are being issued on a loop.” The publication listed the benefits and drawbacks of a public apology, and concluded, “A public apology for sexual misconduct is owed as an admission of guilt and a step to healing. But who does the public apology benefit more, the abuser or the victim of sexual abuse or harassment?” As much as the public wants to grade the apologies, what is worse is never receiving an apology that even remotely acknowledges any wrongdoing at all. It shows that the aggressor does not even believe he was wrong at all in his actions.
As someone who has had a #MeToo experience having gone through harassment and retaliation and the everlasting fall out in my life both personally and professionally, I believe any apology has a value and a power. I would have appreciated any recognition that what this man, who was in a position of power, did to me was wrong, and that his conduct was not only wrong towards me but morally wrong considering his position. Although he hypocritically supports the #MeToo movement and religiously believes in forgiveness, I know he would never apologize, because like other men in power and like Clinton, unless their careers are in peril they would never admit they were wrong, and this one always believes he is right. Unfortunately, the same arrogance to makes these men act in the first place makes them unable to feel the remorse necessary to make a private apology and admit any defeat.
An April 2018 article by the Associated Press asks just that, “Can there be forgiveness, second chances in the age of #MeToo?” According to experts, there can be forgiveness if the apologies are genuine and recount exactly what they did wrong to their victims. The article’s author Michelle R. Smith claims, “Forgiveness must be possible if society wants to reduce instances of sexual misconduct, but experts say, it will take work and willingness to change from both the perpetrators and society at large.” Jennifer A. Thompson, an assistant professor of applied Jewish ethics and civic engagement at California State University also believes it is possible. Thompson explains that in the Jewish tradition, “You have to go to the person you hurt and ask, ‘What can I do to make this right?’” Thompson believes that model of redemption could work in the age of #MeToo.
Lesley Wexler, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law concurs, and believes in “restorative justice.” Wexler told the AP, “Part of what should be happening here is personal. Making amends to the victim, restoring the victim. And a separate part is acknowledging that the nature of this harm isn’t just the individual, you are a community. That suggests you also need to be public about what specifically was wrong and what you can do better.”
The interview comes barely a month after Town and Country rescinded their invite to Lewinsky for their philanthropy summit because Clinton would be giving an introduction. The outcry in the news and social media was almost as bad this time around with Clinton’s defiant remarks. Op-eds called Clinton out for not learning anything from the #MeToo movement and sticking to his politics as the usual mantra that was criticized when the scandal broke in 1998. The backlash to the former president’s remarks comes from both liberals and conservatives in the news and social media. Lewinsky was right in the social media age; she has been receiving all the support she needed and lacked while the scandal unfolded and the aftermath. As she wrote in Vanity Fair, “If the Internet was a bête noire to me in 1998, its stepchild — social media — has been a savior for millions of women today.”
Even before Clinton was asked about apologizing to Lewinsky, CNN anchor Jake Tapper and NBC’s Meet the Press host Chuck Todd criticized the former president on Todd’s “1947: The Meet the Press Podcast” on Thursday, May 24. Todd remarked, “It galls me that the former president hasn’t even simply apologized to her for ruining her life… Her life is never the same. He ruined it. He got to move on. I’ve never understood why he couldn’t simply apologize to her.” Tapper added, “It’s crazy, it’s crazy,” stating that Clinton “owes her the apology.”
On Twitter, commentators left and right attacked Clinton for his response. Conservative writer Amanda Carpenter tweeted, “Clinton says he apologized to “everyone in the world” and that he left the WH severely in debt because of the scandal. But that’s, in part, because they all lied about it for so long!” MSNBC NBC News Political Analyst Elise Jordan remarked, “Bill Clinton manages to make #MeToo about himself and evades @craigmelvin when asked if he ever apologized to Monica Lewinsky. Thanks @craigmelvin for asking an important and obvious question that WJC should be able to answer.” “Blue writer” Teri Carter concurred, “Bill Clinton STILL refuses to take responsibility for what he did to Monica Lewinsky. He has the “but what about me me me me me” complex.”
National Political Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC Steve Kornacki, observed, “His tone here — combative, aggrieved — really hasn’t changed in 20 years. This is the same Clinton the nation saw in that 7/98 primetime address in which he admitted the affair but stressed that “presidents have private lives.” While New York Times opinion contributor Maggie Haberman mocked, “Bill Clinton gets asked if he ever apologized to Lewinsky. He responds by saying Starr investigation was unfair.”
In news media, the commentators were not any more forgiving. Red State’s Sarah Quinlan writing “Bill Clinton has not learned anything from the #MeToo movement” for USA Today, claimed, “In the midst of the #MeToo movement, it would have been impressive and powerful for Clinton to demonstrate he had learned from the movement.” Emily Jashinsky’s article “Bill Clinton confronts #MeToo with smirks, arrogance” In the Washington Examiner, claims, “(Bill) Clinton seems to have missed the mood of the public, and expects to laugh and deflect his way through tough questions like it’s nothing, because for two decades his party dismissed those questions too.”
CNN political commentator SE Cupp wrote an op-ed on CNN, aptly titled, “Yep. Bill Clinton is still a monster.” Cupp opened her article, saying, “Former President Bill Clinton has just revealed the ultimate lessons he’s learned in the 20 years since his sordid affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky led to his impeachment: precisely, exactly none.” Cupp was immensely critical of Clinton’s response, “The president, grinning boyishly, insisting he did the right thing, boasting about having never delivered a personal apology to the young intern he once took advantage of in the Oval Office — is like watching a con artist brag about pulling one over on an unsuspecting family. The man is frighteningly, pathologically incapable of shame.”
CNN Editor-at-large Chris Cillizza believes Clinton should apologize personally to Lewinsky in his article, “Bill Clinton still gets it wrong on Monica Lewinsky and #MeToo.” Cillizza called Clinton’s response “a remarkable — and remarkably bad — quote.” Cillizza pointed out, “Apologizing in a public setting — with the obvious dual intent of clearing the decks politically — isn’t the same thing as reaching out to Lewinsky personally to say sorry.” He believes Clinton “seems much more interested in how he was, ultimately, validated by the public than in talking about whether or not he should have apologized to Lewinsky.”
Cupp was right, Clinton’s “demeanor on NBC would make anyone wonder about his sincerity, then or now.” In this changing world, Clinton needs to acknowledge that he should apologize, but without any political gains on the table, he chooses not to keep up his charade of regret. Then Americans were taken in by that same charm that seems grossly out of touch with the changing times. The “genuine repentance” the former president claimed to have in September 1998, was a farce just to garner sympathy from the American public, who were easy patsies, sucked into his continuing web of deceit. Clinton’s response proves he sounds like all the accused men of the #MeToo movement; he was just looking out for his own survival, always.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a over dozen years experience in education & political journalism.