Bill Clinton’s testy exchange with an NBC reporter about the #MeToo movement and his lack of direct personal apology to Monica Lewinsky is worth watching, both because it underlines the difficulties the former president’s legacy will face as it ages and because it pinches the nerve the former president exposes for Democrats looking to the future.
For the record, Clinton, who somehow seemed a little blindsided by the question, thinks the #MeToo movement is “long overdue.”
“I think that it doesn’t mean I agree with everything. I still have some – questions about some of the decisions which have been made,” he said.
He got defensive about trying to view his treatment of Lewinsky through the lens of the #MeToo movement, which Lewinsky has recently written about. (She has not, it appears, asked publicly for an apology.)
Clinton clearly still feels unfairly punished by the ordeal of having his affair dragged into the light by special prosecutor Ken Starr and his subsequent impeachment after lying about it.
“Nobody believes that I got out of that for free,” said Clinton, asked if he had apologized. “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.”
And then, with help from James Patterson, the author with whom he’s written a new novel about a fictional hands-on terrorism-fighting president, Clinton made the hard turn to documented philandering Democratic presidents of yore.
“I think his thing has been, it’s 20 years ago,” said Patterson. “Come on. Let’s talk about JFK. Let’s talk about, you know, LBJ. Stop already.”
Clinton took that and ran with it. “I don’t think President K– do you think President Kennedy should have resigned? Do you believe President Johnson should have resigned?”
Except Kennedy and Johnson are long dead and not part of the political conversation at the moment. Bill Clinton’s wife is still President Donald Trump’s chosen foil as he bemoans his own treatment by a special counsel.
And these questions aren’t going to stop being thrown at Clinton.
Earlier, in another interview pushing the new summer novel, Clinton was asked on CBS whether he agrees with Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democratic Senator considering a White House run, with her since-modulated assertion that he should have resigned back in the ’90s.
“Well, I just disagree with her,” Clinton said. “I mean, I think – you know, just – you have to – really ignore what the context was. But, you know, she’s living in a different context.”
Indeed. And it is exactly that different context that Clinton’s party is trying to seize control of and use to distinguish them from President Trump. Democrats are touting the number of female candidates they have on ballots. They are pushing the narrative of being the party supporting women’s rights. Sexual harassment is a top issue for Democratic voters heading into November. It’s not a top issue for Republican voters.
In a May CNN poll of registered voters, 80% of Democrats said it was extremely or very important and only 38% of Republicans.
CNN’s Dan Merica and Eric Bradner have reported in the past that interest in having the Clintons appear on the campaign trail has waned.
It is harder for the party writ large to set itself up as the antidote to President Trump and allegations about his treatment of women if people are constantly reminded of Clinton’s own past. Trump utilized that juxtaposition in 2016 when he invited women who had made accusations against Bill Clinton (Lewinsky was not among them) to his debate with Hillary Clinton.
Clinton argued during the NBC interview that his record on women is much more than Lewinsky.
“I had a sexual harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s,” he told NBC reporter Craig Melvin. “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.”
In the CBS interview, Clinton bemoaned the state of politics today and questioned whether he could succeed in it.
“I don’t like all this. I couldn’t be elected anything now ‘cause I just don’t like embarrassing people,” the former president said.
That may not be the only reason.