Bright and early Monday morning, Bill Clinton launched a book tour in support of a political thriller he wrote with the best-selling author James Patterson, called The President Is Missing. And sometime before 8 a.m., it had become clear that it had not occurred to our ex-president that hawking his book would also entail answering questions about Monica Lewinsky, and about how his affair with the White House intern had shaped — and slowed — the feminist conversation around sexual harassment.
Clinton’s feckless replies to questions about #MeToo revealed an unpreparedness that spoke volumes about why men have been able to abuse their power with relative impunity for generations, while the women around them have been asked to pay the price for them over and over and over again.
The interaction happened during an interview Clinton did, alongside Patterson, with the Today show’s Craig Melvin. Melvin kicked things off by asking Clinton about how his relationship with Lewinsky — consensual but nonetheless a clear abuse of professional and sexual power — had sullied recent reassessments of his presidency.
Clinton reared back, flustered. “We have a right to change the rules but we don’t have a right to change the facts,” he said, suggesting that Melvin didn’t know the facts of the Lewinsky case. Clinton claimed to “like the #MeToo movement; it’s way overdue.” But when Melvin pressed him on whether it had prompted him to rethink his own past behavior, like so many millions of other men and women around the world — including Lewinsky in a March Vanity Fair essay — he sputtered that of course he hadn’t, because he’d “felt terrible then.”
“Nobody believes that I got out of that for free. I left the White House 16 million dollars in debt,” Clinton said, as if having paid a literal debt was the extent of the work to be done in the midst of a cultural and social reckoning. Then, as if he’d forgotten the rules of time and space and the evolution of progressive movements, Clinton kicked into full self-defense mode: “This was litigated 20 years ago … Two-thirds of the American people sided with me; I had a sexual-harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s; I had two women chiefs of staff when I was the governor; women were overrepresented in the attorneys general office in the ’70s.”
Toward the end, James Patterson jumped in, perhaps hoping to assist his floundering co-author: “This thing was 20 years ago. Come on. Let’s talk about JFK. Let’s talk about LBJ. Stop already.” Clinton took the opportunity to angrily query Melvin: “You think President Kennedy should have resigned? Do you think President Johnson should have resigned?”
The exchange left several matters to clear up, starting with these last points.
Questioning how Bill Clinton’s behavior fits with the acknowledgment of the ways sexual harassment has systematically damaged women’s political, professional, and economic prospects is not at odds with acknowledgment that John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson behaved grotesquely toward women; it is part of the same story. Thanks for bringing it up, James Patterson!
What always made Bill Clinton’s transgressions so pivotally important — and a legitimate subject for scrutiny — was that they happened after the rules and assumptions governing sexual harassment had changed. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were presidents in the 1960s, before the term “sexual harassment” had been coined, in 1975, by the feminist scholar Lyn Farley. At the time, she was working on the case of Carmita Wood, the Cornell University administrative assistant who’d quit her job, and was subsequently denied unemployment benefits, after years of being groped and kissed against her will by her boss.
The cases that Wood and other women brought against their bosses worked their way through the courts over the next decade, which meant that Clinton was the first Democratic president to serve after the unanimous 1986 Supreme Court decision in favor of assistant bank manager Michelle Vinson barring sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. And just the year before Clinton was elected president, Anita Hill gave her searing congressional testimony about the behavior of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. That event not only popularized the term “sexual harassment,” it inspired a surge of female candidates to enter politics the very year that Bill Clinton came to Washington.
Which brings us to the next part of his self-justification, namely, his pride in having appointed women to senior positions and having had sexual-harassment policies in place in Arkansas. If we have learned nothing else from the past six months, or two years, or three centuries, it’s that having had feminist thoughts or made feminist policy, having had feminist friends or given jobs to feminist women doesn’t inoculate a man from charges that he has also been a sexist pig to individual women, in ways that may have both hurt those women and perpetuated larger sexist inequities.
One lesson exemplified so fully by Bill Clinton is that when men, and particularly white men, have such disproportionate power in the public sphere — when they’re the ones doing the appointing, the hiring, the promoting, the legislating — it leaves women dependent on them, especially if they’re the “good” guys. And that means women, including feminists, are bound to those men such that censuring them is not just difficult, but politically — and therefore practically — perilous.
Yes, many feminists defended Clinton against charges of harassment back in the 1990s, and that was in part because they felt they needed him: He was the man who’d signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, who’d appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court; he was a pro-choice president after 12 years of Reagans and Bushes; and he was married to a brilliant woman that many of them admired. But the fact that they took his part contributed to the stalling of the conversation around harassment, the conversation that has only recently been revivified in part by the election of another president, an admitted harasser and accused predator, who came to power by beating out that brilliant woman for the presidency.
By many measures, therefore, it’s feminists — and not Bill Clinton himself — who have been blamed for having extinguished the post–Anita Hill conversation. It is feminists, and more broadly women, who have had to answer for their errors in judgment 20 years ago, often with more frequency or rigor than Bill Clinton has been made to answer with for his errors in judgment 20 years ago.
Which is what makes the most notable thing about this morning’s interview the fact that Bill Clinton seemed to be shocked that he would be asked about his behavior in light of #MeToo. How is that possible?
The answer is that a major aspect of the reckoning has been the realization that a culture in which harassment and sexual power abuse are ubiquitous is also one in which women are always asked to react to men’s behavior, and then always evaluated on their reactions, while men, until recently, rarely are called upon to account for themselves.
Consider that Lewinsky herself has been asked to answer for this relationship — and only this relationship — for two decades. Her name has been used as a synonym for fellatio by performers including Eminem and Beyoncé; in 2001, she was asked onstage, “How does it feel to be America’s premier blow-job queen?”
In her Vanity Fair piece, she wrote about how she “had made mistakes” and how she was “unpacking and reprocessing what happened,” and about how #MeToo was helping her to finally consider, at 44, “the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern.”
But it’s not just the woman he had the extramarital relationship with who’s been evaluated based on his bad acts; it’s also the one he had the marital relationship with. Hillary Clinton lost the support of many feminists who’d adored her when she decided to stand by her man. Others made it clear that they thought the choice was hers to make, but their support had its own dark underside, when pundits like the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd accused Hillary of leveraging sympathy as a wronged wife into a political career. From there, it was just a short leap to view Hillary Clinton’s pathbreaking achievements — as the first woman elected to the Senate from New York, and later as the first American woman to become a major-party nominee for the presidency — as fundamentally unearned, some sick lagniappe benefit of having been publicly hurt and humiliated.
This too is one of the discoveries of #MeToo; the degree to which the behavior of men degraded the professional accomplishments of all kinds of other women, not just those they’ve harassed, but those with whom they worked or to whom they were married, women who turned a blind eye or forgave or played along or objected. Those women’s work is understood not simply as notable in its own right, but as derivative of the male power to which they were forced to respond.
“Let’s not forget, and I’ll be brutal,” MSNBC host Chris Matthews said of Clinton in January of 2008, during Hillary’s first run for the presidency, “the reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around. That’s how she got to be senator from New York … She didn’t win there on her merit.”
In 2016, of course, Clinton’s historic role as the Democratic candidate for the White House was marked by her opponent’s decision to invite three women who claimed that her husband had assaulted or harassed them to attend one of the debates. There was a feminist conversation to be had about these allegations of improprieties in Bill Clinton’s past, but Donald Trump didn’t care about that; he was using the women who’d accused Bill to harm his wife. And it did harm her; her husband’s power abuses — and her own choices to defend him and denigrate Lewinsky and other women — muzzled her. Hillary Clinton couldn’t hit her presidential opponent hard on the multiple credible charges of assault and harassment leveled at him. For this, we are all still paying.
Women are perpetually asked to be the cops, the police, the bosses of their bosses, the judges of their judges; the ones held responsible for patrolling and controlling and meting out punishment against — or graciously forgiving — men who trespass. And God help us if we get it wrong.
When Michigan congressman John Conyers was revealed to have settled sexual-harassment claims, it was Nancy Pelosi’s (ill-advised!) defense of him on Meet the Press that garnered the most critical ink. During the weeks that then-senator Al Franken was being accused by multiple women of having groped them, it was his female colleagues who were regularly questioned by the media and their Senate opponents for their hypocrisy in not condemning him. Then, when some of those female colleagues did call for Franken’s resignation, they were quickly tagged for being “opportunistic” in the grand tradition of Hillary Clinton, except by doing the opposite: trying to advance themselves by bringing Franken down.
Back to Bill Clinton: It often feels like every woman who was alive during the Lewinsky scandal — and some who weren’t — has been asked to justify how she reacted to it. Feminists, including Gloria Steinem, who took Clinton’s side 20 years ago, have been asked to reconsider and recant. Chelsea Clinton has been asked about her father’s sexual past during both the 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns of her mother. In 2018, conservative women publicly objected to Anita Hill heading up the Time’s Up legal task force, because she’d told Tim Russert in 1998 that Bill Clinton’s harassment had to be evaluated in the context of “the totality” of his presidency and “how he has been on women’s issues generally.”
All these women still have to apologize for not having been tough enough on Clinton, yet last fall, when Kirsten Gillibrand — who’d go on to be the first to request that Franken step down — was asked by the New York Times whether she thought retrospectively that Clinton should have resigned the presidency and answered yes, she was attacked by the Clintons’ long-time aide Philippe Reines for her ingratitude and hypocrisy, while political strategist Hank Sheinkopf called her “traitorous,” a “political opportunist,” and “disloyal.”
As a feminist journalist who’s written extensively about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns and about #MeToo, I, too, am regularly entreated to offer up my own judgments of Bill Clinton’s behavior, as well as to judge how Hillary reacted, how feminists of the time reacted, how contemporary feminists react to Hillary Clinton’s reactions …
Considering all this, it is truly only a powerful white man who could have lived the past 20 years — through the defeat of his wife and the social revolution it helped to galvanize — and think that none of this effort or upheaval applied to him, especially given that so much of it applies to him directly. So as he goes on to sell more copies of his book I’d advise Bill Clinton to stop bitching about how this is Kennedy-era ancient history. This is the muck that many of us have been swimming in for decades, and much of it is of your making. Come on in; the water is sickeningly warm.