Bill Clinton just doesn’t fucking get it. And he never will.
The former president sat down with NBC’s Craig Melvin recently to hawk a book. Melvin, thankfully, didn’t stick to talking about the book that TV talk show hosts will spend the next few weeks pretending to have read. He pivoted to a question about Monica Lewinsky and the #MeToo movement.
“Looking back on what happened then, through the lens of #MeToo now, do you think differently, or feel more responsibility?” Melvin asked.
Clinton’s body language immediately changed, anger breaking through his omnipresent cucumber-coolness in the way that anger tends to break through when confident liars are called out. “I felt terrible then, and I came to grips with it.”
If he felt terrible though, what he said next didn’t reflect it. Instead of remorse, Clinton offered a brand of sleazy obfuscation that has come to personify the gaudy detachment political elites still have from the moment in which we live.
There was the self-pity (“I left the White House $16 million in debt”), the argumentum ad populum (“Two-thirds of the American people sided with me”), and the clever, vague distractions (“you typically have ignored gaping facts in describing this”). There was even the misdirection. “I’ve apologized to everybody in the world,” he said when asked whether he’d expressed sorrow to Monica Lewinsky. (For what it’s worth, I wasn’t able to find any reports of him apologizing directly to her.)
Alongside Clinton sat his co-author James Patterson, who unhelpfully offered the ancient history defense, pointing out that the events in question were twenty years old.
But above all, there was the moral preening that, when distilled to its purest form, is just a ham-fisted attempt to avoid taking responsibility. How could he, Bill Clinton, have been bad to Monica Lewinsky if he, Bill Clinton, had been so good for women elsewhere?
“I had a sexual harassment policy when I was governor in the '80s,” Clinton declared. “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 in the bar. I’ve had nothing but women leaders in my office since.”
Clinton didn’t invent his particular brand of self-righteous deflection. Plenty of men in power have tried to use their public-facing record with women as a way to shield their private lives from scrutiny. Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s propensity to talk about women’s empowerment into a microphone while privately abusing women in his life is so blatantly hypocritical that it almost seemed like a kink. In Clinton’s case, the women he promoted in the AG’s office in the '70s, I’m sure, didn’t volunteer to have their professional lives used in the defense of a man’s behind-closed-doors misogyny. And yet, there they were on Monday morning, the latest variation of human shield for a man who projects power but can’t stand to stomach a simple moment of introspection.
Sometimes it’s women doing the obfuscating. Nancy Pelosi originally defended Rep. John Conyers as an “icon” who had long fought for the rights of the disenfranchised. Conyers’ office had paid tens of thousands of dollars to settle sexual harassment claims. Conyers also stepped down and to this day has not acknowledged or even seemed to understand that doing good work in public doesn’t buy you Sin Bucks to spend in private.
Of course, it’s not just the Democrats who do this. (It’s never just the Democrats.) President Donald Trump’s minions often cite his promotion of women in the Trump organization as a sign that the man can’t possibly be sexism personified. Kellyanne Conway has trotted out her status as the first ever woman to successfully run a presidential campaign, effectively throwing her body between her boss and the 19 women who have accused her boss of sexual misconduct. Sarah Huckabee Sanders clumsily invokes her womanhood in arguments against sexism. Ivanka Trump has used her gender to defend her father from harassment and misconduct allegations. How can Donald Trump be sexist? Some of his best children are women!
All of these excuses, from Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, are ridiculous. All of the self-pity is contemptible. And all of the deflection and obfuscation from women who run interference for them is despicable.
The difference between the party of Clinton and the party of Trump is that the former seems determined to purge itself of the problems that brought us here while the latter seems determined to do everything it’s been doing before, but louder and with more misspellings. It’s why Bill Clinton finds himself having to explain that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she’s airing her grievances with his Oval Office conduct. Meanwhile, Trump-aligned Republicans have not offered a truly serious legislative effort to combat sexual misconduct.
And yet, if Democrats are serious about being the party that women can count on to stand up for them, they need to take several giant steps away from Bill Clinton. No matter how many women he’s promoted, he still hasn’t apologized to the one who matters. He still doesn’t understand what he’s done. At least his book tour will be painful.