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Opinion Bill Clinton’s #MeToo reckoning

Deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus says, in light of the #MeToo movement, former president Bill Clinton should have come up with a better apology by now. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

When I watched Bill Clinton’s appearance on the “Today” show Monday, a promotional stop that turned into an unexpected reckoning with #MeToo, one thing leaped out at me: The former president wouldn’t say Monica Lewinsky’s name.

It didn’t seem possible. I watched the interview repeatedly. Once, twice, three times, then another time — wait, make that another five times — before I wrote this. Surely the next viewing would show I’d been mistaken, that when NBC’s Craig Melvin asked Clinton if he’d considered personally apologizing to Lewinsky about what happened to her in the wake of their extramarital relationship now 20 years in the past, he would say her name.

No. Clinton referred to Lewinsky as “her.”

In an interview designed to promote “The President Is Missing,” the new book Clinton co-wrote with novelist James Patterson, it was clear that Clinton would like the subject of Lewinsky to go missing, permanently. Instead, the former president managed to remind almost everyone why the #MeToo movement was so needed.

Clinton, by turns, appeared exasperated, frustrated and furious that a mere reporter such as Melvin would ask if his treatment of Lewinsky should make us think differently of him or his presidency. Didn’t we know he’s suffered? “Nobody believes I got out of that for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt,” he told Melvin. Surely this must be misplaced rage over Trump’s election to office. “They’re frustrated that they’ve got all these allegations against the current occupant of the Oval Office, and his voters don’t seem to care,” Clinton said.

And apologize personally to Lewinsky? To her? “I’ve never talked to her. But I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry.”

Clinton concluded by saying he’s moved on: “I’ve tried to do a good job since then with my life and my work and that’s all I have to say.” It wasn’t. After his remarks blew up on the Internet, he made a public apology — using Lewinsky’s name — at an appearance in New York Monday.

That’s better from Clinton, but still not good enough. It’s clearly not a major concern — or even really a minor one — that Lewinsky is still mired in the past. Clinton, once in debt, earned more than $100 million for speeches between January 2001 and January 2013. Lewinsky on the other hand, recently wrote in Vanity Fair that she’s been diagnosed with PTSD from her time in the harsh public spotlight. She’s come to believe that if the affair with Clinton was not harassment in the classic #MeToo sense, it was not quite right either. “I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent,” she wrote. “Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege.”

As soon as her affair with Clinton went public, Lewinsky turned into a national joke. Everything from her intellect to her looks came under ferocious attack. White House aide Sidney Blumenthal leaked reports to the press that Lewinsky was a semi-deranged stalker. Feminist novelist Erica Jong claimed she looked like she suffered from “third-stage gum disease.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described her as “a ditsy, predatory White House intern” — and won a Pulitzer Prize for her “fresh and insightful columns” on the affair.

No matter what Lewinsky did — a line of handbags, a turn as a spokeswoman for diet company Jenny Craiga graduate degree from the London School of Economics and, now, an anti-bullying activist — it wasn’t enough. Some – just like Clinton – seemed to want her to vanish entirely. In her new book on women and girls in the 1990s, journalist Allison Yarrow reports that two separate speakers at Lewinsky’s alma mater, Lewis & Clark College, claimed the school forbid them from mentioning her name. She was always the intern, the woman who saved the dress with the president’s semen on it.

But few questioned Lewinsky’s fate. Until #MeToo, it was almost always the woman who suffered when harassment or a sexual scandal occurred. We took that for granted.

A February poll from Marketplace and Edison Research found almost half of women who said they’d experienced sexual harassment at work said they ended up leaving their job or switching careers. Other polls show that few women report suspect incidents to human resources, fearing for their careers. They are likely on to something: A survey conducted last year — before the New York Times’s devastating exposé on Harvey Weinstein was published — found that when it came to the technology sector, women who went to human resources or upper management to complain about harassment were more likely to lose their jobs or face other professional consequences than the men actually committing the offensive behavior.

The #MeToo scandals put faces and names to these facts. Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino say Harvey Weinstein blackballed them, costing them roles and professional reputation. Lindsey Menz recalled the indignity of posing for a picture with then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) while promoting her father’s business at the Minnesota state fair. Franken, she said, “pulled me in really close, like awkward close, and as my husband took the picture, he put his hand full-fledged on my rear,” Menz said. “It was wrapped tightly around my butt cheek.”

#MeToo is resulting in a reckoning, a refusal to let these women go missing. Instead, the movement gives them a voice. But there is a limit to what it can do. It can’t give women back those lost years, those lost careers. It can’t make the past humiliations go away. So let’s thank Clinton. In his self-obsession and self-pity, Clinton inadvertently made all that clear. But more important, let’s thank Craig Melvin, who repeated Monica Lewinsky’s name and wouldn’t let the subject drop.