There’s a particular hell we are all dragged back to with nearly every thoughtful #MeToo conversation, and that hell is Bill Clinton. Whether he was an abuser. Whether he was just a horndog. Whether women can still support him (Do they still support him? Which women? Support how?).
On Sunday morning, those questions came up again via the morning news shows, when CBS correspondent Tony Dokoupil asked Hillary Clinton whether her husband should have resigned after the Lewinsky affair.
“Absolutely not,” replied the former senator, presidential candidate and secretary of state.
“It wasn’t an abuse of power?” Dokoupil pressed.
“No, no,” she said. And as Dokoupil raised a skeptical eyebrow at the notion of “the president of the United States [having] a consensual relationship with an intern,” she hastened to interject that Lewinsky, 22 at the time, “was an adult.”
This, of course, is a preposterous sidestep. Most big-name harassment cases over the past year have involved adult women and adult men. That’s what abuse of power in the workplace looks like. Ashley Judd was an adult woman; so were all of Leslie Moonves’s alleged victims and all the women Louis C.K. called into a room and whipped out his penis for.
And if you read the preceding paragraph and thought, “Bill Clinton is no Les Moonves, he’s more like ____” and if you were then unable to fill in the blank, well, welcome to Bill Clinton hell. Because figuring out how to feel about Bill Clinton seems instrumental in figuring out how to process the current moment, and the discussions always get slippery.
Particularly, I think, for the supporters who looked approvingly at the Family Medical Leave Act and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other things Clinton had done for women in general, and who then politely averted their eyes when it came to what he might have done to women in the specific.
Bill Clinton conversations get slippery because he’s not in office anymore, so if he was a monster, he’s a defanged one now (albeit a former president with a global platform).
Bill Clinton conversations are slippery because 20 years later, we are still wrestling with how to judge the events of less-woke eras.
As Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation dragged on excruciatingly last month, Bill Clinton’s own misdeeds were the whataboutisms brought up by every conservative pundit who wanted Kavanaugh on the bench.
It was a bad-faith argument — what, because we’ve had sketchy dudes in power in the past, we’re now committed to accepting them for all time? — but still: What about Bill Clinton? What kind of psychic reckoning are we overdue to confront?
If the man deserves redemption, he hasn’t done much to help his own case. In June, he told NBC’s Craig Melvin that he’s never apologized to Monica Lewinsky, and that he wouldn’t approach the situation any differently today. “I don’t think it would be an issue,” he said, growing increasingly flustered that the topic was raised at all: “Two-thirds of the American people sided with me,” he insisted.
I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t spent the past year privately litigating every uncomfortable sexual experience of her life — what she did or didn’t do, or should or shouldn’t have done. So the fact that Clinton apparently hadn’t given America’s biggest sex scandal much thought made him look like he was either shockingly clueless or a liar.
Or, like he was so hopelessly entitled that he ended up making #MeToo’s point even better than its most vocal activists. Yes, Bill. Two-thirds of the American people might have sided with you then. That’s because our problems with misogyny are systemic, and not the fault of individual bad men. A large percentage of the American people have been wrong for a very long time.
In today’s Democratic Party, Bill Clinton’s past almost certainly would have ruined him. Multiple allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, including a rape accusation by Juanita Broaddrick — today, those would be investigated and taken seriously. We would talk about Monica Lewinsky as a human and not as a fat joke.
And many of the people who voted for him in 1992 and 1996 would not vote for him today. That’s the refrain I kept hearing from liberal friends and acquaintances, all through the Kavanaugh hearings, and the Donald Trump “Access Hollywood” tape saga, and the wave of powerful men revealed to be serial harassers: If Bill Clinton were running for office now, I would not vote for him.
Add JFK to that list. Add Thomas Jefferson. The list of men we would not vote for now is long.
But the hell of Bill Clinton is that he won’t go away. He won’t account for his own actions, so we have to account for him.
Bill Clinton conversations get slippery because, at the end of the day, feelings about his guilt or innocence, or his goodness or badness, often came down to whether a person liked him in office.
How much did that cloud our judgment and lower our standards? How did it pave the way for where we are now, where opinions about harassment cases live or die based on whether the accused had a D or R after his name?
The hell of Bill Clinton is the hell of this whole moment in time: Plenty of Americans might make different choices now, but we’re still paying for the choices we made then.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.