I feel terrible that Al Franken had to resign. He was a good senator, one of the best, but it was all that other behavior that had to be clearly and unambiguously censured in the strongest terms. Any doubts I might have had were dispelled by Bill Clinton, of all people.
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.”
He spends a lot of time insisting that there are “facts” that the interviewer is glossing over, implying that they exonerate him. I think the only fact that matters is that he took advantage of a star-struck young intern in his office, a fact that he has admitted was true.There’s no getting around that. But he “felt terrible”. Gosh. About what? That he exploited this woman, or that he got caught?
“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.”
I will happily admit that Clinton was a better man for women’s rights than the Republican hypocrites who used his personal misdeeds to make him pay that price and to hound him relentlessly in office; shouldn’t Newt Gingrich be paying an even more savage price for his behavior? I agree that American political culture is a morass of double-standards, and that a Democrat faces higher standards for personal probity than Republicans. But what I want to see is recognition that he was wrong, an acknowledgement that he screwed up badly, rather than whining about how he was sorry and he paid the price.
I was getting exasperated with Clinton’s obstinacy about admitting a huge mistake, but then James Patterson, his ally, leapt in and delivered the coup de grâce.
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?”
Hmm. Well. When you put it that way…YES. You’re saying that there has been 60 years of deplorable behavior in the Oval Office while the American public mostly turns a blind eye, and the political parties actively shelter sexual predators? I hadn’t thought of it that way. But maybe if we’d told the American president in the 1960s that he doesn’t get to use the power of his office to go on pussy patrol, there would have been an example set that guys, you have to keep it in your pants. You have a job to do.
This isn’t an unrealistic demand for purity and perfection. This is not something that is particularly hard to do: recognize that you have a professional relationship with your colleagues, not a romantic one, and there are lines you don’t get to cross. Most of us men can handle that just fine — it’s no hardship — in our working and personal life, it’s just a few that are oblivious to the barriers. It doesn’t help that the most prestigious and high paying jobs seem to be accompanied by the perk that you get to throw away all personal responsibility and ignore the autonomy and humanity of your underlings.
Traister deserves the last word:
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.