A terrible take on Bill Clinton's Lewinsky-interview mess

Monday I wrote about Bill Clinton’s disaster of an interview in which he said he didn’t owe Monica Lewinsky an apology and wagged his finger at his interviewer in a way very reminiscent of his statement 20 years ago that he did not have sex with “that woman.”


Yesterday, reporter John Harris wrote his take on the whole incident for Politico Magazine and while it’s not ultimately that favorable to Bill, I found it to be a perfect example of the ways in which many in the media treat this issue with a glaring double-standard.

Part of the “Today“ show interview revealed Clinton as painfully behind the times in his understanding of how recent events have changed the public conversation about sexuality, power and respect for women. He spoke accurately about the big personal and financial price he paid for his transgressions and sincerely (or so it seemed to me) about how badly he felt over his own lapses.

No. Clinton did not speak accurately about the price he paid. Not even close as the Washinton Post’s Glenn Kessler pointed out the next day:

Clinton skirts close to Four Pinocchios. He did have large legal debts, perhaps several million as he once said, but $16 million is clearly wrong. In any case, he and his wife were able to quickly dig themselves out of that hole. As for the sexual harassment policy, he was simply implementing federal guidelines — and it’s an odd thing to brag about, given the circumstances.

That was written two days before Harris’ own piece went up. Did he miss it? I guess so. This seems like another case of basic facts of major stories which mainstream media figures don’t know. It belongs in the same category as the NY Times editorial which said Sarah Palin had inspired the Tucson shooting. Clinton’s claims were not accurate.


Even more disturbing is the claim that Clinton was sincere. Only someone completely lacking in the basic ability to read the cues of human emotion could claim that. The reality was exactly the opposite. Clinton was hostile, deceitful, arrogant, bitter and defensive. I was far from the only person who found his performance repulsive. Erin Gloria Ryan at the Daily Beast put it best:

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…

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.

Having completely misread Clinton’s tone and the accuracy of his statements, Harris then moves on to bashing conservatives as a way to excuse Bill’s behavior by contrast:

That year of scandal was not about rule of law, Clinton argued in 1998, and it was not even about sex. It was about the battle for power. He thought then and still thinks now that Democrats lose by too often acting as if the political-media-scandal complex is on the level when Republicans prove every day that it is not. How else to explain a party that piously said the Constitution gave it no choice but to pursue Clinton’s moral failings over sex and lies but is tolerant and even celebratory about Trump’s failings over sex and lies and tax returns and Russia and Cabinet scandals and on and on?


How else to explain it? Well, let’s start with the fact that the accusations against President Trump, by Stormy Daniels, Summer Zervos, and others, all took place before he was elected. Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica was carried out during his tenure in the White House. That’s one way to explain the difference.

And it’s not just the timing or even the locations of the acts in question. When Clinton came along in 1992, there were plenty of rumors about the behavior of Slick Willie back in Arkansas. In response, the Clintons denied everything and claimed they had a wonderful, loving marriage. There was an implied promise when he ran that Bill’s indiscretions, if they ever happened, were in the past. So the fact that he took up with an intern in 1995 was a betrayal of public trust. He promised us he wasn’t that guy, or wasn’t that guy anymore, but he was.

That’s not the only thing wrong with Harris’ formulation. If you want to talk about failing to catch up with the current moment, how about the use of the word “piously” to condemn conservatives who thought the President shouldn’t be turning the Oval Office into his private porn set. That’s straight out of the left’s 1998 Clinton playbook when anyone who was against what Clinton did was mocked as a Puritan who was embarrassing the nation in the eyes of broad-minded Europeans. Everyone lies about sex, we were told. What’s the big deal?


Now, some are looking back on all of that and admitting there may have been a problem with the most powerful man in the world putting the moves on an intern many decades his junior. Even Monica herself has recently said she’s beginning to question whether the issue of consent wasn’t strained in that context. In any case, you don’t have to be a Puritan to think that’s wrong.

Harris gets the other half of the equation wrong too. Are conservatives celebratory of Trump’s misbehavior? I’ve seen some conservatives deny that he ever slept with Stormy Daniels. Others think he probably did it but neither group is really celebrating it. Are they tolerating it? Well, in the sense that whether it happened or not a decade ago doesn’t change the fact that he’s the president now, yes I guess so. What’s the alternative? Is something that happened long before his election supposed to be an impeachable offense? Isn’t that going well beyond what happened to Bill Clinton over his conduct in office?

All of this leads up to Harris’ claim that the reason Clinton seems so incapable of dealing with is because he’s so deeply ashamed:

Perhaps most revealing was the role Lewinsky played in Clinton’s 2004 memoir, “My Life.” The book is written as a parade of minute details, each day unfolding as Clinton experienced the presidency in real time. Notably, however, Lewinsky enters the narrative not in 1995—when their relationship begun—but in 1998, when the matter became public. The implicit message: her significance was a political crisis to be navigated rather than as a person with whom Clinton became intimately intertwined over two years of West Wing visits and steamy telephone calls.

Clinton’s critics would describe this distance as a sign that he lacks shame, but my own belief—heightened over the years—is that it more likely reflects the opposite, that his self-reproach ran deeply. He could not reckon publicly with Lewinsky as a person because he had trouble reckoning with his own guilt privately.


Clinton behaved like a complete ass on TV because, down deep, he’s so ashamed of himself? I don’t think so. In fact, Harris doesn’t seem to think so either. He spends several paragraphs of his story saying that Clinton has a habit of telling people exactly how he sees things even when he knows it’s probably not wise to do so. And if that’s true then the way he feels is a lot closer to dismissive arrogance than shame. It’s all right there in that interview.

Harris writes this entire long piece about Clinton and MeToo but never mentions the name Juanita Broaddrick. Why won’t anyone in the media ever mention her? I think it’s clearly because it ruins the narrative. If Bill is just a cad then there’s room to excuse him, reinterpret him, give him do-overs, and rehabilitate his legacy. If he’s something worse than that, then this becomes a simpler conversation. That’s one national conversation the left has been avoiding for 20 years.

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