Just a Couple Things: The Clinton Interview
I have grown accustomed to waking up at 6:00 a.m. to watch Morning Joe. Mondays are particularly fun and full of new material from the weekend. Joe is not really a “news program,” rather a roundtable of political analysts that discuss the news of the day. In the third and final hour (8-9), producers typically replay a couple of segments from the first hour (6-7), and that is the timeslot in which members of Congress are interviewed. I always get good book ideas, as authors will come to peddle their wares; I am embarrassed to share the number of downloads I have in my digital library. Suffice it to say, I could quit my job and stop buying books now, and I might not finish them all before I’m 65.
Most of the time, I am half asleep until about 8:00 but fortunately this morning, I was awake enough to catch Craig Melvin’s short interview with former President Bill Clinton. The conversation was ostensibly set up to discuss 42’s new book with James Patterson, The President is Missing. But the President, nor his co-author (who looked like he would have preferred to be anywhere but sitting next to Clinton) answered any questions about their new thriller, rather Melvin focused solely on the “MeToo” movement and Clinton’s reaction to it given his history of sexual harassment claims. The interview was telling and for those of us who supported him 20 years ago, before and during the impeachment, it is a good opportunity to reflect on what we knew and when. The Washington Post published a handy guide back in 2015, some situations were new even to me.
|Bill Clinton was elected on the back of the Clarence Thomas nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court. Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment against an “esteemed conservative judge” were novel for the time; the Senate Judiciary Committee was chaired by Joe Biden, and in the early nineties, the benefit of the doubt did not go to the woman. As a result of Thomas’s confirmation, more women than ever were elected to the Senate that year (1992): Patty Murray (OR), Carol Moseley Braun (IL), Barbara Boxer (CA), and Diane Feinstein (CA) joined Nancy Kassebaum (KS) and Barbara Mikulski (MD) in the upper chamber.|
Voters knew that Bill Clinton had not been a perfect husband. During the New Hampshire primary, Gennifer Flowers spoke to the press about her 12-year affair with the Arkansas governor. Clinton denied it of course, but he and Hillary sat for an interview with 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft and candidly discussed their marriage. Hillary insulted Tammy Wynette and Clinton came back and placed third in the primary, going on to win the nomination and as we know, the presidency. My point: in 1992, voters knew he was not perfect but we accepted that imperfection. Many Americans of Clinton’s generation experienced similar marriage infidelities and thus, it became part of 42s appeal.
By 1996, we knew more. Paula Jones had filed a sexual harassment lawsuit in 1994 and I believe that by then, Kathleen Willey’s claim that Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office had also gone public. But I will be completely honest, I do not remember what I knew or did not know: Clinton had my vote. No Democrat primaried him from the left. Looking back, Clinton was more center than center-left. I believe in reviewing Hillary’s record, she was probably the more progressive of the two but was drawn to the center through experience in southern politics. In 1996, he ran against Bob Dole, who had shifted decidedly to the right after Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1992. For Democrats, the choice was easy.
It was not until Monica Lewinsky that in retrospect, I second guess myself. Again, I do not remember much from that time. I had just bought my first home and was busy and stressed at work. I recall when the news broke about the affair and Matt Lauer’s interview with Hillary Clinton in which she claimed the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” I vaguely recall the famous quotes, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” the apologies, the blue dress, and the famous characters (Linda Tripp, Vernon Jordan). In reading and watching the mini-series “The Looming Tower,” I was reminded that during this drama, Osama bin-Laden’s Al Qaeda organization set off bombs at the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. There was a lot going on.
In private, Democrats scorned the President and wanted him to step down. The Veep, who by then had declared himself a candidate to succeed Clinton, desperately wanted to distance himself from the guy in the Oval Office. But in public, Democratic officials pledged their support. Why? Because 42 had a high enough approval rating that they did not dare call for his resignation. Sound familiar? And so, the Democratic Party elite, those in Congress, watched as the Republicans beat the drum of morality all the while knowing that their current Speaker (Gingrich) would soon be resigning for his own lurid affair. Impeachment passed the House in a party-line vote, but the Senate did not convict as several Republicans refused to vote to remove Clinton from office.
Twenty years later, does Clinton’s affair and his party’s reaction to it really matter? I think it does. I disagree with the notion that because Democrats defended Clinton, Republicans are justified in defending Trump. “Whataboutism” is a ridiculous justification and an even dumber explanation. Two wrongs never make a right and we should learn from our mistakes. But Clinton’s answers to the questions posed by Craig Melvin were defensive and angry. While he did not use the term “fake news,” he came close, making the point that Melvin did not have all of the facts. As Patterson looked on, (clearly hoping for a giant sinkhole to allow his escape), Clinton rocked back and forth, pointed, and claimed that he had publicly apologized and had left the White House $16 million in debt, therefore, he was the victim. I suspect that Harvey Weinstein may give a similar interview in a few years, and certainly, I’ve heard similar from the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It is a national shame that the events of 20 years ago unfolded as they did and that we have allowed it to happen again. Consider that we call the episode “The Lewinsky Scandal,” or reference ‘Monica’s blue dress’ rather than “Clinton’s impeachment scandal.” Today, we refer to Trump’s indiscretions by the woman’s name. “Stormy Daniels” is the most famous, but there are others. Lewinsky has written several op-eds through the years and I often wonder what her life would have been like had she not interned in the White House or had the President not looked her way. In the wake of MeToo, her most recent editorial in Vanity Fair, was the most interesting. I would encourage you to read it and watch the Clinton interview. It’s clear that she has evolved and matured. He has not.
In conclusion, we cannot undo decisions made in the past, nor can we guarantee that we would not make a similar decision in the future. But what we CAN do is work on issues of electoral reform to improve the quality of candidates from which we get to choose and hold our elected officials accountable for their actions.
For those of us that remember Clinton’s impeachment, we will tell you that it caused more problems than it solved. The country is in for a long road ahead and this time, the evidence is much more damning than a blue dress.