He was the most powerful man in the world. She was a 21-year-old intern. They had an illicit affair in the White House. He went on to make millions of dollars and was revered by millions of people while she was shamed into silence and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
And yet, if you listen to many Democrats, what happened between Monica Lewinsky and then-President Bill Clinton was just a private relationship between two consenting adults. It’s what Democrats say any time someone points out the disturbing parallels between the way Democrats excused, and eventually rallied behind, Clinton and what Republicans are doing for President Donald Trump. It’s an astounding defense, given what the #MeToo movement has taught us.
It’s no wonder Clinton seems to have learned little from his past indiscretion, even though he has in the past publicly apologized. Why learn when people keep making keep making excuses for you? Clinton, who is on a media tour touting his latest book, was asked if, in the age of #MeToo, he has reassessed his actions in the late 1990s. It was a predictable question. Clinton could have simply said that times have changed for the better; that he has admitted his wrongdoing multiple times; that he hates how Lewinsky and other women like her have been treated; and that he and other men need to commit to soul-searching. He could have even asked for forgiveness again for good measure. It would have been the politically astute and morally correct thing to do.
Instead, he said he did the right thing by “defending the Constitution,” mentioned the $16 million of debt he accumulated defending himself, chided the reporter for supposedly leaving out important context, then claimed #MeToo proponents were “frustrated that they got all these serious allegations against the current occupant in the Oval Office and his voters don’t seem to care.”
I get why it is a sore subject for Clinton and other Democrats. The Republican Party used an investigation into real estate deals – which essentially turned up nothing – to impeach Clinton because he lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. He should not have been impeached over such an infraction. (In 1998, I argued Clinton should have resigned because he was dividing the country with unnecessary lies and lowering standards for our leaders that we’d come to regret. I still believe that. But impeachment was the wrong course.) And it’s particularly grating given that the Republicans who giddily voted to impeach Clinton – many of whom are in office today – are protecting Trump from even worse behavior.
Still, Democrats would have been wise to follow the lead of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who last fall said she rethought the Clinton era and now believes he should have resigned. It’s OK to change your mind when new evidence emerges, and #MeToo has provided us all numerous reasons to rethink gender equality, and not just when it involves questions of sexual assault. While Lewinsky was an adult when she engaged in an affair with a married man, something for which she has taken responsibility, we should not discount the enormous power imbalance between her and Clinton. What’s worse is that the person who had the least power in the relationship has suffered the most.
That wasn’t OK in 1998. It’s not OK in 2018.
White evangelical Christians, especially faith leaders such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, and Republicans have shown that politics trump their purported principles. Democrats, when it comes to their handling of Bill Clinton, have proven to be no better.