Men like Bill Clinton need to recognise when their behaviour crosses the line
The ex-president's peevish response to questions about Monica Lewinsky shows why #MeToo remains so vital, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
NBC reporter Craig Melvin was probably unknown to most people on this side of the Atlantic before last week, and even to many on that side of it too. Not any more. Former US president Bill Clinton's ill-judged response to some fairly reasonable questions about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky 20 years ago has seen to that.
Clinton evidently expected to enjoy some soft focus publicity for the new novel he's co-written with bestselling thriller author James Patterson, such as he received from a much more compliant Ryan Tubridy on the RTE star's radio show last week. Instead he found himself asked by Melvin on news show Today, whether, in light of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, he'd ever reflected on how he treated Lewinsky when he was the most powerful man in the world and she was a 22-year- old intern starting her very first job after college.
Clinton's response was highly instructive, and not simply about his own sense of entitlement, though that was striking enough. A body language expert would have a field day interpreting his tensed-up, rigid reaction, as if he was holding in a huge amount of anger which his frail frame could not contain. He seemed to think that he should not be asked such questions, because it had all been "litigated" years ago; and Patterson joined in, possibly annoyed that an interview to plug another of his avalanche of books had been taken over with political discussion about these matters. "Let's talk about JFK. Let's talk about, you know, LBJ. Stop already," he said testily, and Clinton agreed. Should they, he seemed to say, also have resigned for being creeps?
Melvin's answer would surely be that he would have asked them the exact same questions had they been there, but that they weren't. Clinton was. He may have been there to plug his book, but he also was not averse to making sweeping political statements in the course of the exchange, so it's not as if politics was off limits.
Considering the conversation now going on around sexual harassment, it would be extraordinary if Clinton was not asked about his own past behaviour toward women. His attitude was to play the victim. He made it seem as if he was the one who'd suffered.
Consent is complicated, and disagreements about when it has or has not been granted are hardly new; Lewinsky's own article in Vanity Fair in February picks its way through those nuances with great skill, and she doesn't claim to have all the answers. The striking thing about Clinton, by contrast, is that he doesn't act or talk as if he thinks it's complicated at all. He acts as if it's very simple, and that he's in the right.
He's one of the good guys, after all. He's all for #MeToo. He stood up against sexual harassment. He's always promoted women, as Arkansas attorney general, then as governor, and as president. His attitude is: I'm not the one you should be attacking. Move on. Go for one of those other guys, not me. And that's the really fascinating aspect.
Many of the men who've fallen from grace as a result of #MeToo wouldn't see themselves as sexual harassers in a million years. They're often the very men who call themselves feminists, and who've taken strong public stances against sexual harassment. As US writer Hannah Keyser says: "They are, for the most part, decent, educated, politically enlightened men who view themselves as part of the solution." Men like Clinton.
One writer has dubbed these sorts of men "woke misogynists", because they use all the right buzzwords to signal that they're progressive, but in private act appallingly toward women. It's easier to join in the outrage about obvious monsters such as Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey, whose transgressions are so extreme as to be impossible to defend, than to recognise the same behavioural patterns in themselves. Point being - someone else is always the problem.
That was certainly one of the most striking things about Clinton's interview. He felt so confident in his own innocence that he even felt able to point the finger at Donald Trump over the "serious allegations" that the current US President faces from 19 women, and to criticise the US media for not pursuing the claims with sufficient fervour, without expecting any comeback for facing similar and worse accusations.
Those "poor 19 women", as Clinton described them, have accused Trump of an unedifying range of wrongdoings, from forcible kissing and inappropriate touching to straight up groping, and there's no reason to doubt that they're telling the truth; but Clinton has faced an insistent, though obviously disputed, accusation of rape by Juanita Broaddrick, who claims that Clinton forced himself on her in a hotel room during his campaign to become governor of Arkansas in 1978. (He's vehemently denied it).
There are only two witnesses to the incident, so no one can ever know the truth; but it's psychologically fascinating that a man who knows he has this allegation hanging over him should feel confident enough to accuse others of misconduct, as well as posing as such a public supporter of the grassroots #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
In the aftermath of the interview with Craig Melvin, Gennifer Flowers appeared on Fox News to give her reaction. Flowers was the model and actress who surfaced during Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign to allege that she'd had an affair with the Democratic candidate 15 years previously; he initially denied it, and then later admitted to sleeping with her once. She now claims that Clinton sexually harassed her prior to their consensual relationship, and told Fox News that "Bill is afraid" because he knows women want the 71-year-old prosecuted for his alleged crimes, same as Weinstein and Bill Cosby.
In further media appearances to publicise his novel, The President is Missing, Clinton himself conceded that his appearance on NBC's Today show "wasn't my finest hour", and it's evident that there are layers to the Clinton story that cannot be unravelled in brief media snippets. He's not a monster. On the grand scale of things, he too is a good man.
But when people say that the #MeToo movement has "gone too far", it's hard not to look at men like Bill Clinton and conclude that, in fact, the work has barely begun, at least in terms of those "woke misogynists" appreciating what's wrong with their view of women and of themselves.