Former President Bill Clinton addressed the #MeToo movement on 'Today.'

Bill Clinton’s personal apology to Monica Lewinsky is long overdue

The former president is not willing to reexamine is actions in the wake of #MeToo.


Samantha Grasso

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Posted on Jun 4, 2018   Updated on Feb 28, 2020, 3:23 pm CST


It might sound morbid, but nothing about the Me Too movement has given me more hope for the future than watching other people come to terms with, and find peace within, the trauma they have lived through.

I’m not talking about women “rewriting” their histories of regrettable sex or “misunderstanding” a consented encounter as otherwise (as many people dismissing the movement have countered). I’m talking about how women speaking about their nonconsensual experiences have helped others interpret moments in their lives that they previously dismissed as “not a big deal” or “not that bad.”

For so long, survivors of sexual harassment and assault have been socialized to internalize their experiences. We’ve been asked not to risk someone’s reputation over our personal discomfort and harm. We’ve been told to understand that we were at fault for allowing people to hurt us in these ways. Even for people who might have immediately come to terms with their experiences and called them by name—groping, verbal harassment, rape—the ability to resist dismissing what happened takes active work.

But we’ve bore witness to a evolution from this reckoning: This culture of “not that bad,” evidenced by the staying power of many male celebrities who were long known to have hurt people, is crumbling.

Which is why former President Bill Clinton needs to realize that his “public apology” to Monica Lewinsky means squat in the context of this tide change.

In a Monday interview with NBC’s Craig Melvin, Clinton said that he has never apologized to Lewinsky, the former White House intern he had an affair with when she was in her early 20s, and that he doesn’t owe her an apology. He did, however, say that he apologized to her publicly multiple times and that the affair “was litigated 20 years ago. Two-thirds of the American people sided with me.”

“I have never talked to her. But I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry. That’s very different. The apology was public,” Clinton said during the interview.

The former president cited his public support two decades ago to maintain his position that he “did the right thing” during the scandal of his affair with Lewinsky. However, his reliance on a time so ideologically far removed from this “believe women” era speaks to just how outdated his own understanding of the “Monica Lewinsky scandal,” and the necessity of his personal apology, continues to be.

As more survivors take apart their experiences—reexamine them in the context of the Me Too movement with more accessible, palatable information on harassment and assault, and come to understand the trauma they’ve tucked away—so too do Me Too perpetrators such as Bill Clinton need to reexamine their own behavior. These are men who preyed upon young women in their workplace and “jokingly” made sexual comments. Men who iced out women on the job after having their romantic advances rebuffed. Men who slowly wore down friends or colleagues until rejections eroded defenses and looked like consent.

That’s not to say that people who have experienced harassment and assault are the only people actively reexamining their behavior and the behavior of others. Several of the bad men in question are doing “their part” (or, really, the bare minimum) to acknowledge the harm they’ve caused. Comedian Louis C.K. confirmed his accusations of sexual harassment and acknowledged the mental gymnastics he performed to comfort himself for masturbating in front of women who didn’t consent. Dan Harmon listened to a Community writer he sexually harassed for years, and later went on to detail his harassment on his podcast in an effort to be part of the solution. James Franco reportedly contacted a list of exes to understand if he had (or perhaps be assured that he hadn’t) ever crossed a line.

But from the Today interview, it’s clear that self-examination is not a step Clinton himself appears to have taken in the context of his professional relationship with Lewinsky. While he told Melvin that he “felt terrible then” about his role in the affair, Clinton denied feeling that he’s taken more responsibility within the context of Me Too, and repeatedly pointed to “omitted facts” that allowed his and Lewinsky’s narrative to fit the agenda of the movement. He then pointed to his anti-sexual harassment policy as Arkansas governor in the ’80s, as well as his employment of two women chiefs of staff, and hiring of women as attorney general in the ’70s—as if valuing women in their professional roles omits anyone from scrutiny regarding their treatment of individual women.

Clinton’s behavior during the interview—the harping of “facts” that separate his relationship with Lewinsky from the situations of the “real” bad men, and the dismissal of the affair because of its 20-year history in comparison to present-day accounts of sexual harassment and assault—showed that his reflection only goes so far to regurgitate previous apologies. His attitude also showed he’s resisted to think about how he might have taken advantage of Lewinsky in his position of power.

Melvin even read Clinton an excerpt from Lewinsky’s February Vanity Fair essay in which she, a 44-year-old woman, reexamined the power dynamic between her and Clinton in what she initially understood to be a consensual affair. In the piece, Lewinsky wrote that after listening to the accounts of other women taken advantage of by powerful men, she, decades later, reached a different understanding of the abuse of power she endured: The power dynamic between the president and an intern voided her ability to consent in the first place.

And yet, Clinton did not concede to any sort of renewed understanding of the role he played in the job opportunities Lewinsky lost, the decades of harassment she received, and the other forms of punishment and retribution she and other women face as a result of sexual harassment. Despite the 20 years since the “litigation” of Clinton’s impeachment case, Lewinsky has thought about the situation—has spent decades thinking—and has continued to reexamine what happened. Clinton’s retractive behavior in the interview showed that if given the opportunity, he wouldn’t give his actions a second thought, let alone apologize to someone he may be considered having taken advantage of, given the Me Too circumstances.

Without a doubt, Clinton has maintained a semblance of support regarding the affair, from the immediate aftermath in 1998 up through the 2016 presidential election. During the latter, Hillary Clinton supporters were made to answer for their Democratic candidate’s treatment of Lewinsky after the fact. While we all owe Lewinsky an apology for dismissing what happened to her in order to justify how the Clintons behaved, Hillary Clinton shouldn’t have been made to take responsibility for her husband’s behavior in order to “prove” that she would’ve made a more qualified president than a candidate who confessed to touching women’s vaginas without their consent. Both situations can co-exist as truth.

Even today, Today referred to the affair as the “Lewinsky scandal,” as if the president of the United States was not the person leveraging his power in the affair.

But even in the nearly three years since the start of the 2016 presidential race, the culture has continued to change, much of that having to do with news coverage of the women who have come forward with accounts of sexual harassment and assault against men such as President Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, former Sen. Al Franken, and seemingly-countless other de facto bad men.

As much as Bill Clinton would like to find a scapegoat, Lewinsky and other women aren’t now demanding that he be held accountable for his behavior because they’re exasperated by the allegations against President Trump. They’re demanding a personal apology for Lewinsky because the way that we acknowledge sexual harassment and assault is changing culturally. And no amount of female allyship and “living the best he can” will ever be able to qualify Bill Clinton’s lack of an apology to the person who deserves it more than the public itself.

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*First Published: Jun 4, 2018, 3:48 pm CDT