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It is time to stop defending Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton has a lot to answer for, and nobody should feel like it’s their duty to prop him up.

It is time to stop defending Bill Clinton
[Photo: Flickr user Gage Skidmore]

Of all the people the general public should be hearing from in 2018, somewhere in the bottom 10–sandwiched in between Yakov Smirnoff and the Philly Phanatic—is former president Bill Clinton. This deep dearth of necessity, however, didn’t stop Clinton from airing out some musty opinions about his late-’90s sex scandal on television Monday morning.

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During an interview that aired on The Today Show, promoting a presidential thriller Clinton wrote with James Patterson, NBC News’ Craig Melvin gave the former POTUS a light grilling. Specifically, he asked Clinton if he would have “approached the accusations differently” were he president in 2018, “with everything that’s going on with the #MeToo movement.” Despite the fact that this question conjures a multiverse with many difficult-to-account-for variables (Is Clinton a third-term president in this scenario? Did the Iraq War ever happen?), it should have been an easy at-bat for a veteran question-taker. Instead, Hillary’s husband biffed it, hard, perhaps eroding the final shred of foundation from which some on the left continue to defend him.

The interview on The Today Show revealed the former president in an entirely unflattering, decidedly un-woke light. Beyond claiming he wouldn’t have handled the fallout from his affair with Monica Lewinsky any differently today, he also admitted that he’s never privately apologized to her, and that, while he likes the #MeToo movement, he doesn’t “agree with everything.” (“I still have some questions about some of the decisions which have been made,” he added for good measure, leaving spectators to wonder exactly which ones.) Despite all the soul-searching men have been urgently encouraged to do over the past nine months, Clinton apparently still imagines that the 22-year old White House intern was an equally culpable party in her affair with the then-POTUS, and harbors zero guilt over what his protracted denial over their affair did to her life.

All he had to do was feign some retroactive distress over what Lewinsky went through back then and pay slightly better lip service to the current movement and he would’ve emerged unscathed. Instead, his response should make his supporters question why they ever forgave Clinton for his collection of accusers.

I have a vague memory as a teenager of learning that Clinton accusers Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey existed, but that they weren’t to be taken seriously. I don’t recall the harbinger of this narrative—was it Bill Maher? Craig Kilborn?–only that it was quite convincing and that it stuck. Media narratives about women have a tendency to do that. These, in particular, managed to stick so well that even during the 2016 election, when I could have Googled those women’s names at any time, I relied on the hyperlink in my brain that jumped to some vague assurance that these women were proven liars. They weren’t! It may have just been too uncomfortable to contemplate at the time because those women were willing to be human props in the final stage of Trump’s disgusting campaign. (Not that they were alone on that score, though.)

Clinton’s name was mostly absent from #MeToo denunciations last fall, aside from the tortured chorus of “What about Bill Clinton?” coming from staunch Trump defenders. But even though, unlike Trump, Clinton never brazenly claimed his accusers were not attractive enough to sexually abuse, the former president still has a lot to answer for. During the election, defending Bill Clinton felt like the right thing to do for many people, including the author of this post. The main reason we did so, however, was to protect Hillary Clinton. Whatever Bill’s transgressions or possible crimes, it’s unfair to punish her for them based on the information available. Now that the election is long over, and we’re examining historical injustices to women closer than ever, there is no longer any need to prop up Bill Clinton—especially when people use him to justify Donald Trump.

The tried-and-true whataboutism Trump supporters employed to defend his indefensible actions on the campaign trail continues to this day. Simply point out the sheer number of Trump’s accusers anywhere online and some troll will emerge–as if summoned, Candyman-style–to mention Bill Clinton. “Other people have done bad things before, so Trump can do anything bad with impunity forever,” seems to be the logic of this argument. Rather than respond by defending Bill Clinton, however, it’s just as easy to agree that, yes, Bill Clinton was unforgivably shitty with women, period. What a relief to come to that conclusion with Trump 20 years too late for the chance to do anything satisfying about it!

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While I was busy not having much of an opinion whatsoever on the former president’s sexual misconduct for the past two decades, legions of women have been trying to come to terms with it the entire time. Prominent feminists like Gloria Steinem defended him at the time, partly because he was the first liberal president in two generations, and have been wrestling with that since. By late 2017 Steinem was publicly regretting her defense of Clinton and last fall, Senator Kristen Gillibrand (who took over Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat) declared that he should have resigned. One lesson that the 2016 election profoundly imparted is that it’s not always politically expedient to take the high road. When it comes to sexual politics, though, the #MeToo movement has revealed that having the moral high ground is important because it draws a line in the sand and defines your character. It’s why Al Franken ultimately needed to go and why we have to stop excusing Bill Clinton.

No matter whether we jettison him from our good graces now, Clinton will still have presided over a booming economy, dismantled a bunch of nuclear warheads, and diversified the Cabinet. Those accomplishments aren’t going away. But we can no longer afford to ignore or excuse the accusations against him (uh, and also what happened with Rwanda and Kosovo and that crime bill, just for starters), nor is there any reason to do so. Clinton has no excuse for not evolving his outlook on his affair with Lewinsky and the other sexual allegations against him by now. Neither do we.

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