The conversation around the Lewinsky affair has evolved – Bill Clinton has not

The former president has been asked about the scandal from 20 years ago – and his answers have been widely criticized

Bill Clinton during his grand jury deposition in August 1998.
Bill Clinton during his grand jury deposition in August 1998.Photograph: AP

Bill Clinton is currently on a book tour to promote The President is Missing, a thriller he has written with James Patterson. However, it seems the only story people want to discuss is his affair 20 years ago with Monica Lewinsky, which many are reassessing in light of the #MeToo movement. Clinton, 71, has been criticized for responding in a manner many consider to be tone deaf.

In an interview Monday on NBC’s Today program, Clinton said he doesn’t owe Lewinsky a personal apology. “I have never talked to her, but I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry,” said Clinton.

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Clinton displayed a lack of contrition for the Lewinsky affair, which took place when he was 49 and she was 22. Clinton said that he “did the right thing” and “defended the constitution”. He pointed to how much the affair had ended up costing him: “I left the White House $16m in debt.” Clinton did not mention that the debt was paid off shortly after he left office, thanks in large part to public contributions donated to the Clinton Legal Expense Trust.

Before the #MeToo movement, Clinton was able to talk about the Lewinsky affair without Lewinsky really being invoked. The narrative was framed around him disappointing his family and letting down the country, not exploiting a young employee. This week, however, Clinton continued to be asked direct questions about the power dynamics that were at play. He was not allowed to forget his impact on Lewinsky as a person.

On Tuesday, the former president appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where he was asked if he wanted a “do-over” on Monday’s comments on NBC. “Do you understand why some people thought that was a tone-deaf response to … questions about the #MeToo movement?” Colbert asked Clinton. Clinton said he was angry at himself for the way he acted, but quickly went on to blame unfair editing. “When I saw the interview … they had to distill it and it looked like it said I didn’t apologize and had no intention to,” Clinton said. “And I was mad at me!”

“Here is what I want to say,” Clinton continued. “It wasn’t my finest hour. But the important thing is, that was a very painful thing that happened 20 years ago and I apologized to my family, to Monica Lewinsky and her family, to the American people. I meant it then, I meant it now. I’ve had to live with the consequences every day since.”

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Later on Tuesday, Clinton appeared at a New York Times event, where he doubled down on the assertion that he had apologized enough. “What surprised me was the flat-out assertion that I’d never apologized,” Clinton said. “That’s what I got mad about, not being asked about it.”

Clinton was asked if he would apologize privately to Lewinsky today if she were in the room. He replied: “If she were here now and I would speak to her, it wouldn’t be a private conversation.” Clinton refused to say whether he had reconsidered his affair with Lewinsky in light of #MeToo, stating: “I’ve said all I have to say.” According to the New York Times coverage of the event, the audience then cheered.

Since he left office, Clinton has largely been able to put the Lewinsky affair behind him. When it has come up he has expressed regret but also painted himself as the victim of an illegitimate impeachment. In 2004, during the release of his memoir, My Life, Clinton told CBS that his relationship with Lewinsky was “a terrible moral error”. He then went on to say that his impeachment was “not about evidence” but “a struggle for power” by “the new right that runs the Washington Republican party”.

While Clinton, until the #MeToo movement, has been able to move on, the same is not true of Lewinsky. In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, Lewinsky said: “I felt like every layer of my skin and my identity were ripped off of me in 98 and 99. It’s a skinning of sorts … the shame sticks to you like tar.”

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Lewinsky has largely been silent about Clinton’s comments this week. However, on Monday she tweeted that she is “grateful to the myriad people who have helped me evolve”, and shared a link to a Vanity Fair article she wrote about “emerging from the ‘house of gaslight’ in the age of #MeToo”.

In the article, Lewinsky writes: “At 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern.” At 71, Clinton doesn’t appear to be doing the same.

Video: Clinton Answering Lewinsky Questions not His 'Finest Hour'

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