Former President Bill Clinton answered a question about his history of sexual misconduct with a defensive deflection and a series of justifications that don’t hold up under scrutiny. It’s been more than 20 years since Clinton’s workplace affair with intern Monica Lewinsky led the news, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant. In February, Vanity Fair published an insightful piece by Lewinsky about the scandal, her role in it, and the repercussions of the investigation on her life. If only Clinton could muster such poise and insight.
Back in the 1990s I supported Clinton, but I was never comfortable with his behavior toward women. I remember a conversation with my father. He said he didn’t care about a man’s personal life, he cared about his ability to do the job. I said I agreed, but I worried about the effect of the mess on Clinton’s daughter. What does it say to Chelsea, I wondered, when this is all over the news? He shouldn’t have done something that would hurt his daughter.
I believed then, and I believe now, that you can never know the truth of any marriage unless you are living it. Some marriages depend on faithful monogamy. Some marriages are more flexible. Infidelity is a fact of life and not unforgivable. But Lewinsky was 22 when she worked for Clinton and he was old enough to understand that his power over a fresh-from-college intern should never have been abused, whether by charm or coercion. He was guilty, but Lewinsky took the blame.
It’s clear from the Vanity Fair piece and from public statements that Lewinsky has emerged as the bigger person. She has risen above the scandal that bears her name. Clinton has not. When asked if he’d ever apologized to Lewinsky, he stammered something about a public apology and said, “it’s not the same thing.”
No. It is not the same thing. Not at all.
Clinton seemed blindsided by the question about Lewinsky and he fumbled his response. He should not have been surprised and he should have been prepared. Here is what he should have said:
I am ashamed of my behavior. Every day, I strive to be a better person and even now I often fall short of my own expectations. You ask about an apology—I apologized publicly to the American people, but I never reached out to Ms. Lewinsky personally. I should have. Perhaps I should do so now. I am sorry that my behavior caused her so much pain. I deeply regret that my actions led to the traumatization of a young woman just starting out in life. It was inexcusable. I regret it and I’m deeply remorseful. I’m sorry.
But that’s not what he said. It’s too bad. Clinton could learn a thing or two about grace and redemption from Monica Lewinsky. I don’t think it’s too late for him to learn, but the clock is ticking.
(Note: This post has been edited. In an earlier version it said that infidelity is not “a mortal sin.” As an astute reader pointed out, it is. The post has been updated to correct that error.)