After a disastrous interview in which he looked clueless about sexual misconduct, Bill Clinton got a do-over.
And when Stephen Colbert, who denounces Donald Trump every night, threw the former president a lifeline, Clinton said his previous handling of questions about Monica Lewinsky “wasn’t my finest hour.”
That, my fellow Americans, is an understatement.
The fact that Clinton botched his “Today” show sitdown may not amount to a hill of beans in the sweep of history. But it’s a harbinger of his political liability, which may neutralize him as a force in the midterms.
It’s not like he faced a merciless grilling from NBC’s Craig Melvin. And it’s not like he hasn’t had 20 years to think about what to say about the Monica Lewinsky mess that led to his impeachment.
And yet Clinton seemed unprepared—and angry—when he went out with a co-author to promote a novel. In an era when Harvey Weinstein has been arrested, did he really think this would not come up?
What happened in 1998 is that Clinton was impeached for lying about his sexual relationship with a White House intern. It was as shocking then as it sounds today. (The misconduct with the likes of Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey and others were not part of the impeachment proceedings.)
But because the Republicans turned impeachment into a party-line effort and much of the public separated Clinton’s private immorality from his public performance, he was not convicted and left office with a high approval rating. His second term, however, was basically ruined.
What was most striking on “Today” was the way Clinton turned on the mild-mannered Melvin. He has done this in the past and was convinced the media treated him unfairly, especially on the sex scandals.
Here is Melvin’s less-than-confrontational question:
“If you were president now, in 2018, with — with everything that’s going on with the #MeToo movement, how would you have approached the accusations differently?”
“Well,” said Clinton, “I don’t think it would be an issue because people would be using the facts instead of the imagined facts.”
When Melvin asked if he’d apologized to Lewinsky—which Clinton had publicly, but not privately—the ex-president went into rant mode:
“And nobody believes that I got out of that for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt. But you typically have ignored gaping facts in describing this and I bet you don’t even know them. This was litigated 20 years ago …
“Someone should ask you these questions because of the way you formulate the questions.”
During the “Late Show” “do-over,” Colbert did, to his credit, say this:
“It seemed tone-deaf to me because you seemed offended to be asked about this thing when, in all due respect, sir, your behavior was the most famous example of a powerful man sexually misbehaving in the workplace of my lifetime.”
Clinton told the comic that “hey, there are a lot of people that don’t have any memory of that, and all they saw was me mad, and I seemed to be tone-deaf, to put it mildly.”
By the way, “Today” is fighting back. Savannah Guthrie said yesterday on the NBC show that Clinton is “still making false allegations about that interview with Craig.”
There’s a deep history here. I remember back in 2004 when ABC’s Peter Jennings brought up the subject and Clinton wagged his finger at the anchor and snarled:
“You don’t want to go there, Peter. You don’t want to go there. Not after what you people did and the way you, your network, what you did with Kenneth Starr. The way your people repeated every little sleazy thing he leaked. No one has any idea what that’s like. That’s where I failed.”
The bottom line is that Bill Clinton can’t have it both ways. He can either keep a low profile and hope voters remember his public accomplishments, or he can go out to promote things and expect to be asked about the sexual misconduct that stained his presidency forever.
And if he stays on the latter course, he’s going to have to come up with some better answers.