Bill Clinton: The President’s Apology Is Still Missing

I was at the Javits Center working with a client last week when I noticed we were sharing the convention hall with the BookExpo. There was a huge banner advertising Bill Clinton’s new book with James Patterson. I thought, ‘Huh. That’s an interesting pairing. Marketable and attention grabbing, for sure.’

I’m not sure I’ve ever read an entire Patterson novel from beginning to end – and I haven’t read a word of the newly released The President Is Missing – but I’ve always been a huge admirer of Patterson’s prolific ability to stay at the top of the bestseller lists. His storytelling machine is second to none. He’s also no stranger to collaborating, though I’d wager Clinton is his most high-profile co-author to date.

But the match really got my attention when I started reading all the press bashing the former President for being a kind of modern day anti-feminist. The media was not feeling his response to their queries about #MeToo and the book’s villain/ending.

For instance, Josephine Livingston’s piece in The New Republic said, “there’s an ickiness to this book, and it lies in gender politics. It’s just not possible to engage with Bill Clinton as a public figure without thinking about his relationship with the 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky. America is undergoing a revision of its original interpretation of that incident, one in which people newly recognize her youth and her vulnerability. Wrong was done by her…yet during the publicity tour for the book, he has responded to questions about Lewinsky with great churlishness.”

Now, in my experience, people can get really cranky when you point out something they did wrong in their past. Especially if you point it out more than once. It’s like, it’s over. Enough already. On the other hand, dude. You were the President.

#MeToo is important. He’s shilling a new book. He has a direct connection to one of the most controversial, engaging social movements in recent years – by way of one of the most high-profile sex scandals ever. Why not take this opportunity to attach any good work he’s done for women, to a few lessons learned over the years, to #MeToo in a way that paints him – and his new book – in a better light?

Did he really think people wouldn’t ask him about, or allude to, that long ago affair when his new offering aligns so neatly with that narrative? Come on. Once powerful men of industry have been roasting on the public pyre for months now for taking advantage of women in their employ. Is that crabby response of his ego or just lack of preparation? Either one is unacceptable for a Clinton.

Livingstone ends her article with, “Women’s resentment does have an extraordinarily long shelf-life, as Clinton himself is finding out. But that doesn’t mean he should have written a novel about it.”

I have to agree. [Spoiler alert!] It seems kinda petty – not to mention conspicuously timed – for Clinton to make the villain of his book a woman nursing a grudge over something so eerily similar to his own situation. A kind of 20 years later middle finger to those who forced him to atone to the intern and her filthy dress, while neglecting to acknowledge his 50 percent share in soiling it.

Maybe the ending was Patterson’s idea, I don’t know. But Clinton had to agree to it. Writing this story, and ending it this way, suggests that he’s still nursing a grudge over that long ago mistake, a mistake the public doesn’t feel he’s accepted adequate responsibility for. His admission that he never apologized to Lewinsky, then compounding that zinger by saying, she “paid quite a price” for her role in the affair, is by turns insulting and ridiculous depending on your frame of mind

Granted, not wanting to endlessly pay for the past isn’t solely a male trait. No one likes to be continually reminded they did something wrong. I sure don’t. There are certain things I’ve done in my past that I will not discuss. It’s over. No one is going to require or demand an explanation from me over something I did decades ago when I was in a different state of mind, life and maturity.

People have a right not to be forever judged for past misdeeds, especially if the life lived after the mistake shows growth, contrition, a determination to do and to be better. To deny someone’s efforts to redeem themselves is to minimize or discount everything that came after. That often happens, but it’s not right.

The difference is no one really cares about my youthful indiscretions. I’ve a few followers, but I’m just a writer. Clinton was President of the United States. Petty shouldn’t be an adjective I use to describe him, should it?

Of course, the book is all about a President who’s just an ordinary guy. The thing is, that’s crap when you attain a certain level of power and notoriety in the world. It’s a nice idea, but it won’t hold up under close scrutiny. Whether you want to or not, as the leader of the free world, you become an example, a pillar. You are not ordinary. Therefore, your behavior, your image, and careful stewardship of both, is important.

You don’t have to want to be a role model. Whether you want to be or not, you are one. That doesn’t mean you have to issue abject apologies over and over infinitum. But it does mean when you’re a former President – one associated with a sex scandal in the time of Harvey Weinstein – you likely should respond to any reasonable query about the latest gender-positive social movement with a little less attitude and a little more humility.

The President Is Missing was tapped to be a series on Showtime before it was even published. It’s a big deal. With his press response this week, Clinton missed a key opportunity to redeem himself, and the media responded in kind by tarnishing his legacy a little bit more.

I’ve noticed similar responses from men recently, a defensive backlash against women holding their male peers accountable for questionable or plain old bad behavior. The response has come from all sorts of men, all races, various socio-economic brackets, and it reeks of male privilege. In that way, Clinton is just like an ordinary man. But if I were him, that’s not a phrase or a scenario I’d aspire to.

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