WASHINGTON -- We didn’t know it at the time, of course. But in Bill Clinton were the seeds of Donald Trump.
With 20 years of hindsight, it is clear. To see the former president -- now promoting a mystery he co-wrote with novelist James Patterson -- sit down with NBC’s Craig Melvin was to see how Clinton’s handling of the Monica Lewinsky affair was a precursor of the monstrosity we now have in the White House: dismissing unpleasant facts as “fake news,” self-righteously claiming victimhood, attacking the press and cloaking personal misbehavior in claims to be upholding the Constitution.
The former president’s offenses were far less serious than President Trump’s. Trump’s many misdeeds -- against women, law, facts, democracy and decency -- are in a category of their own. But Clinton set us on the path, or at least accelerated us down the path, that led to today.
I covered the Lewinsky saga and wrote at the time that there was a convincing case Clinton perjured himself and that his personal behavior was appalling. I didn’t join the clamor for him to resign, and I thought the impeachment proceedings against him were partisan and absurd. In retrospect, though, it might have been better for the country if Clinton had resigned.
My perspective changed because of the (hash)MeToo movement but also because of what followed Clinton’s affair: He had only lied about sex, but the George W. Bush administration started a war under false pretense, and now Trump governs with utter disregard for truth.
During the interview broadcast on Monday morning, Melvin asked Clinton whether, with the hindsight of (hash)MeToo, he would have done things differently if he were president today.
Clinton’s answer: “Well, I don’t think it would be an issue because people would be using the facts instead of the imagined facts. If the facts were the same today, I wouldn’t [do things differently]. You, typically, have ignored gaping facts in describing this, and I bet you don’t even know them.”
“Imagined facts”? Sounds a lot like “fake news” or “alternative facts.” Melvin had accurately and neutrally described the scandal.
Clinton was Trumpian, too, in portraying himself as the victim. When asked whether he has apologized to Lewinsky, he replied that “nobody believes that I got out of that for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt.”
Are we to feel bad for Clinton, who, according to Forbes, made $189 million in the 15 years after leaving the White House?
Melvin read from Lewinsky’s recent piece in Vanity Fair: “He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. * I was in my first job out of college.” Melvin noted that Lewinsky had taken responsibility for her part, and he asked Clinton whether, in retrospect, he takes more responsibility.
Clinton, arms folded on chest, was unbending. “This was litigated 20 years ago. Two-thirds of the American people sided with me.”
No, they didn’t “side” with him. He’s presumably referring to job-approval numbers; the economy was booming then, and many Americans liked his policies and thought Ken Starr excessive. But a large majority also found Clinton untrustworthy and of low moral character.
Clinton, like Trump has done, proposed a conspiracy theory to deflect questions, saying people “conveniently omitted” facts about the Lewinsky affair “partly because they’re frustrated that they got all these serious allegations against” Trump “and his voters don’t seem to care.” He again implicated the media, saying Trump’s misconduct “hasn’t gotten anything like the coverage that you would expect.”
Clinton hid his behavior behind high principle (”I think I did the right thing. I defended the Constitution”) on the same day the current president complained about the “unconstitutional” investigation of him and his campaign.
Unlike Trump, Clinton publicly apologized -- when caught. But he responded angrily when asked why he didn’t apologize privately to Lewinsky -- prompting the previously silent Patterson to jump in: “It’s 20 years ago -- come on!” he said, suggesting Melvin might as well be asking about John F. Kennedy’s or Lyndon B. Johnson’s affairs.
Clinton eagerly pursued this non sequitur: “You think President Kennedy should have resigned?” he asked Melvin. “Do you believe President Johnson should have resigned?”
Why does Clinton, 20 years later, still struggle with admitting fault? Perhaps he feels his behavior with Lewinsky is being unfairly equated to that of Harvey Weinstein or Trump. But (hash)MeToo isn’t just about assault. Clinton did just fine after his fling with the intern. She never escaped it.
Melvin said that, off-camera, Clinton acknowledged standards had rightly changed since 1998. Why can’t he say so publicly? If a Democrat behaved today as Clinton did then, it wouldn’t be dismissed as “bimbo eruptions.” He’d be drummed out of office, as former senator Al Franken was for his behavior.
But this is larger than (hash)MeToo. Back then, when Clinton disgraced the office with personal misconduct and lies, we didn’t pause to think what might happen if an utterly unscrupulous man were to attain that position someday.
Now we know.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.