When I watched Bill Clintonâ€™s appearance on the â€śTodayâ€ť a promotional stop that turned into an unexpected reckoning with #MeToo, one thing leaped out at me: The former president wouldnâ€™t say Monica Lewinskyâ€™s name.
It didnâ€™t seem possible. I watched the interview repeatedly. Once, twice, three times, then another time - wait, make that another five times - before I wrote this. Surely the next viewing would show Iâ€™d been mistaken, that when NBCâ€™s Craig Melvin asked Clinton if heâ€™d considered personally apologizing to Lewinsky about what happened to her in the wake of their extramarital relationship now 20 years in the past, he would say her name.
No. Clinton referred to Lewinsky as â€śher.â€ť
In an interview designed to promote â€śThe President Is Missing,â€ť the new book Clinton co-wrote with novelist James Patterson, it was clear that Clinton would like the subject of Lewinsky to go missing, permanently. Instead, the former president managed to remind almost everyone why the #MeToo movement was so needed.
Clinton, by turns, appeared exaggerated, frustrated and furious that a mere reporter such as Melvin would ask if his treatment of Lewinsky should make us think differently of him or his presidency. Didnâ€™t we know heâ€™s suffered? â€śNobody believes I got out of that for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt,â€ť he told Melvin. Surely this must be misplaced rage over Trumpâ€™s election to office. â€śTheyâ€™re frustrated that theyâ€™ve got all these allegations against the current occupant of the Oval Office, and his voters donâ€™t seem to care,â€ť Clinton said.
And apologize personally to Lewinsky? To her? â€śIâ€™ve never talked to her. But I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry.â€ť
Clinton concluded by saying heâ€™s moved on: â€śIâ€™ve tried to do a good job since then with my life and my work and thatâ€™s all I have to say.â€ť It wasnâ€™t. After his remarks blew up on the internet, he made a public apology - using Lewinskyâ€™s name - at an appearance in New York on Monday.
Thatâ€™s better from Clinton, but still not good enough. Itâ€™s clearly not a major concern - or even really a minor one - that Lewinsky is still mired in the past. Clinton, once in debt, earned more than $100 million for speeches between January 2001 and January 2013. Lewinsky on the other hand, recently wrote in Vanity Fair that sheâ€™s been diagnosed with PTSD from her time in the harsh public spotlight. Sheâ€™s come to believe that if the affair with Clinton was not harassment in the classic #MeToo sense, it was not quite right either. â€śI now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent,â€ť she wrote. â€śInstead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege.â€ť
As soon as her affair with Clinton went public, Lewinsky turned into a national joke. Everything from her intellect to her looks came under ferocious attack. White House aide Sidney Blumenthal leaked reports to the press that Lewinsky was a semi-deranged stalker. Feminist novelist Erica Jong claimed she looked like she suffered from â€śthird-stage gum disease.â€ť New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described her as â€śa ditsy, predatory White House internâ€ť - and won a Pulitzer Prize for her â€śfresh and insightful columnsâ€ť on the affair.
No matter what Lewinsky did - a line of handbags, a turn as a spokeswoman for diet company Jenny Craig, a graduate degree from the London School of Economics and, now, an anti-bullying activist - it wasnâ€™t enough. Some - just like Clinton - seemed to want her to vanish entirely.
But few questioned Lewinskyâ€™s fate. Until #MeToo, it was almost always the woman who suffered when harassment or a sexual scandal occurred. We took that for granted.
A February poll from Marketplace and Edison Research found almost half of women who said theyâ€™d experienced sexual harassment at work said they ended up leaving their job or switching careers. Other polls show that few women report suspect incidents to human resources, fearing for their careers. The #MeToo scandals put faces and names to these facts. Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino say Harvey Weinstein blackballed them, costing them roles and professional reputation.
#MeToo is resulting in a reckoning, a refusal to let these women go missing. Instead, the movement gives them a voice. But there is a limit to what it can do. It canâ€™t give women back those lost years, those lost careers. It canâ€™t make the past humiliations go away. So letâ€™s thank Clinton. In his self-obsession and self-pity, Clinton inadvertently made all that clear. But more important, letâ€™s thank Craig Melvin, who repeated Monica Lewinskyâ€™s name and wouldnâ€™t let the subject drop.
Helaine Olen is a contributor to the PostPartisan blog.