Publication day for debut author Bill Clinton hasn’t exactly been a celebratory occasion.
The former U.S. President, who co-authored the thriller The President Is Missing with best-selling writer James Patterson, began work on the media circuit Monday morning but repeatedly found conversation around the book put to the side, as questions of his past moved to the fore.
With Patterson awkwardly by his side, Clinton was grilled, particularly, by NBC News on Today, about his affair with Monica Lewinsky while he was in office. Lewinsky has emerged in recent months as an anti-bullying advocate, writing essays for Vanity Fair which have placed her former relationship with Clinton in the context of the #MeToo movement, and whether his behavior constituted misconduct. “Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern,” she wrote. “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”
When NBC News asked Clinton about this, however, the former president bullishly defended his conduct. “I don’t think it would be an issue,” he said, as to whether he would have “approached the accusations differently” in a climate similar to our current one. “Because people would be using the facts instead of the imagined facts. If the facts were the same today, I wouldn’t … A lot of the facts have been conveniently omitted to make the story work.” He also added, intently, “I did the right thing,” and that he doesn’t owe Lewinsky an apology, nor has he ever apologized to her directly. (He claims she was included in his apologies to “everyone.”)
It’s not surprising that questions about Clinton’s past are dominating headlines about the book, given Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair pieces and the reconsiderations that have been brought about by #MeToo. But it’s also a result of the story Clinton and Patterson have written: a portrait of a noble commander-in-chief who has the country’s best interests at heart, who stands up to Russia, and whose enemies are the craven and calculating ones. It is meant, at times strikingly, to contrast with the Trump presidency; the entire plot of Missing keeps readers in suspense, in part, because they know where their president’s loyalties lie. But Clinton himself was a controversial president, and as his fictitious hero weathers potential impeachment early on, it draws parallels to his own life as well.
Indeed, that’s the frame CBS News used to corner Clinton into revisiting past scandals, asking him, “Because the fictional president … is under threat of impeachment, how do you look back at your impeachment?” When prodded to respond to Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s comment that Clinton “should have resigned,” the former president said, “You have to really ignore what the context was. But you know, [Gillibrand is] living in a different context. And she did it for different reasons. So, I just disagree with her.”
Follow-up pieces on Clinton’s comments to NBC and CBS have already been published, especially regarding Clinton’s belief that he doesn’t need to apologize to Lewinsky for anything. (The President Is Missing has also generated criticism for its thinly drawn female characters.) The conversation around the book, at least for now, has been set. With Patterson’s help and expertise, Clinton clearly set out to write an escapist thriller with obvious real-world parallels. The consequence, seemingly not anticipated by Clinton, is the fact that the most compelling real-world discussion point would be himself.