gender, language, other topics, politics

Should Bill Clinton Apologize?


Apologies are some of the hardest speech acts, both intellectually and interactionally.


They are intellectually difficult because it’s often hard to know whether an apology is owed, to whom, and in what form; and interactionally hard because making an apology puts the maker in a one-down position to the person apologized to, and a full apology requires the apologizer to make, explicitly or tacitly, a number of self-destructive statements: I was wrong; I did harm to you; I need your forgiveness. So making an apology always entails a loss of power.


Hence apologies take many forms, direct and indirect, explicit or hinted at, depending on the seriousness of the misdeed and the power relationship between the parties.


Apologies can be sincere or conventional, real or pretended. We make insincere apologies, for instance, when we step on someone’s foot on the way to a theater seat: we’re not really sorry, and we don’t believe any serious wrong has been done. So we mutter a conventional “sorry” and continue on our way. When Queen Elizabeth II “apologizes” to the Irish for the way the English behaved during the Potato Famine, the form may be right, but the meaning is empty: she didn’t do anything wrong, and no one in earshot was personally harmed by anything her ancestor did. The purpose of an official utterance of this kind is to make the apologizer and those with whom she is connected look like people with a conscience. And despite their complexities and ambiguities, we like to get apologies and don’t mind making one if, like the Queen, it makes us feel and look like nice people.


Apologies, then, have political functions. So it isn’t surprising that, in this era of #MeToo, the question has arisen: Should Bill Clinton apologize to Monica Lewinsky? If not, who should be apologizing to whom for that lamentable set of events? There is a good argument that, here as with #MeToo generally, a lot of the ruckus has less to do with the apparent targets (Weinstein, Franken, Rose, et al), and is rather a proxy for the real target, Donald John Trump. Trump, of course, never apologizes for anything – which enables him to keep looking squeaky-clean to himself and his supporters. Once you apologize, you acknowledge guilt; if you don’t “admit,” as Trump kept saying of Roy Moore, you aren’t officially “guilty.”


But back to Bill Clinton. Bad behavior at least partly by him caused pain to a lot of people. Does that make him culpable and needing to apologize? If so, should the apology be directed to Lewinsky? To me? To Hillary?


I say No, No, and No.


I am not even sure it was bad behavior. It was icky in many ways, but not necessarily wrong – neither crime nor sin. It was at least consensual and she was of age. Nor can any of us speak on behalf of Hillary and call him a marriage-wrecker. A lot of the people screaming for his head then and now misunderstand and misunderstood the nature of modern marriage, and none of us understands the nature of the Clintons’ marriage (or anyone’s other than our own). He was not a betrayer nor she an enabler, as too many alleged feminists would have it.


Every marriage is a set of deals, overt and covert. As long as the deals are satisfactory to both its members, the marriage is working. Some deals are openly negotiated: You wash the dishes, I’ll mow the lawn; you work outside the home to earn the money, I’ll keep house and take care of the kids. Others, often involving the stereotypical gender roles presupposed by a society, are implicit: I can have affairs, but you must be faithful. We can both fool around, but only if the other doesn’t find out. Monogamy is what this marriage is about; everything else is subordinate. Political success is what this marriage is about; everything else is subordinate.


Both of these latter deals have been common over the last couple of millennia in many western societies or parts of them. Male English monarchs (until early in the last century) were expected to have mistresses; it enhanced their clout. But their wives had to present the appearance of strict fidelity. (Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are the paradigm cases.) Middle-class couples promised mutual fidelity (“forsaking all others”), but the husband often managed some underhanded philandering,which the wife was expected to ignore. Over the last half century, these clear expectations began to blur, and by the time we get to the Clinton marriage, it’s hard to tell just what was expected of whom and why.


The Clinton marriage, I would guess, was and is first of all a political union: it holds together on the basis of shared political and social beliefs and aspirations, not an expectation of monogamy. That is a recipe for trouble when the couple arrived at the White House, since POTUS and his family have as one of their extra-constitutional duties the requirement that they represent us, and are just like us, only a little better. We expect the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to be the models of the typical all-American family that we ourselves can never actually be – so we must demand it of them.


There was public consternation and outrage when it became clear that we had elected a president with a different construction of marriage than most of us pretended to believe in. The Clinton marriage puzzled Americans from the start of the 1992 campaign: he acknowledged multiple affairs and she went on “60 Minutes” to defend him.


As I said, the Clinton marriage is predicated on the couple working together for political success: first his, then hers. That may appear to many contemporary Americans to be a cynical statement, or a representation of a cynical relationship, but it is neither: it simply means that the Clinton marriage was more like, say, a Medici or Tudor marriage than a George W. Bush marriage, based on its superficial appearance. (At least the Clinton marriage is what it appears to be, while a whole lot of “monogamous” public marriages are not, and in fact are nothing but empty shells of true marriage. And a lot of people who expressed the most horror and disgust at Bill and Hillary are no longer married to those who were their partners in 1998, but the Clintons remain together.) The idea of the non-monogamy-requiring marriage may shock us, but it’s a lot commoner than we believe. It’s a modern form of marriage, in which both members get to fulfill their own ambitions and don’t require the appearance of monogamy. If the idea of such a new marriage is scary to contemplate …. well, much of modern life is scary to contemplate. Get used to it. Words change meaning over time, and “marriage” is no exception.


That means that Bill was not being a swine by being unfaithful, and Hillary was not being an enabler by letting it continue. They were both, together, engaging in their own definition of marriage based on their own private deals. And as long as they maintained reasonable discretion, it worked.


But then Monica showed up. And things suddenly went way off kilter, and the Clinton marriage became everything right-thinking people loved to loathe. Should we consider the president “guilty” of creating a mess, and owing us all – or somebody, anyway – an apology? I say No.


The current demand for an apology from Bill Clinton arises out of new assumptions. But #MeToo is a product of our times, and the impeachment happened 20 years ago. A great deal has changed, and it doesn’t make much sense to try to understand Clinton’s behavior from within our present context. But more importantly, I don’t think Clinton did anything he should apologize for, least of all to Monica Lewinsky. If anything, she should apologize to him. She is the one who behaved badly, and her misbehavior caused his distress.


People will say, How very unfeminist – blaming poor little Monica! Not at all.


Lewinsky was at the time about 22 – young, but legally of age to take responsibility for her actions. By all accounts, she was the instigator: she was on the rope line, she brought the pizza, she sent the book, she proffered the slightly-used cigar. She knew what she wanted and she went after it. Yes, his acquiescence is not noble and displayed bad judgment, but she started it and must be held responsible for whatever happened thereafter. And if every time we made a bad decision we suffered the equivalent of impeachment – well, the world would be a nastier place than it currently is. And if women don’t have to take responsibility for their decisions, they remain children.


Clinton made a few bad, but not unreasonable, assumptions, the worst being that no one would ever find out. Monica was crazy about him, and politically liberal – she would never betray him. Hillary would never find out. So what was wrong with a little not-quite-sex in an alcove off the Oval? But there was one fault in his reasoning – he didn’t understand the mind of the 22-year-old girl.


Her predicament was this: she had to confide in someone – the affair was just too juicy, too exciting – but who? Her contemporaries, she correctly surmised, were blabbermouths – they couldn’t keep a secret, not one like this. Her mother? Well, although Monica and her mother had a good relationship, there are limits: you cannot use the words “blow job” in a sentence to your mother the subject of which is “I”. But another wise older woman would be perfect!


On the White House staff, Betsey Wright had the unenviable job of heading off “bimbo eruptions.” She worried about the president’s proclivities and tried to forestall disasters. She saw Lewinsky as trouble waiting to happen, and determined to head it off. So she removed Lewinsky from her White House intern position, and placed her in the Pentagon. It seemed like the right, indeed, the essential, move.


Wright’s decision is turns Monicagate into a Greek myth, the kind where the hero receives a prophecy (say, he will kill his father and marry his mother), so he leaves home and goes far away, sure he has thwarted fate. But you cannot thwart fate. Oedipus couldn’t, and neither could Betsey Wright.


Next door to Monica’s new Pentagon office was Linda Tripp – the very sort of nice, wise, older woman Monica craved as a confidante. Tripp, of course, was something very different, and she and her buddy Lucianne Goldberg cooked up a plot (one important piece of which was getting Lewinsky to save the midnight blue, semen-stained cocktail dress). Tripp and Goldberg were the troublemakers; they acted out of malice and with little concern for the damage they might do. They must bear the blame for much of what happened. They owe a lot of people an apology.


Monica had no idea of their machinations. But it was her decision to trust Linda Tripp that set a national disaster in motion. Her pursuit of the President and her choice of Tripp as confidante were the causes. Monica made both of those decisions, so she is to bear a good share of the blame for what followed. She should apologize to Clinton, not vice versa.


And one more person needs to apologize to all of us, and has not: Ken Starr, for savaging the Constitution in many ways: not the least, holding both Lewinsky and her mother separately incommunicado for many hours, denying them their right to an attorney; and for forcing us, the taxpayers, to underwrite his lengthy sashay into politically motivated pornography. Starr, not Clinton, was the major violator of women in this narrative. Feminists have let him off easy.