In an interview on CBS’ Sunday Morning, Hillary Clinton was asked if she thought her husband should have stepped down from the presidency in light of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The once presidential hopeful and former first lady replied, “Absolutely not,” and denied that it was a display of abuse of power.
“It wasn’t an abuse of power?” correspondent Tony Dokoupil asked her.
“No. No,” she replied.
Dokoupil asked the question framed within the context of comments made by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand who stated that Bill Clinton should have resigned his position after he was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998. (The Senate later acquitted him of the charges.)
“There are people who look at the incidents of the ’90s and they say, ‘A president of the United States cannot have a consensual relationship with an intern; the power imbalance is too great,'” Dokoupil said.
At which point Clinton quickly jumped in to point out that Lewinsky “was an adult” at the time of the affair, implying that her age precluded it from being an abuse of power. She then deflected the question by pointing out that the current president is also battling accusations of sexual misconduct.
Viewers were quick to take to social media to point out that she was excusing her husband of allegations that have rightfully felled a number of powerful and famous men over the last year.
In an essay for Vanity Fair, Lewinsky admitted that even she didn’t recognize the power imbalance at the time.
“Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”
However, it’s important to note that Clinton’s response on her husband’s actions was not necessarily incorrect, from a textbook perspective.
“There are three things to consider in all #MeToo cases: workplace law, the law and culture,” says Judith Taylor, associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. “All three have to be thought about in the context of looking back on the history with Bill Clinton.”
Unless there was a policy instituted at the White House that prevented people from dating or otherwise engaging in intimate encounters, he wasn’t breaking any laws, she reasons. (Of course, he wasn’t tried for his affair, but for perjury and obstruction of justice.)
Taylor argues that what former president Clinton did, although objectionable on a personal and cultural level, wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
“People are asking that given our cultural understanding of how much of a power imbalance was there, wouldn’t this be considered a major transgression? But there probably hasn’t been a president or high-profile leader who hasn’t taken advantage of that age disparity and had extramarital engagements. The tradition is well ensconced, even with beloved presidents like Roosevelt and Kennedy.”
But while Clinton’s statements defending her husband were correct from a legal standpoint — also bolstered by the fact that he was tried and acquitted — many believe that they marred her record as a crusader for feminism and that her interpretation of power of abuse was obtuse.
“Power imbalances always have the potential to impact consent,” Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, said to Broadly. “This is especially true when the level of power is very apparent because of a person’s formal position of authority. This can impact a sexual partner of any age’s ability to consent.”
She also highlighted the fact that according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, young people are “one of the most vulnerable populations in the workforce when it comes to sexual harassment.”
(It bears mentioning, however, that Lewinsky never referred to her relationship with Clinton as sexual harassment.)
Regardless, many believe that Clinton’s reluctance to recognize her husband’s transgression as an abuse of power can have negative effects for victims of workplace harassment and assault, and especially negate the efforts put forth by the #MeToo movement.
“Was it an abuse of power? Yes. Was it a violation of workplace policy? Probably not. But it was a violation of people’s personal ethics and their umbrage is something to pay attention to.”
As some have pointed out, Clinton would have been better off declining to answer the question altogether.