n June 4, NBC’s Today Show aired an interview with former president Bill Clinton and James Patterson, co-authors of a new political thriller. Craig Melvin, an affable newsreader, started off with some questions about the book. Then came the plot twist: Melvin asked Clinton if the former president had ever apologized to Monica Lewinsky.
Melvin did something others have been too polite, too afraid, or too partisan to do. According to a database search, over the last decade not a single television interviewer has asked Clinton about Lewinsky directly. The closest was one reporter who wondered, during the 2016 election, whether President Clinton’s past was “fair game.” (Clinton didn’t think so.) How Melvin expected the president to respond, we do not know. But what happened next made for riveting television. For Clinton behaved the same way he always has when confronted by uncomfortable facts, difficult situations, and challenges to his pristinely cultivated sense of righteousness. He exploded.
Clinton’s eyes bulged, his cheeks went red, his lower lip jutted out. He began to perform his ritual dance around the truth. “I apologized to everybody in the world,” he said. But “I have not talked to her.” He evaded the question: “I had a sexual-harassment policy when I was governor in the ’80s.” That sexual-harassment policy must have contained some loopholes.
Clinton played the “everybody does it” card. “You think President Kennedy should have resigned? Do you believe President Johnson should have resigned?” He accused Melvin of ignorance and malice: “You, typically, have ignored gaping facts.” He condescended: “I bet you don’t even know them.” And he attacked his interlocutor: “Someone should ask you these questions.”
It was an incredible sight, a classic in the annals of the Clinton temper tantrum. What made the eruption all the more memorable was its throwback nature. Clinton’s ballistic anger at reporters who dare to ask tough questions was a regular feature of his presidency. Heated, spastic, self-pitying denunciations of media insolence were among his favorite tactics to intimidate reporters and garner sympathy from his electoral base. During the exchange with Melvin, we caught a glimpse of the president’s old self.
The fiery side of Clinton’s personality was apparent as early as the 1992 campaign. In March of that year, during a Democratic primary debate, he got into a shouting match with California governor Jerry Brown, who had raised the issue of cronyism. Deflecting reports that he had directed state contracts to Hillary Clinton’s law firm, Clinton told Brown, “I don’t care what you say about me. You ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You’re not worth being on the same platform as my wife.”
The following month, when Phil Donahue asked him about his marriage, Clinton pouted. “It’s none of your business if we did [separate],” he said. “We’re going to sit here a long time in silence, Phil. I’m not going to answer any more of these questions. I’ve answered them until I’m blue in the face.” Clinton had not, in fact, answered “these questions.” But his expressions of hurt and victimhood were enough to satisfy his voters and wave off less spirited interviewers.
On June 14, 1993, after introducing Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the White House Rose Garden, Clinton ended the event in a huff and was stomping back inside when Brit Hume asked, “The withdrawal of the [Lani] Guinier nomination, sir, and your apparent focus on Judge Breyer, and your late turn, it seems, to Judge Ginsburg, may have created an impression, perhaps unfair, of a certain zigzag quality in the decision-making process here.”
According to a contemporaneous account in the New York Times, “Mr. Clinton shot back, steely-eyed: ‘I have long since given up the thought that I could disabuse some of you of turning any substantive decision into anything but a political process. How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me.” Bill Clinton being political—perish the thought!
In 1996, Clinton blew up an event on the subject of the economy when a reporter from a conservative outlet asked him if the White House would reimburse the legal expenses of a travel-office employee who had been unfairly dismissed. “Are we going to pay the legal expenses of every person in America who is ever acquitted of an offense?” Clinton asked. But reporter Adam Nagourney found “his voice even and steely,” as Clinton “plunged his hands into his pockets, rejecting a suggestion that he urge the Senate to proceed on stalled legislation that would reimburse the employees.”
Clinton’s hands did not stay in his pockets for long, of course. What was perhaps his most infamous flare-up occurred in 1998, early on in the Lewinsky scandal, when during a White House event he pounded the lectern, his mouth contorted into a rictus of exasperation and outrage, and said: “I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie. Not a single time. Never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people.” By August of that year, however, exposed as a liar and cheat, Clinton assumed a pose that was less defiant and more contrite.
Clinton had fewer occasions to reveal his fire and fury during the post-presidential years, when the media had little reason to criticize his charitable work and paid speeches. Every so often, though, the nastiness poked through. In 2004, when Peter Jennings mentioned that historians rated him low for “moral leadership,” Clinton responded, “You don’t want to go here, Peter. You don’t want to go here. Not after what you people did, and the way you, your network, what you did with Kenneth Starr, the way your people repeated every little sleazy thing he leaked.”
In 2006, when Chris Wallace asked about his spotty record against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Clinton looked like he was about to either have a coronary or commit murder. “So you did Fox’s bidding on this show,” he said. “You did your nice little conservative hit job on me.” He went on: “And you’ve got that little smirk on your face and you think you’re so clever. But I had responsibility for trying to protect this country. I tried and I failed to get bin Laden. I regret it. But I did try. And I did everything I thought I responsibly could.”
When some Democrats and the press criticized Bill Clinton for what were called racially insensitive comments in 2008, he played true to form, scolding reporters for daring to question him. Referring to the Obama campaign, he said, “They’re feeding you this because they know this is what you want to cover. This is what you live for….They just spin you up on this and you happily go along.” And: “Shame on you.”
What made the Melvin interview different was the response to the president’s ire. This time his rage failed to bully the crowd into submission. No one backed down. Instead Clinton found himself offering additional, and additionally confusing, explanations. Long out of office, his wife having failed to stop Donald Trump, Clinton suddenly was without allies in the media or in politics. “He sounded incapable of owning anything,” said one shocked MSNBC anchor. It took Craig Melvin and the #MeToo movement for the political class to recognize Bill Clinton for what he is. Better late than never.