In an interview on Monday, with his arms crossed protectively over his chest, former President Bill Clinton used classic perpetrator tactics to fend off questions about what transpired between him and Monica Lewinsky 20 years ago.
In doing so he missed a real opportunity to grapple honestly with his past.
Clinton was asked if he would handle the Lewinsky affair differently if he were president in 2018 ― in light of how the Me Too movement has changed perceptions of sex and power. Lewinsky herself recently wrote about the way she now sees the affair in light of Me Too.
“Do you view [the Lewinsky affair] differently or feel more responsibility?” the “Today” show’s Craig Melvin asked Clinton, who was appearing on the show with author James Patterson to promote their new book.
“No. I felt terrible then and I came to grips with it,” Clinton said ― offering no thoughts as to whether Lewinsky might have also had to grapple with their relationship.
It got worse. “Did you ever apologize to her?” Melvin asked.
“No. Yes,” Clinton said, incomprehensibly, later explaining that he apologized to the nation.
Clinton quickly moved on to painting himself as a victim and attacking Melvin for daring to ask about this: “Nobody believes that I got out of that for free,” Clinton said. “I left the White House $16 million in debt. But you, typically, have ignored gaping facts in describing this, and I bet you don’t even know them.”
He later lashed out at Melvin more. “You are giving one side,” he said, pointing his long finger. “And omitting facts.”
It could’ve been a moment of real self-reflection. Instead, Clinton elided responsibility for his actions, and declined to seriously wrestle with what happened through a modern lens.
“This is not the statement of accountability I wish he would’ve shown,” said Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon who has written about the way perpetrators and institutions defend themselves against misconduct allegations.
Instead, Clinton used a version of a strategy that Freyd calls “DARVO.” She coined the term in 1997, a year before the Lewinksy scandal broke on the home page of the Drudge Report. The abbreviation stands for Deny the behavior, attack the accuser, and reverse the roles of victim and offender.
In other words, when confronted with a credible accusation or a question about misconduct, you say it never happened, lash out against the victim and paint yourself as the one who is truly suffering. (Recall Clinton’s initial denial of the affair ― “I did not have sexual relations with that woman. These allegations are false” ― which was both a denial and a subtle smear.)
Most recently, Ashley Judd spoke about DARVO tactics in discussing the behavior of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who infamously destroyed the reputations of women who wouldn’t sleep with him.
President Donald Trump is perhaps the most prototypical DARVO offender. He’s denied the accounts of more than a dozen women who’ve accused him of sexual misconduct. He’s called them “horrible people” and “horrible liars,” and attacked their looks. And he casts himself as a victim, blaming Democrats for coming after him with what he says are phony stories.
“He’s just so classic,” Freyd said.
Clinton didn’t go as far as to attack Lewinsky, Freyd said. She at first didn’t think Monday’s interview rose to the level of DARVO, but after watching a few times, she changed her mind.
Clinton’s tactics were more nuanced, Freyd said. He didn’t come straight out and call himself a victim, but mentioning his eight figures of debt did the trick.
The whole interview was disappointing, she said.
“Clinton still has a lot of power and influence. He could’ve used that to show courage and it could’ve been healing and powerful,” Freyd said. “I wanted him to say, ‘Yeah, I made a mistake. I am deeply sorry and if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t.’”
Freyd emphasized that the issue is not the legality of the affair, or the question of whether Clinton should’ve remained in office. She’d simply hoped he would acknowledge the vast power differential between a president and an intern, and recognize that the idea of consenting adults gets murky when it comes to a boss sleeping with a subordinate whose whole job is to serve him ― especially when the boss is also the leader of the free world.
When confronted with a credible accusation or a question about misconduct, you say it never happened, lash out against the victim and paint yourself as the one who is truly suffering.
Freyd has been studying the issue as it occurs on college campuses, where relationships between professors and students are increasingly frowned upon for the same reason.
Cultural awareness about sex and power has changed so much over the past 20 years, going into a hyperdrive shift with Me Too and accounts from women about men like Weinstein and Trump.
In light of these evolving viewpoints, many women’s stories have been essentially re-examined and rewritten. We now understand that Anita Hill was unfairly attacked after she accused Clarence Thomas of harassment, that O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark was viewed with a denigrating sexist eye and that Lewinsky was treated as a pariah by the press simply because of her status and gender. The way Bill Clinton’s own wife has been treated is a genre unto itself.
Lewinsky has changed her own views on the Clinton affair in light of Me Too. For years, she insisted their affair was purely consensual. Then this year, she acknowledged the massive power differential that existed between her and Clinton back when she was a 22-year-old intern.
“He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better,” she wrote in Vanity Fair earlier this year. “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”
On Monday, Lewinsky shared the piece again on Twitter in what seemed to be a gentle response to the Clinton interview, writing: “Grateful to the myriad people who have helped me evolve + gain perspective in the past 20 years.”