Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, the Sultans of Self-Pity

Posted June 5, 2018 7:11 p.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2018 7:12 p.m. EDT

Move over, Alec Baldwin. Bill Clinton does a much better impersonation of Donald Trump.

The hair is wrong but the air is right — self-righteous, self-pitying and suffused with anger that anyone would peddle a version of events less heroic than the one that he prefers. We’re shaming him about ancient groping when we should be showering him with eternal gratitude. And what about his pain?

“I left the White House $16 million in debt,” Clinton said in an interview that NBC’s “Today” aired on Monday, batting back questions about whether he had demonstrated sufficient contrition for converting a 22-year-old’s romantic idolization of him into sexual favors and setting off a sequence of events that savaged her.

I don’t know what legal bills have to do with a moral ledger. But I can see that his fixations on money and martyrdom are intact.

Before cries of “false equivalence” shatter windows and startle forest creatures, I should make clear that I’d take Clinton over Trump in any role on any day. Trump is the Everest of delusion and depravity; Clinton ascended only a bit beyond base camp.

But at an honor-starved moment when most of our politicians are quicker to shirk responsibility than to shoulder it, I cringe at his evasions, elisions and rationalizations. Is he taking a cue from Trump? Or showing us where Trump got some of his moves and inspiration?

Granted, Clinton is venturing in front of cameras this week to discuss a book he wrote, not the book on him. So he’s frustrated and flustered.

And at 71, he’s not the talker or the actor that he used to be. Those eyes don’t mist as wetly. That lower lip isn’t as ripe for penitential chewing.

But hasn’t he or anyone around him, in response to the #MeToo movement, thought to prepare a script in which he speaks brave and healing words about his own mistakes, the lessons he learned and how all of us can apply and benefit from them?

He’s correct that he has gone through the motions of saying that he’s sorry for the Monica Lewinsky scandal before. But that preceded the fall of Harvey Weinstein, the recognition of sexual misconduct’s pervasiveness and the damning circus of Trump, whose allergy to apology gives Clinton a chance to model a more generous, better way. He sure as hell isn’t seizing it.

He grows visibly annoyed when journalists are so petty as to bring up the past and the pesky fact that he’s one of only two American presidents ever impeached. He raged when Craig Melvin of NBC News breached this territory. And he promptly turned into Trump.

He pointed fingers elsewhere, excusing his own erotic exploits by insinuating that his Oval Office forebears were no less randy. “Do you think President Kennedy should have resigned?” he challenged Melvin. “Do you believe President Johnson should have resigned?” Give Clinton a break. He was merely playing follow the libido.

He cited polls, outsourcing discernment and judgment to the crowds. “Two-thirds of the American people sided with me,” he told Melvin. They thought that Republicans’ impeachment of him went too far. But that doesn’t mean that he’s innocent — or virtuous.

He accused Melvin of sloppy journalism, though there wasn’t a scintilla of sloppiness in the portion of the interview that “Today” shared. “You, typically, have ignored gaping facts,” he said. I myself gaped — at the Trumpian magnitude of Clinton’s ire.

Those ignored facts were the most ignoble part of his rant. He mentioned how many women he had put in top jobs, presenting the roll call as a counterweight to — or absolution for? — the infidelities, the accusations of sexual harassment and Juanita Broaddrick’s claim of rape. Does Madeleine Albright’s ascent redeem Monica Lewinsky’s evisceration? Was Janet Reno a get-out-of-jail-free card?

What a queasy-making calculus. And what foreshadowing. Decades before many of Trump’s enablers edited out huge chunks of his behavior to rally around his policies, many of Clinton’s fans made a similar if less egregious bargain.

The Venn diagram of the 42nd and 45th presidents overlaps not only where hormones rage but also where entitlement roars. And that entitlement is antithetical to a world in which women get the respect and equality that they deserve and Americans get the leadership that we sorely need.

Clinton’s new book, a thriller written with James Patterson, is called “The President Is Missing.” That could also be a title for his book tour — and for a real-time chronicle of the Trump administration. If the president is supposed to be someone more focused on his obligations than on his reputation, on his duty than on his due, then we lack one now, and Clinton isn’t filling the void.

He’s warbling a tune that we’re sick and tired of. Woe is him. Woe is Trump.

I’d tweak the lyrics. Woe is us.

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