National News

Questions on Lewinsky Accompany Clinton Book Tour

Posted June 6, 2018 10:50 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Former President Bill Clinton’s book tour for his first novel keeps getting interrupted by a familiar character from his past: Monica Lewinsky.

After Clinton reacted defensively on the “Today” show on Monday when asked about Lewinsky, the White House intern with whom he had an affair while serving as president, he tried to walk back the tenor of his remarks, if not fully the substance, on Tuesday.

“When something that was that painful is thrown up again after 20 years after it was fully litigated, you tend to freeze up — and it wasn’t my finest hour,” Clinton said at a TimesTalk event in Manhattan.

As Clinton acknowledged that Monday’s interview “wasn’t my best day,” he still had some critical words for Craig Melvin, his NBC News interviewer, for the phrasing of his question about apologizing to Lewinsky. (Clinton has apologized publicly to her, but not privately. He reiterated that apology again onstage.)

“What surprised me was the flat-out assertion that I’d never apologized,” Clinton said. “That’s what I got mad about, not being asked about it.”

“I should have remembered that that man is young enough to be my son,” Clinton, 71, said of Melvin, 39. He called him “that young man” again a few minutes later.

“I got mad when I should have been saying I got a chance to tell a whole new generation that the journey I’ve been on the last 20 years is one the country has to take and #MeToo is demanding we take it, and the sooner the better,” Clinton said.

On “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Tuesday, Clinton was similarly asked about his “tone deaf” response, as Colbert put it. “Would you like a do-over on that answer?” Colbert asked him. Clinton said he would.

The former president waded into an array of topics at the TimesTalk event, including the continuing investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller (“He’s played this thing straight,” Clinton said); Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for president in 2016 (“Preferred alternative of the Russians,” he called her); and whether President Donald Trump should be impeached (“We have to wait and see what he says, and the rest of us can weigh in,” he said of the Mueller inquiry).

“We should wait for Mr. Mueller to do his work and protect him when he does,” Clinton said of impeachment talk, urging Democrats to focus instead on the midterm elections.

Clinton did say that Mueller was “getting killed in the media in the fight over whether the FBI put spies in the Trump campaign, which is absurd.” Trump has made repeated unconfirmed accusations that federal investigators put a spy inside his campaign.

Clinton also spoke in some depth about the role of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign against his wife, Hillary Clinton.

“Do we know whether it made a difference or not? We don’t,” he said. “We know that Jill Stein, preferred alternative of the Russians, got more — the difference in her vote in 2012, 2016 was more than the difference in the election in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. That doesn’t mean the Russians did it, but it’s — it makes you scratch your head.”

The race was close enough that “Comey’s late announcement could swing it,” Clinton said of the announcement in October by James Comey, the FBI director at the time, that he was reopening his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices.

And given the race’s tight final margins — Clinton rattled off some figures from memory — he speculated that “maybe the Russians did have a decisive impact,” although he said a “sneeze could have tossed it.”

He and James Patterson said one of the plots of their new novel, “The President Is Missing,” revolved around cybersecurity. Patterson said the goal was to write “a beach read that also has some importance.”

As a first-time novelist, Clinton revealed that he was devouring coverage of the book, especially the reviews.

“I’ve read all the reviews and everything,” he said, down to the details. He offered a corrective counterpoint to one element that a reviewer tagged as unrealistic. “With all respect, that’s wrong,” Clinton said.

In a blue suit and blue tie, Clinton looked relaxed onstage with a wireless microphone in his hand, other than the moments he was asked about Lewinsky. The crowed booed questions on the topic.

Asked if he would apologize privately to Lewinsky today if she were in the room, Clinton replied, “If she were here now and I would speak to her, it wouldn’t be a private conversation.”

And asked if — given the #MeToo movement spurred in the past year by sexual misconduct by powerful men in politics, business and the media — he had reconsidered his interactions with Lewinsky as examples of sexual harassment or exploitation of power dynamics, he demurred again.

“I’ve said all I have to say,” Clinton said, adding, “I’m not going there.”

The New York City audience cheered.