Bill Clinton had five minutes to address the country.
The shot was carefully constructed: Soft lighting, a comfortable-looking couch, a side table spilling over with what looked like cheery family photographs. The former president began his Tuesday night Democratic National Convention speech by criticizing President Trump’s response to the coronavirus before throwing his support behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
“You know what Donald Trump will do with four more years: blame, bully and belittle,” said Clinton. “And you know what Joe Biden will do: build back better.”
Watching the speech, 31-year-old Michaela Pewarski kept asking herself the same question: “Are you actually kidding me?”
To Pewarski, based in Brooklyn, Clinton belongs to a different era of the Democratic Party — one best left in another millennium. It’s not really about the politics, she says. She doesn’t have a problem with most of the politically moderate speakers selected to speak at this year’s convention: Far-left figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) strike her as “too extreme.” She supported Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), now the vice-presidential nominee, in the Democratic primary.
Clinton should be excluded from the Democratic convention, she says, because of his treatment of women. Along with his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky — which, while consensual, is a clear case of workplace sexual harassment, with a severe power imbalance — Clinton has been accused of sexual assault or harassment by at least three other women. The most serious allegation of these was made by Juanita Brodderick, who has accused the former president of raping her in 1978.
“It’s the type of hypocrisy that makes it really hard for me to be all in as a Democrat,” Pewarski says.
The Democratic Party has positioned itself as the party of #MeToo. Over the past few years, many Democrats have become outspoken advocates for alleged victims, issuing blanket calls to “believe women,” especially those who spoke out to accuse Trump, former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and other Republicans. The reckoning has also extended to prominent Democrats, like former senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) and former representative Katie Hill (D-Calif.), both of whom have resigned.
But several high-profile Democrats have been able to deflect credible accusations of sexual assault or harassment, emerging from the height of the #MeToo movement relatively unscathed. Clinton continues to be celebrated as a prominent member of the party, along with former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has been accused by several women of workplace harassment. He was sharply criticized during his own presidential bid by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for refusing to release women who accused him from their nondisclosure agreements.
In March Biden himself faced allegations from former employee Tara Reade, who claims Biden digitally penetrated her in his Senate office in 1993.
Both Clinton and Bloomberg were invited to speak at this year’s Democratic convention.
Pewarski said it’s particularly hard to watch men like Clinton and Bloomberg — who will speak on Thursday — when you have experienced workplace harassment yourself.
When Pewarski was 22 — the same age Lewinsky was when she worked in the White House — an older male mentor asked her to join him for a drink. This man, in his early 40s, had been extremely supportive of her career, she said, writing her a job recommendation. She didn’t think it was anything romantic. But then, while they were at drinks, she said, he asked her out.
“As a girl at that age, you just don’t really know how to handle something like that with a person in power,’ she said. “He had been someone I viewed with respect, and I didn’t want to upset anyone.”
The experience made her empathize with women like Lewinsky, solicited by powerful men.
“Her life has been ruined, and he’s on TV,” Pewarski said. “This guy needs to be told to shut up and sit down.”
Amber Douglas, 35, also identifies with Lewinksy — and struggled to watch Clinton’s Democratic convention speech. She was sexually assaulted at age 19, she says, when she was the youngest employee at her office. A high-ranking man at a nearby office within the same organization, more than 10 years her senior, solicited her for sex for months, she said. When she finally agreed to meet him — to ask him to stop contacting her, she says — he grabbed her from behind and pulled out his genitals.
“Everyone blamed me for what happened, of course,” she said. “I left the office, and he kept his job.” (Douglas never pursued legal action.)
Douglas was in the eighth grade when news broke about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. She still shudders when she remembers the jokes she used to make about Lewinsky. Now, she says she realizes “there’s no way Monica could have given informed consent.”
While Douglas identifies as an independent, she says her faith usually compels her to vote for Democrats. She seeks out policies and politicians who are “compassionate” above all else, she says, and was happy to see the Democratic Party take up the mantle of #MeToo. But it feels disingenuous, she says, for Democrats to reprimand Trump for allegations lodged against him, while avoiding a long-overdue reckoning within their own ranks.
That reckoning is not likely to happen anytime soon, and particularly not at a presidential convention, said Alison Dagnes, a professor of politics at Shippensburg University, and author of “Sex Scandals in American Politics.” There is a generation of Democrats who are eager to hear from Clinton, she says. While younger women might like to see him castigated for his history, she says, many women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are not nearly as bothered by it.
“We have memories of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but we also have memories of his eight years in office,” said Dagnes, who is 51. Especially compared to today, she says, those were happy times for many. “There was a lot to love about the 1990s.”
Workplace sexual harassment was rampant in the 1990s, Dagnes said. Take out the fact that Clinton was president, she said, and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal wasn’t all that different from what working women saw play out in their own offices. Even after the scandal and the impeachment proceedings, Clinton continued to be wildly popular.
“I was sexually harassed, everyone I knew was sexually harassed,” she said (Older Democratic women tend to ignore the most serious allegations of sexual misconduct lodged against Clinton, says Dagnes, or find issues with their credibility.)
The standards for workplace conduct have changed drastically over the last 20 years. And Clinton’s behavior looks radically different “with 2020 glasses on,” Dagnes says. Still, Clinton remains an important part of the party, she says, and an inspiring figure for many. This year’s convention seems to be striving to construct a “big tent,” she says — one that includes young progressives like Ocasio-Cortez as well as “older white guys.”
It’s also important to note that Clinton only got five minutes to talk, Dagnes says.
In a different version of this year’s DNC, #MeToo could have been a central issue. Just as the convention featured people who lost loved ones to the coronavirus, Democrats could have chosen to highlight victims of sexual assault and harassment, said Nix Searcy, 31, based in Seattle and New York City. While the convention featured an extended montage on women on Wednesday night, the segment focused only on domestic violence, not sexual assault. The term #MeToo was not mentioned.
“They could have come out and said: This is a vulnerable population that the Democratic Party is claiming to look out for and protect,” Searcy said. “That would have been a stark contrast to Republicans.”
Searcy suspects that hasn’t happened because of the sexual assault allegations Biden has faced himself.
“It seems like there might be a fear that would backfire.”
In the convention’s final night, Douglas hopes Democrats will nod to #MeToo in some way. At a future convention, she says, she’d love to see Lewinsky brought in as a featured speaker.
“She was a pioneer of the #MeToo movement,” said Douglas.
By celebrating Lewinsky, instead of Clinton, she says, the Democratic Party would signal an “authentic willingness to change.”