Earlier this week, former president Bill Clinton walked onstage at the National Book Awards to a lengthy standing ovation.
In a warm, charming speech, with frequent pauses for approving applause, Clinton spoke of the importance of books, and how we as a nation need to ensure that every child has access to them. He cracked wise about how there are three best-selling authors in his family and how the other two are selling a lot more books than him.
The reception was rapturous. Richard Robinson, the president and CEO of Scholastic to whom Clinton was presenting an award, began his acceptance speech by remarking that he felt Clinton should deliver it for him. Anne Hathaway, speaking later in the evening, quipped that she hadn’t known when she signed up to appear that she would be “following Bill,” adding, “Mr. President, on your way out, we are so honored by your presence, and you really must stop going first.”
Given the timing, it was a slightly odd reception.
We are living in the era of #MeToo, the era of “I believe women.” America has recently immersed itself in a national conversation about the systemic problem of sexual assault and harassment throughout the country. Wildly powerful men across several different industries have suddenly found themselves exiled from polite company after spending decades abusing their power by committing acts of sexual misconduct.
And yet Bill Clinton — who in the past has faced a credible accusation of rape and multiple accusations of sexual harassment — is not only comfortable in polite company, but welcome. He is welcome even at the National Book Awards, an event celebrating an overwhelmingly liberal industry, an event that proudly noted that 15 of its 20 finalists for 2017 were women.
I’m not suggesting that the National Book Foundation is in any way hypocritical for being proud of its work in recognizing women authors while also inviting Bill Clinton to speak. I’m certain that when the organization invited Clinton, the decision made complete sense: He’s an immensely gifted and charming public speaker, he’s a published author, and nostalgia for his presidency is currently enormous, at least among liberals. Who wouldn’t want that guy to present an award?
The fact that Clinton has been credibly accused of one rape and multiple acts of harassment probably didn’t occur to anyone when he was invited: Not because the National Book Foundation is amoral, but because Bill Clinton has been very, very good at isolating those facts and detaching them from his public image since he left office.
Skillfully — and with the aid of a liberal establishment that had every reason to want to preserve Clinton’s image — Clinton has managed to present himself to the world as a progressive leader of unassailable stature who presided over the country during a period of peace and stability and who, okay, yes, had an affair or two, but that was no one’s business but his family’s. He has managed to erase the fact that his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, while consensual, was an enormous abuse of power, and that he has been accused of other sexual misconduct that was not consensual at all.
Clinton has, in fact, managed to so thoroughly eradicate any whiff of sexual misconduct from his image that in a room full of people, including many who most likely identify as feminists, and at a time when awareness of sexual harassment as a terrible crime is higher than ever, he is treated like nothing but an honored guest.
It’s certainly true that the cries of “what-about-Bill” from the right seem more than likely to be made out of bad faith partisanship rather than from a deep-seated commitment to seeing justice served on behalf of survivors of sexual assault. And certainly, while Clinton remains influential, he is less powerful than many of the powerful men currently facing allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct: Unlike President Donald Trump, who has been accused of committing sexual harassment or assault by 17 different women, Clinton holds no elected office and is unlikely to seek any.
But that doesn’t mean there is any reason to let him off the hook. Clinton may not hold any office at the moment, but he is routinely offered positions of profound honor. And that sends a message to the rest of the world: It says that for all of our talk about believing women as a culture, we are still more than willing, in many cases, to ignore what women tell us and fête their powerful abusers instead.
Many feminists are rightly angered that Casey Affleck, accused of sexual harassment, will be presenting the Oscar for Best Actress in 2018, after winning the Oscar for Best Actor earlier this year; there’s even a petition calling for him to be barred. Shouldn’t we be angry that Bill Clinton presented an award, too? While Affleck is a particular slap in the face to all of the actresses who have been so vocal over the past few months about the problem of sexual harassment in Hollywood, it’s not as though there isn’t also a sexual harassment problem in publishing; there’s a sexual harassment problem in every industry. Undoubtedly, there were survivors of sexual harassment in the audience at the National Book Awards, too.
In pundit circles, the liberal reckoning with Bill Clinton has well and truly begun, both here at Vox and at other large publications. But to much of the rest of the world, Bill Clinton is still a beloved institution, a deeply charismatic figure who represents an era that has come to seem more and more like “the good old days.” He has remained an untouchable figure — and that casts dangerous and very real doubts on our culture’s commitment to believing survivors of sexual assault, or to punishing the predatory men who hurt them.