Even while the Monica Lewinsky scandal was raging in 1998, Florida Democrats considered Bill Clinton a political asset and deployed him to campaign and raise money for gubernatorial nominee Buddy MacKay.
And in every election since, Clinton has visited the Sunshine State to rally support and generate campaign contributions for key Democratic candidates, including every Democratic nominee for governor.
But in the #MeToo era, and after Clinton’s testy response to questions about the Lewinsky affair in an NBC interview recently, a new set of political calculations will accompany any potential return to the Florida campaign trail by the 42nd president this year.
It’s apparently a delicate subject. Sen. Bill Nelson’s office and Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo declined comment on Clinton while a pair of Democrats who have campaigned with him in the past — U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham — chose their words carefully when asked about Clinton’s potential role this election season.
“The #MeToo era has inspired a new wave of political activism and a zero tolerance for predatory behavior,” said Frankel, who had Clinton headline a fundraiser for her and Patrick Murphy when they were running for adjacent congressional seats in 2012. “My focus remains on supporting inspired women who are marching in the streets, helping candidates with like-minded values, and running for office. It will be up to each candidate to decide whether they need the active support of a particular political or civic leader.”
Graham, who appeared with Clinton at a 2014 early-voting rally in Tallahassee when she was running for Congress, was asked if she would welcome a Clinton appearance this fall if she is the party’s nominee for governor.
“Let’s get there first and we can have that conversation,” said Graham, who is facing four Democrats in the Aug. 28 primary. She added: “I think what’s important for me is that I am the one that needs to be focused on what this campaign stands for and how every single day we’re making the right decisions about the future of the state of Florida and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Patty Farley, the president of the Democratic Women’s Club of Florida, which has 53 chapters and about 4,000 members around the state, said she would welcome Clinton’s return on behalf of Democratic candidates this fall.
“I support women being vocal about abuse. I’m glad this is coming out of the shadows. I think the thing with Bill Clinton, I think that he was framed, the whole thing with Monica Lewinsky, from day one,” Farley said.
“He is very much an asset to candidates in this state. I attended several rallies where Clinton spoke and I found him always well received and I would go again to attend a rally with Bill Clinton,” Farley added.
PBC Tax Collector advises against using the ex-president to campaign here
Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon, the Florida floor manager for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, disagreed.
“As a candidate, I would not do that,” Gannon said when asked whether it would be wise to have Bill Clinton stumping in Florida this fall.
Gannon, a former state legislator and veteran player in Democratic politics, said Clinton’s policy stances led her to defend him against Republican impeachment efforts 20 years ago.
“Probably like many women, for us he was such a good president on women’s issues that we didn’t really make a decision on his behavior based on what he was doing but that he had done things for women that advanced us in society,” Gannon said.
But Gannon said she has grown more troubled by the power imbalance in the infamous sexual relationship between a president and an intern.
Lewinsky’s thinking on the matter has changed as well. In a Vanity Fair essay in 2014, Lewinsky wrote: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship.”
But in another Vanity Fair piece this spring, Lewinsky, reflecting on the #MeToo movement, wrote: “Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”
Lewinsky added: “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. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college.”
NBC’s Craig Melvin read that last quote to Bill Clinton in an interview that aired Monday on the Today show. Clinton and author James Patterson were appearing to promote their new novel “The President is Missing.” They are expected to appear Tuesday in Broward County to promote it.
Lewinsky scandal: ‘I felt terrible then and I came to grips with it,’ Clinton said
“Looking back on what happened then, through the lens of #MeToo now, do you think differently or feel more responsibility?” Melvin asked Clinton.
“No,” Clinton replied. “I felt terrible then and I came to grips with it.”
Asked if he had apologized to Lewinsky, Clinton said he had “apologized to everybody in the world … I have never talked to her. But I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry. That’s very different. The apology was public.”
Clinton said that “nobody believes that I got out of that for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt … This was litigated 20 years ago. Two-thirds of the American public sided with me. They were not insensitive to that.”
The next night, on CBS’ The Late Show, Clinton admitted to Stephen Colbert that the NBC interview “wasn’t my finest hour but the important thing is that was a very painful thing that happened 20 years ago and I apologized to my family, to Monica Lewinsky and her family, to the American people. I meant it then, I meant it now. I’ve had to live with the consequences every day since.”
Clinton added: “And I still believe this #MeToo movement is long overdue, necessary and should be supported.”
Bill Clinton’s many stops in South Florida
Bill Clinton has a long history of campaigning and raising money in Florida, and particularly in deep-blue Palm Beach County, for Democrats in high-profile races. Some examples:
• As president in September 1998, Clinton raised money for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Buddy MacKay in Orlando and Miami. Then, five days before the election between MacKay and Republican Jeb Bush, MacKay joined Clinton and Gov. Lawton Chiles on Air Force One, arriving at Palm Beach International Airport for a pair of fundraisers in Palm Beach.
• In August 2000, as Bill Nelson made his first bid for U.S. Senate, Clinton appeared with him at a pair of fundraisers in Palm Beach that raised $750,000.
• In 2002, Clinton campaigned with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill McBride in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and at Currie Park in West Palm Beach the weekend before the general election.
• In 2004, Clinton appeared at a Boca Raton synagogue to shore up Jewish support for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry against Republican President George W. Bush.
• In 2006, Clinton visited Miami the weekend before the election on behalf of Democrat Jim Davis’s losing gubernatorial bid and Nelson’s successful re-election campaign against Republican Katherine Harris.
• In 2008, Clinton appeared with Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama at a rally in Kissimmee six days before the election.
• In 2010, Clinton joined Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink at an October early-voting rally in Miami, then made an election-eve appearance in Orlando with Sink and Senate candidate Kendrick Meek.
• In 2012, Clinton headlined a September fundraiser in West Palm Beach for Democratic congressional candidates Lois Frankel and Patrick Murphy. He made several appearances around the state for Obama’s re-election bid, including a five-city swing the week before the election that featured a stop at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth.
• In 2014, Clinton campaigned for Murphy’s re-election in Palm Beach Gardens and for Gwen Graham’s U.S. House bid in Tallahassee. Clinton also campaigned several times with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist, including an election-eve rally in Orlando.
• As Hillary Clinton sought the presidency in 2016, Bill Clinton made several Florida appearances during the last month of the campaign, including a rally in Belle Glade.