Critic's Notebook: Politics — and His Past — Permeate Bill Clinton Book Tour

Courtesy of Griffin Lipson/BFA.com
Bill Clinton, with James Patterson, at a TimesTalks event

Appearing with co-author James Patterson to discuss their thriller 'The President Is Missing,' the former president faces more questions about Monica Lewinsky.

Bill Clinton discovered yet again Tuesday night that it's not so easy to escape his past. He appeared at NYU's Skirball Center, along with best-selling author James Patterson, to talk about their co-written thriller The President Is Missing. While much of the conversation at the TimesTalks event (video below) dutifully revolved around the book, Clinton once again found himself facing questions about the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment. But this being held in liberal New York City, moderator Pamela Paul received boos from the crowd whenever she tried to bring up the subject.

Clinton admitted that his responses during the previous day's interview on NBC's Today show "wasn't my finest hour." He explained that he became defensive not because interviewer Craig Melvin (whom he described as "that man young enough to be my son") raised the issue, but rather because he claimed that Clinton had never apologized.

"I apologized to the people who were most hurt…I meant it then, I mean it now," Clinton went on. "I've lived with that in ways that you can't imagine."

Asked what he would say to Lewinsky if she were in attendance (more boos), Clinton deftly parried the question: "If she were here now and I would to speak to her, it wouldn't be a private conversation." When Paul pressed him to further reflect on his past actions, Clinton shut her down. "I'm not going there," he said firmly.

Although Patterson did his best to participate in the conversation, joking about the brevity of his books and explaining that his goal with this one was to "write a beach read that was important," Clinton inevitably dominated the evening. Asked about the persuasiveness of the case for President Trump's impeachment, Clinton replied that nothing could be determined until the Mueller investigation was finished.

"We have to wait and see what he says," Clinton said. "Then the rest of us can weigh in."

"As a citizen, I recommend that people focus on the midterms and show up," he added, to cheers.

Other topics Clinton discussed included Russia's interference in the 2016 election ("They certainly tried, that's obvious") and if gender bias prevented Hillary from winning the election ("It made the race close enough that Comey's announcement swung it").

When asked, "Are you worried about the state of the culture under this presidency?" Clinton waxed philosophically. "Politics should be other-directed," he responded, making the case for greater civility in our discourse. "Life is too short for you to respond in kind. Don't become like the people you say you don't like."

Both men discussed at length the need for greater cybersecurity, one of the book's principal themes. They also described their co-writing process in which Clinton contributed his expertise about the presidency and Patterson his talent for plot twists. Patterson commented about Clinton's tendency to bring too much wonkish detail to the book. "I told the president, we can't go 300 pages before something happens," he joked.

Clinton also played the role of culture critic, analyzing various television shows about presidents. He praised The West Wing for concentrating on the White House staff, something the short-lived Geena Davis-starrer Commander in Chief failed to do. He said he enjoyed Scandal, but added, "It's not true that these people commit murder all the time"; praised House of Cards, or at least its "first three seasons"; and described Madam Secretary as "the most realistic show on TV."