WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton sounded hopeful back in 1993 when, less than six months into his presidency, he delivered an address at Arlington National Cemetery commemorating the 25th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.
It was years before Monica Lewinsky and her blue dress, before Clinton allies coined the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy,’’ and before independent counsel Ken Starr became a household name. At the cemetery that June day, Clinton’s presidency still held the promise of sweeping social progress.
“The legacy of Robert Kennedy is a stern rebuke to the cynicism, to the trivialization, that grips so much of our public life today,” said a fresh-faced Clinton to an audience of 16,000 who came to witness the event. “Let us believe again. We can do better.”
Twenty-five years later, Clinton, now 71, is set to speak at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of RFK’s death. Again, it will be held at Arlington National Cemetery, and several thousand are expected to attend. But the optimism embodied by Clinton’s 1993 speech, for Democrats, has been replaced by deep dismay over Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the hands of Donald Trump as well as newly revived questions about Bill Clinton’s sexual improprieties.
“In 1993, Clinton was looking forward. In 2018 he’s looking backward,” said Tim Naftali, a historian and expert on the Kennedy clan. “When he gave the speech 25 years ago he was at the start of a moment of great influence in American life. And now it’s over. And in a sense, unexpectedly and unintentionally, it’s a bookend for him.”
Clinton’s spokesman disputed the notion that the 42nd president’s influence is waning.
“We’re still talking about his effect on the country’s politics,” said Angel Urena, a Clinton aide. “He has enjoyed continuing to work on issues he cares deeply about through his foundation, he finds the conversations he’s having with candidates to be both interesting and invigorating, and he’s happy to see so many people who worked with him committing themselves to public service.”
Still, the questions about Clinton’s personal behavior have recently become more pointed and uncomfortable as Americans rethink the way powerful men historically have treated women, particularly when a pattern has been established. Titans like movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, journalist Charlie Rose, and former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman have been felled after multiple women went public with detailed accounts of misconduct or abuse.
In this new light, Clinton’s worst impulses — and the familiar pattern of the accusations against him — are haunting him again in the twilight of his public life. He’s been shunned by Democrats who don’t want him appearing at their campaign events, including Ralph Northam, the Democrat who won the Virginia gubernatorial race last year, according to an account in the New York Times.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said last year that Clinton should have resigned from office over the Lewinsky affair.
Clinton responded to those comments in a CBS interview that is scheduled to be broadcast Sunday morning, saying “she’s living in a different context” and adding, “I just disagree with her.”
Clinton will be introduced at the June 6 event by Representative Joseph Kennedy III, who has so far had the most success carrying the family name forward in a scandal-free manner.
The reason given for Clinton’s role at the event has more to do with the past than the future. “President Clinton spoke at the 25th with inspiring eloquence about my father,” said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is the eldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s 11 children and who extended the invitation. “He has been a warm friend of our family. We feel fortunate to have him speak.”
Townsend is also set to speak at the event, according to a copy of the program obtained by the Globe. And several others are due to read famous quotes by Robert Kennedy, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who has close ties with the Kennedy clan, and Representative Kevin McCarthy, who is vying to be the next House Republican leader. Clinton, the main speaker, has been allotted 15 minutes.
While the Kennedy event is more of an homage to the past, historians say, it could also serve as a springboard for Clinton’s latest rehabilitation effort. Ever the “comeback kid,” Clinton is trying to again dust off his image and recapture some of the glory from his past. This month he also held a fund-raiser — with tickets priced from $2,500 to $100,000 — for the Clinton Foundation, which was battered by conservatives during the 2016 election.
Over the summer he plans to ramp up his public appearances as he launches a book tour for the political thriller “The President is Missing,” which he co-wrote with James Patterson. It’s due out Monday, and Clinton plans a 15-city tour this month to promote it.
But as he tries to reemerge in public life, Clinton is encountering a different political landscape. New research by the Barbara Lee Foundation in Boston found that voters harbor doubts about candidates when they question the validity of the #MeToo movement and downplay the importance of sexual harassment.
“We found across the board that voters say sexual harassment is not a niche issue,” said Amanda Hunter, a spokeswoman for the foundation. “There really hasn’t been a public dialogue about this since the Anita Hill hearings” in 1991.
In May, officials at Town & Country magazine came under harsh criticism for withdrawing an invitation they extended to Lewinsky to speak at their philanthropy summit because Clinton decided he would attend. Lewinsky turned to Twitter to complain about the snub.
In a sign of how the world has changed, major influencers such as producer Judd Apatow sympathized with Lewinsky. Town & Country officials issued a mea culpa.
Other women who have accused Clinton of sexual misconduct voiced disappointment that he will speak at the Kennedy event.
“I just do not understand why they still give him a pass,” said Juanita Broaddrick, who has accused Clinton of raping her. “I would like to know why? Why can you elevate Bill Clinton again to this level when he has done so many atrocious acts?”
Broaddrick surmised that the Kennedy family does not believe the women who’ve accused Clinton of sexual misconduct.
“What else could there be? What on earth could be the answer?” Broaddrick said. “Other than they believe Bill Clinton and they do not believe all the victims.”
Clinton, through his attorney, has denied any misconduct with Broaddrick.
“People still laud him,” said Leslie Millwee, who accused Clinton of assaulting her when she was a TV reporter in Arkansas. “When is that going to change? When is this man going to be held accountable for his behavior over the years?”
But even some who’ve called out Clinton say that he should be judged by his full record, and argue that the accusations of sexual assault are part, but not all, of his biography. Moreover, some say it’s unfair to apply today’s norms to Clinton’s past.
“We do have to recognize the context,” said Jane Eisner, editor in chief of The Forward, who led the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board in the 1990s when the newspaper called on Clinton to resign for lying over the Lewinsky affair. “We have standards that are different now.”
Still, she said she’d like to see Clinton atone more fully for his past. “What’s been missing is tshuva — it’s repentance,” Eisner said. “He’s not really done a public accounting of this. I think if he had at some point along the way, I think America would forgive him.”