Are liberals having a moral awakening? Watching the political contortions of Republicans to defend a candidate accused of sexually molesting teenage girls, Democrats and liberal pundits are reckoning publicly with their own history of fervid rationalizations on behalf of a recent president. But this should be just the beginning of a painful re-examination.
This new consciousness was glimpsed first in a tweet from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, a commentator of stoutly progressive persuasion. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right's ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it's also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”
It was glimpsed in passing in a New York Times editorial, Ground Zero of conventional liberalism. “Remember former President Bill Clinton, whose popularity endures despite a long string of allegations of sexual misconduct and, in one case, rape—all of which he has denied,” it said.
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, where coastal elitism is a badge of honor, acknowledged the elephant in the room this way: “That so many women have summoned the courage to make public their allegations against Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly—or that many have come to reconsider some of the claims made against Bill Clinton—represents a cultural passage.”
And in full-throated, unvarnished form, it appeared in a piece Monday in The Atlantic by the redoubtable Caitlin Flanagan, who is unbound to any specific ideology. In a piece titled, “Bill Clinton—The Reckoning,” Flanagan pointed not to the Monica Lewinsky story, nor to Gennifer Flowers, nor to any other story of consensual behavior, but to a darker series of stories from as far back as 1978.
“It was a pattern of behavior; it included an alleged violent assault; the women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks. But Clinton was not left to the swift and pitiless justice that today’s accused men have experienced,” Flanagan wrote. “Rather, he was rescued by a surprising force: machine feminism. The movement had by then ossified into a partisan operation and it was willing—eager—to let this friend of the sisterhood enjoy a little droit de seigneur.”
These allegations have long been a part of the right-wing media’s talking points. Sean Hannity invoked them on an almost daily basis during the 2016 campaign, and they were used by Donald Trump as a protective shield, to ward off the charges of serial sexual harassment and the boastful confessions of same on the “Access Hollywood” tape. During the 2016 campaign, Trump brought these three women to a Presidential debate, as living, breathing arguments for “whataboutism.”
But from the political center leftward, those allegations never reached critical mass. Maybe it was the very way that the Right not only seized on the stories, but made them part of a much broader, far less credible series of accusations. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell spent years peddling “the Clinton Chronicles,” a series of videos that charged the Clintons with complicity in any number of murders. A congressional committee chair used a rifle and a watermelon to try to show that White House aide Vince Foster had been murdered, rather than taking his own life; As late as last year, the fever swamps were rife with stories of a pedophilic sex trafficking ring operating out of the basement of a popular Washington pizza parlor. Any one of these flights of lunacy acted as the thirteenth stroke of the clock, casting doubt not only on itself, but on every other allegation.
So what changed? Three people: Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump and Roy Moore.
The first factor is obvious. In the fallout from the thermonuclear explosion that was Weinstein, words and deeds are now being viewed through a radically different frame. From literary lions to famous political journalists to editors to CEOs, careers have been suddenly, thoroughly obliterated because of past behavior that is now seen as beyond the pale. And that has meant that the alleged behavior of a one-time attorney general, governor and president are no less vulnerable to reexamination.
There's no better illustration of how the ground has shifted than to look at Gloria Steinem’s 1998 New York Times op-ed piece, “Why Feminists Support Clinton.” Published as the Lewinsky story was on full boil, the piece talked not about that story, but about the charges of harassment leveled by Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. What she argued was that even if the allegations were true, they did not amount to harassment. Why not? Because, in the cases of of Willey and Jones, he took no for an answer.
“He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life” Steinem wrote of Willey. “She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again.” In her original story, Paula Jones essentially said the same thing. She went to then-Governor Clinton's hotel room, where she said he asked her to perform oral sex and even dropped his trousers. She refused, and even she claims that he said something like, ‘Well, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do.’’
“As with the allegations in Ms. Willey's case, Mr. Clinton seems to have made a clumsy sexual pass, then accepted rejection,” Steinem wrote by way of excusing him. Even 19 years ago, Steinem’s assertion was not received all that well. It was labeled the “one free grope” theory.
Now restate the story with today’s frame: The governor of a state sends his security detail to summon a $6.35 entry-level employee up to his hotel suite. If we follow Steinem and accept the allegations, he drops his pants, exposes himself, and asks for oral sex. Would his acceptance of her refusal immunize him—or a TV producer, or an actor, or an advertising executive from swift and strong retribution?
What’s also notable about the Steinem essay is that it made no mention of the most serious charge against Clinton: that as attorney general in 1978, he had persuaded a nursing home operator to invite him to her hotel room—a last minute change of venue—where he set upon her and raped her. Juanita Broaddrick’s story—from which she has deviated only once, falsely repudiating the story, she said, so as not to be dragged into the Paula Jones lawsuit—has been consistent and has the kind of credibility we have been taught to recognize (a friend saw her just after the alleged incident and saw her with bruised lip and torn clothes). This allegation—that Clinton did not take “no” for an answer—has always unsettled even some of the former President’s strongest admirers. (I remember asking a Clinton aide about it on CNN many years ago and was struck by the fact that there was no push back, no denial.) But in the wake of what Weinstein has taught us, some of the gaps in Broaddrick’s story now seem explicable. Of course she didn’t file a complaint; he was the chief law enforcement officer of the state. Of course she denied the story at one point; she had no interest in becoming a public figure.
At the height of the Lewinsky impeachment melodrama, Clinton’s defenders always argued that the president’s behavior was a private matter. To this day, you can find references to Clinton’s “dalliances” and “peccadilloes.” It is also true that in each of these three cases, there are grounds for doubt. Broaddrick changed her story; Jones could not accurately describe the Presidential package; Willey also accused Clinton of murdering her husband, and wanted to publish a book. And all three became ardent political foes of the Clintons. But the fact that some of Weinstein’s accusers agreed to stay silent in return for a settlement or even stated that he was innocent of harassment as part of the settlement deal no longer are seen as mitigating Weinstein’s behavior. And in the Weinstein context, the inconsistencies and political involvement of Broaddrick, Jones and Willey can be seen as much as a desire for justified revenge as an alliance with conspiracy-minded extremists.
But there’s another, broad question that progressives and other Democrats need to confront, one that reaches beyond Clinton. And it’s an issue triggered by the response on the Right to Donald Trump’s campaign, and (to a lesser extent to Judge Roy Moore: Are they going to let partisan politics warp their capacity for clear moral judgment?
All through 2016, figures on the Right debated over what to do about Donald Trump. His character, his temperament, his history, his knowledge (or lack thereof) made him as unfit a candidate for President as any in our history. Many refused to endorse him; some even publicly backed Clinton. But among those who did, one of the most powerful arguments went this way: “Yes, he’s wrong in all sorts of ways, but if Clinton wins, we will have a liberal federal judiciary for decades, we will have intrusive health care, and we will have no chance to cut down the size of big government, and anyway, she’s a crook.” If the exit polls are right, a lot of voters bought this argument; crunch the numbers, and it turns out that several million voters who saw Trump as neither qualified nor fit for office voted for him anyway.
We are seeing this same argument about Judge Moore (although his support does seem to be slipping by the hour). The Alabama state auditor has said in so many words that he will vote for Moore even if the charges about molesting a 14-year-old girl are true. Conservative writer David Horowitz put it this way: “In my view Moore is guilty as accused. But 1) it happened 30 years ago, & 2) he can't be removed from the ballot, & 3) electing a Dem strengthens a party that defends these criminals: Obama, the Clintons, Holder, Lynch, Abedin, Cheryl Mills etc. & their crimes are far far worse.”
Now for the hard part. How different is this “transactional” approach to voting different from what Clinton’s supporters did in brushing aside the serious questions not of philandering, but of predatory sexual behavior?
Clinton was a feminist; he named a liberal woman to the Supreme Court; he was pro-choice; he put record numbers of women in his administration; he fought for child-care, the earned-income tax credit, environmentally progressive policies. By focusing on Clinton’s private “dalliances,” and by ignoring the more serious allegations, the center-left argued that the removal of Clinton was not just anti-democratic (overturning an election), but would be a victory for the forces of reaction. (This argument always lacked a certain force, given that Al Gore would have replaced Clinton). It also represented a complete reversal of a central feminist argument that “the personal is political,” that the behavior of men, and not just their pronouncements and policies, had to be taken into account. The new version was, “the personal is political unless the person in question embraces my politics.”
Clinton himself raised this argument when he told his cabinet in August of 1998 that his earlier assurances of innocence in the Lewinsky affair were false. His Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, upbraided him for his conduct, and noted that had he been a professor at the university she once ran, he would have been bounced for such conduct.
To which Clinton replied, according to the Washington Post, “that if her logic had prevailed in 1960, Richard M. Nixon would have been elected president instead of John F. Kennedy.”
This is, you may recognize, the mirror image of the argument Trump’s supporters made to skeptics, and what Moore’s supporters are making even as their man takes serious incoming fire. The political defense of Moore goes like this: “If Moore loses, that’s one less vote for tax cuts, conservative judges, traditional values. (Well, they might want to shelve that one). We can’t let our problems with personal conduct override the enormous political stakes.”
But Clinton’s reply to Shalala raises one final, highly unsettling question: Given today’s terrain, how should we regard the conduct of President John Kennedy? We have known for several decades that he was not simply a “womanizer” (a word that may need to be retired) but a man of compulsive, reckless, dangerous impulses. Some of his behavior was simply contemptible, telling the 19-year-old White House staffer he was sleeping with to “take care” of his aide and occasional procurer Dave Powers with oral sex.
But some of it carried clear public consequences, like bedding the mistress of a powerful Mafia don while his brother was launching an all-out war on organized crime, or frolicking with a suspected East German agent. The fact that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had full knowledge of JFK’s behavior—knowledge he delighted in sharing with his nemesis Bobby Kennedy—meant that there was no way for President Kennedy to remove a racist, politically fanatical director of the FBI. (Disclosure: I worked in Robert Kennedy’s Senate office and in his presidential campaign in 1967-68.) Moreover, contrary to the myth that the press threw a protective shield around his behavior, Kennedy in the last weeks of his life had become the focus of some serious investigative reporting, most notably by Clark Mollenhoff of the Des Moines Register. It is at least possible that had Kennedy lived, his private life would have become distinctly un-private, jeopardizing his hold on the White House. We’ll never know what apologies might have been written to absolve him of those sins, but we can well imagine given the prevailing attitudes of the time.
And yet…there is more than a little realpolitik force to Clinton’s question. For all of his recklessness in matters of sex, Kennedy was a cautious, prudent man when it counted most—in his role as Commander-in-Chief. In his refusal to go into Laos in 1961, in his refusal to provide American air cover for the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion, in his conduct during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in his call for a thaw in the Cold War and a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and in his increasing doubts about Vietnam, there was no sign of recklessness. It may not be too much to say that a different President during the Cuban Missile Crisis would have meant the difference between life and death for tens of millions of people.
In the end, though, neither Clinton nor Kennedy can escape the “reckoning” of which Chris Hayes and Caitlin Flanagan refer. In the case of Kennedy, his treatment of women was not simply callous, but jeopardized his presidency. In the case of Clinton, his public policies cannot erase the serious doubts about whether a sexual predator occupied the White House for eight years. And even measured by partisan concerns, Clinton’s behavior materially, perhaps fatally, wounded the campaigns of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.
For many of us, it is easy to look at of Weinstein, Trump and Moore as case studies in pathological behavior. Looking closer to home is a lot more painful; it is also compulsory. Unless and until partisans across the board stop justifying unconscionable behavior out of political self-interest, the more likely it is that the pervasive cynicism about the process, and everyone involved in it, will fester and grow.