Ruth Marcus, the reliably liberal Washington Post columnist, wrote a piece the other day that came close to being brave. Given the source, for much of the paper’s readership its very headline was surely a stunner: TRUMP IS RIGHT: BILL CLINTON’S SORDID SEXUAL HISTORY IS FAIR GAME. Yes, Marcus noted, Trump may be everything progressives say he is, “racist, sexist, narcissist, for starters . . . . But he has a point about Clinton playing the ‘woman’s card,’ and about the male behavior that’s more concerning: her husband’s . . . . (I)n the larger scheme of things, Bill Clinton’s conduct toward women is far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said . . . . Trump has smeared women because of their looks, Clinton has preyed on them, and in a workplace setting where he was by far the superior.” “Ordinarily,” she added, “I would argue that the sins of the husband should not be visited on the wife . . . . But Hillary Clinton has made two moves that lead me, gulp, to agree with Trump on the ‘fair game’ front. She is (smartly) using her husband as a campaign surrogate, and simultaneously (correctly) calling Trump sexist.”
What’s the problem with such a piece? It is at its essence a dodge, an attempt to avoid a far more serious indictment by copping to a lesser charge. In fact, Bill Clinton was not just a workplace harasser, or even a serial adulterer; he was, and remains, someone credibly accused of sexual assault. And what goes unmentioned—for this obviously could be catastrophic for Hillary’s campaign—is that she has been his willing cohort, the energetic enabler who sought to destroy his accusers to protect their joint political and financial interests.
In this regard, the piece is emblematic of what the Clintons have done to their fellow liberals and Democrats, in the media and beyond, over the past couple of decades—they turned them into serial equivocators and liars. Never mind that progressives continue to see (and often define) themselves as morally and ethically superior: in the fight to save Bill Clinton’s presidency there could be no adherence to larger truths, or moral consistency, or commitment to time-tested standards; all were sacrificed in defense of Clinton’s political survival.
Indeed, in key ways, America pre-Sexgate was a very different country from the one we live in today, immeasurably more innocent and less jaded; still respectful of values now widely seen as antique. This is why, in bien pensant quarters, the lead story in the Washington Post of January 21, 1998—CLINTON ACCUSED OF URGING AIDE TO LIE—produced a tidal wave of angst and disorientation not unlike that brought on by a sudden presidential death. In that different moral universe, there was every reason to believe Clinton’s presidency was finished. Even more calamitous than the allegation of presidential perjury was what the president had lied about: “Starr Probes Whether President Told Woman to Deny Alleged Affair to Jones’s Lawyers,” as the Post’s subhed had it.
Every sentient being in America would soon know that the “woman” in question was White House intern Monica Lewinsky, who might have been more appropriately termed a girl. She’d been just 21 when the soon-to-be-exposed liaison began, with a childish, wide-eyed crush on her boss. Little wonder that the news hit especially hard in the nation’s newsrooms, longtime hotbeds of Clinton support. The press had excelled at covering up/rationalizing Clinton’s indiscretions since his appearance on the national scene (most notably the one involving longtime Arkansas squeeze Gennifer Flowers). But this was different. Not even proudly enlightened progressives could in good conscience see this as anything but sexual exploitation. In any case, and perhaps more to the point, they realized that the vast majority of Americans out there—the hicks in flyover country—would see it that way. Hopelessly naïve in that peculiarly American way, ordinary citizens actually expected more of their president.
God knows the media had done its best to bury the story. In fact, it had first surfaced several days earlier, on a fledgling “blog” run by the unknown Matt Drudge on the still-new Internet. Drudge hadn’t reported the details of the story itself, only that Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff had the story but the magazine was refusing to run it. Newsweek’s publishing partner, the Post, was forced to acknowledge the story’s existence. Once it broke, even outlets that otherwise reflexively rallied behind a beleaguered liberal leader quickly took up what amounted to a death watch. “Did the president encourage a former intern to lie about their alleged affair?” demanded the Miami Herald in an editorial the day after the Washington Post report. “If that assertion is proved true by credible evidence, then the president would have suborned perjury and obstructed justice—both felonies. Strong censure, including possibly an effort to impeach him, would be likely.” ZIPPERGATE COULD BE END FOR CLINTON PRESIDENCY, ran a headline in the liberal Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day. “I would probably guess that what Congress would do is find ‘urging perjury’ to be an impeachable offense,” echoed Geraldine Ferraro, as the first female candidate for vice president, a full-fledged Democrat—and feminist—heroine.
“Among the president’s loyalists, there is bitterness,” observed the Washington Post in a piece on the Left’s angst. “Especially betrayed are the baby boomers: They all want 21-year-old interns, too, but they know not to touch them. . . . At liberal institutions, a pall set in. At People for the American Way, workers got an e-mail from the boss instructing them not to contribute to the rumor-mongering, and the honchos were talking about scrapping a planned radio campaign in support of the president’s push to get his judicial nominees confirmed by Congress. For Washington veterans, there was a familiar feeling about this day, a stomach-flipping sense of deja vu, a realization that even in this era of cheap scandals and easy outrage, some events have the power to halt a nation in its tracks.”
Not even The New York Times could summon up so much as tepid support for the beleaguered president, noting that while “there is a general reluctance to have the private life of any President become a matter of public inquiry” and that Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, “has a vendetta against” Clinton, “this Administration repeatedly forces its supporters to choose between loyalty and respect for the law. . . . Mr. Clinton has denied the charges, and on the surface they seem so tawdry, the alleged impropriety so avoidable by a mature leader, that it is hard to comprehend their potential impact.”
Of course, Clinton did deny the charges, in those early days lying and spinning ferociously, the desperation evident in his look and timbre; driven by both the desertion of his allies and growing signs of cratering public support. According to a USA/CNN poll taken late that first week, “An overwhelming majority, 72%, say they would find it relevant to his performance as president if Clinton participated in an effort to obstruct justice by urging her to lie under oath. Nearly as many, 67%, say it would be relevant if Clinton lied under oath about the affair.” Insisting to PBS that he “did not ask anyone to tell anything other than the truth,” and “there is no improper relationship,” Clinton appeared a trapped and doomed man. A few days later, on January 27, he dug himself in even deeper when he infamously declared, jabbing a finger toward the camera: “I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people.”
How did he in fact did survive? More than anything, it had to do with the identities of those who rallied to his defense—above all, his wife. It was the very next morning, January 28, that Hillary appeared on NBC’s Today, expressing absolute faith in her husband’s credibility and blaming the crisis on a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” led by Starr. As David Maraniss characterized her appearance in the Washington Post, “she assumed a familiar and crucial role as Bill Clinton’s first defender. She said she knew him better than anyone in the world, still loved him, and fully believed his denial of allegations that he had entered into a sexual relationship with a White House intern and had urged the young woman to lie about it. . . Her words at once established a clear line of counterattack for Clinton’s loyalists . . . The decision to transform Clinton’s public defense into a rhetorical war with Starr and the political right wing was made at the White House in a series of meetings over the past four days, according to several administration sources. In every discussion in which she participated, the first lady was a leading advocate of an aggressive strategy attacking Starr, but it was not until her remarks yesterday morning that they realized that counterattacking was their most effective choice, and that she was their most effective weapon.”
It’s now clear that from the earliest days of Bill’s public career, it had been Hillary taking the lead in tamping down the “bimbo eruptions,” as Clinton insiders termed them, which threatened their joint enterprise. According to Flowers, whose revelation of her 12-year affair with Clinton led to a sympathetic interview with both Clintons on 60 Minutes in which they asserted the strength of their marriage, the notion Hillary didn’t know about the affair is beyond ludicrous. “I think she has always known everything about him,” concurs Juanita Broaddrick, the Little Rock nursing home executive who charged Clinton raped her 1978. In an interview with Aaron Klein, she recalled being told personally by Hillary in 1978 to keep quiet about the episode. “I think they have this evil compact between the two of them that they each know what the other does and overlook it. And go right on. And cover one for the other.” “She enabled his behavior,” says alleged Clinton sexual assault victim Kathleen Willey flatly. “It’s as simple as that.”
The Clintons have systematically attempted to blacken the accusers’ names and otherwise destroy their credibility. Yet, at the height of the 1998 crisis, Hillary’s pose as the aggrieved yet forgiving wife allowed the Clinton partisans, starting with those in the media, to push the line that this was a private matter, unworthy of the attention it was receiving. After all, if his wife didn’t care, why should anyone else? The other pivotal point came on March 22, when America’s leading feminist gave Clinton a total pass. In a New York Times op-ed, Gloria Steinem declared that while he “may be a candidate for sex addiction therapy, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment.” Why not? Because his accusers—she mentioned only Paula Jones (to whom he had exposed himself and to whom he would pay an $850,000 out-of-court settlement) and Kathleen Willey (whom he had groped when she was reeling from the suicide of her husband)—were “supporters” from whom he eventually “took ‘no’ for an answer.” (Broaddrick, whose contemporaneous corroborating testimony in support of her rape allegation lent vast credibility to the charge, had not yet come forward publicly—but to this day there is no record of Steinem or any other leading figure in the sisterhood supporting her, either.) In any case, wrote Steinem, what ultimately mattered most were the president’s policy positions—especially his solid support for abortion.
As Clinton’s prospects for survival brightened, his Democratic colleagues likewise rallied to his support, even as many privately expressed deep contempt for his behavior. Indeed, it was already becoming clear that the Clintons’ scorched-earth campaign for survival would impose steep and long-lasting costs on the quality of the nation’s civic life. It is no accident that the campaign’s rallying cry, “Let’s Move On,” would be the genesis of MoveOn.org, which continues today aggressively to push the Left’s agenda and eviscerate those on the other side.
There were other costs, too. Here are just a handful of the jokes which became ubiquitous on late-night TV, circa 1998:
Q: What is Bill’s definition of safe sex?
A: When Hillary is out of town.
Q: What is the difference between Clinton and the Titanic?
A: Only 200 women went down on the Titanic.
Q: How does Bill keep Monica Lewinsky away from the White House?
A: He keeps offering to send Ted Kennedy over to give her a ride.
Q: How can a woman tell she’s just had sex with Bill Clinton?
A: She’s got French fries in her hair, and Vernon Jordan is handing her a job application.
Little wonder that through it all—from the initial word of the president’s affair with Lewinsky to the revelations about cigars and the semen on the blue dress—there were reports on the difficulties American parents were having trying to explain to their young children things they wished they didn’t have to. Nor, from this distance, is there much doubt that those times had a deep and lasting impact on American mores. Is it coincidence that millions of Millennials maintain, along with the president of their formative years, that fellatio does not actually constitute sex? If America has indeed lost much of its former innocence, who can doubt that the 42nd president accelerated the process?
We will of course hear little of that during the upcoming campaign, at least from the liberal media. Stalwart as they were in serving as Barack Obama’s Praetorian Guard in 2008—effectively scuttling their candidates’ decades-long relationships with his racist, America-hating minister and an American terrorist as campaign issues—they may be faced with an even more difficult task this time. “Things aren’t looking good for Hillary,” joked Jay Leno in 1998. “Like a lot of women in Washington, I think she’s just starting to realize she may have slept with Bill Clinton for nothing.” But Hillary has always gotten plenty from her husband, and bereft of accomplishments of her own, she is now more dependent on his record, and his fabled charisma, than ever before. That will not be easy to square, however, with the fact that she is running, above all, as a bearer of two X chromosomes, someone who is actually on the record proclaiming that “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.”
Already, prompted by GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s aggressively bringing the subject to the fore, the media obfuscation and minimizing have begun in earnest. For all its seeming candor, Ruth Marcus’s piece was part of that effort. So, too, was CNN’s Don Lemon’s declaration that Hillary was not responsible for Bill’s misbehavior and that the matter had already been fully “litigated,” before cutting off conservative commentator Kurt Schlichter’s mic when he refused to drop the subject. So, too, was Today’s Savannah Guthrie’s delicate reference to Bill Clinton’s “alleged” affair with Monica Lewinsky. Perhaps most egregiously, the International Business Times’s Abigail Abrams made a heroic attempt to distinguish the ex-president’s behavior from that of the disgraced and newly indicted Bill Cosby. “Unlike Cosby,” Abrams wrote, “Bill Clinton’s most well-known extramarital activities were consensual.”
It’s not the reality of Clintonian sexual misconduct that will be at issue in this election, nor Hillary’s role in savaging Bill’s accusers, nor even the remarkable lengths to which the press will go to protect them both. All of that has by now been established beyond question, for those willing to see. The real issue in this election is how much of this history the American people will be willing to ignore, shrug off, or decide doesn’t matter. The real question will be how much the Clintons have changed America.
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