Bill Clinton’s tenure on America’s political landscape has given us some pretty unique terms of art. “I didn’t inhale” has become synonymous with a lie that comes with a wink and a smile, and when it comes to being slippery it’s doubtful that anyone will ever top that time he said under oath, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” We shouldn’t forget, however, that Clinton also gave us the Bimbo Eruption, which occurred with such regularity that there was a Bimbo Eruption Unit tasked with handling them. During these episodes, some poor woman would surface to detail her tawdry encounters with Slick Willie, which is how Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky became household names.
That’s when the Unit would spring into action, with the sole mission of destroying the credibility of Clinton’s accusers before their stories caught on. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, and in the end a lot of people just chuckled over the Big Dog‘s straying ways—after all, if you were married to Hillary, wouldn’t you be dining out every chance you got? That Bill, he’s quite the character, isn’t he?
But there was a darker side to Clinton’s habits as well. Beyond the willing women, there were other names that would enter the public consciousness. There was Paula Jones, who accused Clinton of exposing himself to her and demanding she perform oral sex on him. There was Kathleen Willey, a loyal Democrat volunteer who said that Clinton groped her during a visit in the Oval Office. Neither of these women asked for what happened to them—according to their stories, Clinton just decided to help himself, no consent required. Horrible as those accounts were, though, they didn’t compare to the harrowing tale told by Juanita Broaddrick, who said that Clinton raped her in an Arkansas hotel room. It was this alleged encounter that coined another infamous phrase, “You better get some ice on that.”
Throughout it all, the Democrats and the media largely defended Clinton. They mostly waved the allegations off, denying that any of it had ever happened or accusing the women of seeking fame or money. But even when the evidence—such as a certain blue dress —became overwhelming, Clinton apologists simply argued that it wasn’t any big deal. It’s just sex, they would say. It doesn’t have any bearing on the president’s ability to do his job. So long as the country was at peace and the economy was humming along, why should his indiscretions matter? That was a private matter between him and Hillary.
Left unexplored was the corrosive effects that Clinton’s predations might have on the culture at large. The Lewinsky affair had already planted the idea that oral sex wasn’t really sex—but were there larger issues that would manifest themselves over the course of time? With all the sex abuse scandals now emerging from Hollywood—practices that were common knowledge for years, but tolerated because that’s the way things are done in show biz—it seems we’ve found an answer to that question, and it reflects poorly on almost everyone.
Writing in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan rightly calls this a reckoning—and takes to task those who enabled it:
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. 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.
Flanagan goes on to say:
The Democratic Party needs to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton. The party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant, Big Dog president and his stunning string of progressive accomplishments that it abandoned some of its central principles. The party was on the wrong side of history and there are consequences for that. Yet expedience is not the only reason to make this public accounting. If it is possible for politics and moral behavior to coexist, then this grave wrong needs to be acknowledged. If Weinstein and Mark Halperin and Louis C.K. and all the rest can be held accountable, so can our former president and so can his party.
Of course, like most corruption, this tendency hasn’t been confined to the Democrat Party. Right now, Roy Moore—the Republican candidate for the Senate in Alabama—is facing accusations that he sexually assaulted young girls back in the 1970s. To be sure, this was a long time before the Clinton scandals—but the defense of Moore being made by certain self-identified conservatives has much in common with how liberals railed to Clinton’s side. The difference is that before Clinton, these conservatives—who say they hold family values above all things—would have never even dreamed of sticking with a tainted candidate for office. But they’ve become sick of the double standard in which Republicans are held accountable for everything, while Democrats are free to do whatever they like without consequence. The anger over that has made them tribal—and in a tribe, you stick with your own no matter what.
Had the Democrats held Clinton to account back then, perhaps things would be different. But they didn’t, and this is where we are.
A reckoning, indeed.