Left-leaning Americans who are rightfully repulsed by Roy Moore, and who were similarly steamed in 2016 about Donald Trump’s gropey braggadocio, need to acknowledge that Bill Clinton also rates a place in that Hall of Infamy.
I’m down with that.
Lest we forget, feminists and Democratic activists in the late 1990s mostly stayed mute, defended, or excused Bill’s notorious workplace behavior. Monica Lewinsky was derided as a stalker (Bill himself pushed that line), Kathleen Willey (who accused Bill of Oval Office groping) was ignored or disbelieved, and Paula Jones (who says gubernatorial Bill dropped his pants) was denounced as trailer trash. What Bill’s liberal and feminist defenders did way back then — standing by “their” guy in order to thwart the ideological opposition — is precisely what they’re condemning the Moore and Trump camps for doing now.
I find myself agreeing with the conservative columnist John Podhoretz, who writes in the New York Post that Bill, buoyed during the 1998 Lewinsky scandal by Hillary, “signaled to their supporters and the entire Democratic liberal-left that any crack in their defense of him would allow a puritanical right-wing flood to engulf the country … Moore is saying exactly the same thing to conservatives: Allow yourselves to believe in the truth of these claims and you are going to surrender this country to godlessness and transgenderism.”
So. Wouldn’t this be a better world if partisans on both sides of the ideological divide lowered their rhetorical weapons and simply agreed that sexually harassing women is bad regardless of who does it?
My own conscience is clear about Bill. In the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 1998, I denounced his “deception and recklessness,” and “his willingness to conduct secret trysts with Lewinsky while (Paula Jones’) sexual harassment lawsuit was hanging over his head.” I also cited grand jury testimony about Bill’s behavior right after the Lewinsky trysts were exposed in January 1998. He had to decide whether to come clean with the public or lie, and he decided to lie, telling one of his former aides, “We’ll just have to win, won’t we?”
Most Democratic partisans and prominent feminists — who claimed to champion the empowerment of women — were far more forgiving than I. They made all kinds of excuses for Bill’s exercise of power over a lowly intern, because they feared that his downfall would clear the decks for Newt Gingrich and the rabid right. Their reasoning was dumb, because if Bill had been compelled to resign, his replacement — Al Gore — would’ve sustained the liberal policy agenda. Alas, they decided instead that Bill’s disempowered women were acceptable collateral damage.
Back then, one of the few Washington journalists to excoriate that feminist silence was the late, great Marjorie Williams, who wrote about it in Vanity Fair magazine. Williams quoted the feminist writer Anne Roiphe, who said that when she heard the evidence against Bill, “I just wanted to close my eyes, and wished it would go away.” And Williams quoted the legendary Betty Friedan, who dismissed the Lewinsky evidence this way: “Whether it’s fantasy, a set-up or true, I simply don’t care.”
Williams was one of the few voices on the liberal side to map Bill’s track record for her reluctant brethren:
“We have good evidence … that Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, had a state trooper escort Paula Jones to his suite at Little Rock’s Excelsior Hotel during her work hours, and we know that she gave contemporaneous accounts of the meeting to several witnesses which closely track the allegations in her lawsuit. We know that there is extensive evidence of a relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky that has not been challenged by the administration. We know that Arkansas state troopers have said under oath that Clinton used them to enable his sexual escapades in Little Rock…”
Williams also stated: “I am a feminist and a registered Democrat. Many of the feminist activists in Washington are women I’ve known for years as sources; I feel an open sympathy for much of the work they do. Yet I also feel something close to fury over their failure to call Clinton to account for his actions.”
Well, better late than never. Kathleen Willey said on Thursday, “It’s about time.” As for the liberals and feminists who were silent back in the day, “They’re hypocrites. They worship at the altar of all things Clinton. They’re all over Roy Moore, but they had nothing to say about Bill Clinton when he was accused of (wrongdoing).” Which prompts me to ask: Why shouldn’t it be possible to condemn Roy Moore and acknowledge that Bill warranted the same?
And hey, if Republicans want to play “ButWhatAbout” and condemn Bill, shouldn’t they also be willing to condemn Trump for much the same reasons? I ask this in the spirit of non-partisanship that will never be.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.