In the past few days a number of notable liberals have decided to take allegations of sexual assault against former president Bill Clinton seriously. Let’s just say that discarding the Clintons when they’re no longer politically useful to retroactively grab the higher moral ground isn’t exactly an act of heroism. But if we’re going to re-litigate history, let’s get it right.
“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,” says David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker (my italics). It takes plenty of courage to face powerful men with sexual assault allegations. But how much courage needs to be summoned to “reconsider” Bill Clinton’s behavior now, more than 20 years after we first learned about it? Zero. Democrats pay no political price for going after the former president, nor will Clinton face any consequences.
In The New York Times, for example, Michelle Goldberg spends around 75 percent of her column titled “I Believe Juanita” rationalizing why it was okay not to believe Juanita Broaddrick, who credibly accused Bill Clinton of rape decades ago. You won’t be surprised to learn that Goldberg claims the politics and conspiracy-mongering of conservatives provoked skepticism among liberals — excuses that will be awfully familiar to anyone following the justification of Roy Moore’s supporters.
One of the problems with Goldberg’s contention is that the Broaddrick allegation was uncovered by NBC News, not Richard Scaife. Well, specifically, it was uncovered by NBC News after the network sat on the story throughout the impeachment proceedings against the president. According to the network, the story had to be put through an arduous factchecking process that included figuring out where Clinton had been the day of the alleged rape — something that had been worked out in a few days’ time.
Then again, the myth that most of the media was enthusiastic about uncovering damaging stories relating to Clinton’s background persists today. The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, for example, both had their hands on Broaddrick’s rape allegation in 1992 but dropped the story. It’s also worth remembering that Michael Isikoff was fired after fighting with his editors at The Washington Post after they dragged their feet on the Paula Jones story in 1994. Again in 1998, Isikoff’s reporting on Monica Lewinsky for Newsweek was shelved until The Drudge Report brought it to the public’s attention. Only after that point did the reporting take off.
In any event, Broaddrick’s story had a short shelf life despite the fact that five witnesses claimed she had told them about the rape right after it happened. There were other credible sexual assault allegations against Bill Clinton that went largely ignored. In his book “Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America,” published in 1996, Roger Morris, who was hardly a right-wing conspiracy theorist, reported:
A young woman lawyer in Little Rock claimed that she was accosted by Clinton when he was attorney general and that when she recoiled he forced himself on her, biting and bruising her. Deeply affected by the assault, the woman decided to keep it all quiet for the sake of her hardwon career and that of her husband. When the husband later saw Clinton at the 1980 Democratic Convention, he delivered a warning. ‘If you ever approach her,’ he told the governor, ‘I’ll kill you.’ Not even seeing fit to deny the incident, Bill Clinton sheepishly apologized and duly promised never to bother her again.
For those who followed the Clinton stories in those years, the “biting and bruising” will sound familiar. The woman was never found by reporters.
Yet, however reluctant editors might have been in moving forward with these stories, the fact is that most of them were ultimately brought to the public’s attention by established news organizations, not shady right-wing outlets. Still, Democrats weren’t merely skeptical of these women, they often treated them with disdain and smeared them for political expediency.
Even today, there is so much throat-clearing and blame-shifting when it comes to talking about Clinton that it is highly unlikely the dynamics have really changed. Goldberg, for instance, links to a Brian Beutler article in which he cautions liberals to treat future accusation against Democrats in the same way liberals treated Broaddrick.
“As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is, it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him,” Chris Hayes recently tweeted. Why is it gross to point out that Democrats were celebrating Bill Clinton only last year at the National Convention — a convention focused specifically on the ascension of women in public life — even though everyone was privy to all facts regarding his behavior?
In 1998, Nina Burleigh famously wrote that not only would she “be happy” to perform fellatio on Bill Clinton for keeping abortion legal (talk about a strawman) but that “American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” Burleigh was an honest liberal who made the moral calculus that whatever Clinton’s sins might be, his fight against the imaginary theocracy was well worth the degradation of a few women. Attacks on Clinton, she later explained, were an “insidious use of sexual harassment laws to bring down a president for his pro-female politics was the context in which I spoke.”
Although it wasn’t said aloud often, the actions of the entire Democratic Party confirmed Burleigh’s position, in spirit if not in action. The Clintons were counting on it. An unhealthy veneration for presidents and a deep disdain for the other side induces people to rationalize the worst kind of votes. It is the same calculus some partisans use when defending Moore or Bob Mendendez. But it takes no “courage” to speak up later. Certainly not decades later. Certainly not when your purpose is transparently partisan. This isn’t a reckoning as much as it is a face-saving.