Bill Clinton: Time for a Reckoning
Your first heartbreak is something you never really get over…
I’ve told this story many times but it’s worth repeating… For the first 6 years of my political life I considered myself a devout liberal. My awakening came during the first Gulf War when I thought we were making unnecessary enemies in the Middle East and realized I didn’t like our foreign policy very much. In high school and college I ran with a crowd that listened to the Grateful Dead, grew our hair long and saw ourselves as modern hippies. By 1998 I was 23, my daughter was 4 and while I was trying to figure out how to be a parent, I was also thinking a lot about the world she would grow up in, At the same time the office of the Presidency, for which I still hold a great deal of respect, was being tarnished by a sitting President who seemed to be a sexual predator and had broken the law while in office to minimize the impact of his crimes. I was outraged at every new detail that emerged. By the time President Clinton was impeached the following year, I had set upon the path towards conservatism, but my outrage extended far beyond politics.
Before I continue, I would remind readers to think about every person that has come forward in recent months to accuse a man in a position of power. Actresses who were silent for decades because of the power of a Hollywood producer. Female comedians who were unwilling to report a man who masturbated in front of them because they feared what he could do to their career. A gay man and aspiring actor who was 14 when a much-older actor, whose career was on the rise, seduced him into a months-long sexual relationship. The list goes on.
It seems fair to say that for at least 20 years, the Left has been waging a crusade against what they see as sexual hypocrisy on the Right. From the Catholic priest scandal, to closeted gay politicians who were outspoken against same-sex marriage, to family values proponents that were secretly stepping out on their spouses; liberals have taken a certain delight in pointing out how conservatives talk family values but do naughty or downright illegal things in private. Democrats have walked a fine line in how they deal with sexual behavior. They portray themselves as both respectful of what people do behind closed doors, but also being willing to expose that same behavior if it seems hypocritical. To be honest, while this used to bug me as a political move, now that I am a bit older and a lot more cynical, I just chalk it up to politics. Where I still struggle is when considering A) The Left’s permissive attitude towards the bedroom B) Their willingness to expose sexual misbehavior to score political points and C) Their advocacy for the victims of sexual predators. This seems hard to reconcile with the way they have celebrated Bill Clinton.
At the time their affair started, Monica Lewinsky was 22 years old and a low-level staffer at the White House. Bill Clinton was 49 and the most powerful man on the planet. Lewinsky has talked at length about not just the infatuation that a young girl had for an older man in a position of power but also the terrible fallout that landed on her when it became public. She wasn’t defended by the Left as the victim of a man in power, but vilified as a calculating individual that was trying to bring down a beloved Democratic president. As a result of what the Clintons and their supporters did to her, she spent most of the last 20 years trying to hide from the public. I think about my daughter, who is now older than Lewinsky was at that time. I like to think she has great judgement and is very mature for her age, but how many mistakes did we all make at that age? Can any of us say we had great judgement at 22? And that was exactly what Bill Clinton took advantage of.
Defenders of Bill Clinton, many of whom are the same people in Hollywood that are now applauding the brave accusers of Harvey Weinstein, have spent the last 20 years telling us that Bill Clinton was impeached for getting a blowjob. They imply that his perjury and obstruction of justice wouldn’t have been necessary if prudish Republicans weren’t looking into his bedroom. Nevermind that Clinton abused the very power granted to him by voters, but I also consider that his wife, who ran for the same office twice, did her best to destroy Lewinsky when it all became public. Harvey Weinstein’s wife appears to be leaving him for the behavior she says she was unaware of. In 1998, Hillary Clinton spearheaded the efforts to cover up and minimize the crimes of her husband. Even if I had been inclined to vote for a Democrat in our last election, because of what I saw 20 years prior, I could never have endorsed Hillary Clinton. In my mind, her crimes were nearly as bad as her husband’s.
In reviewing this essay, one of my fellow editors pointed out that the Lewinsky affair was the least worst thing that Clinton did and urged me to also discuss his other crimes. Clinton does indeed have a long history of sexual misbehavior and Lewinsky was certainly not the first woman that Hillary Clinton tried to silence. But the reason that the Lewinsky affair affected me so much was because of her age. She is only about 18 months older than me and if I’m being honest, she seemed like the kind of girl that, if I knew her personally, would have had a crush on. So perhaps I personalized the behavior of the President a bit, felt like he wronged someone I actually knew, and this added to my outrage. But as I said at the beginning of this piece, it was also the first time I had my heart broken.
I was a History major and was well-aware that many of our previous Presidents were flawed men, but this was the first time I had seen one fall in my adult life and I guess I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t a Puritan about sex. I was in my early 20s, already a father and had an extremely tolerant attitude about what people did behind closed doors (and still do). But this wasn’t just a private affair between two consenting adults. I was still pretty naive about a lot of things in 1998, but somehow I still felt that the President had abused his power and needed to pay for it. Impeachment seemed to be the best way to do that. I didn’t care about the politics, only the justice.
Two decades after the Impeachment of Bill Clinton, I am still shocked by how many of my liberal friends that dismiss the entire story as politics. I would remind them that other than being impeached, disbarred and paying Paula Jones a settlement, President Clinton has never really suffered for all of his mis-doings. Unlike Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK, who are all justly paying for their actions, Bill Clinton very nearly returned to the White House last year. In politics, timing is everything. If the #metoo movement had happened last spring, it’s possible that we would have a different President today. Hillary might not have been so successful at portraying herself as the forgiving wife and lost the nomination. Our current President, who has his own history of bad behavior, might have just been a weird blip in the primary process that we told our grandkids about. Regardless, we find ourselves here today and what we do going forward says everything about our values as a country.
I am not the first person to write about the reckoning that is long overdue for the Clintons and even some Democratic politicians are starting to speak out, but as Clinton’s accusers have asked, where were liberal women 20 years ago? Knowing the way that I was affected by the events, how it changed my politics forever, I think that older liberals should start to better understand why so many young women didn’t get behind Hillary last year. I remember my oldest daughter, a fierce Sanders supporter, talking about Bill’s behavior and Hillary’s role in things. Maybe young people were a lot more clear-eyed about history than the people who lived through it and should have remembered it.
Pundits are starting to call for a fresh look at Clinton and for him to apologize for past behavior, but I’m more interested in hearing from all the people that defended Clinton for the last 20 years. Was the defense of Bill Clinton simply a case of politics being more important than the victim, or should we have expected Monica Lewinsky to understand exactly what she was doing? It seems that until we revisit that topic, we are ignoring the obvious. Viewed through the lens of today, does the Impeachment of Bill Clinton now mean something more than it did 20 years ago?