This just in from God above: Democrats are never, ever going to be let off the hook for Bill Clinton. The central, most defining Democratic Party figure of the late 20th century was an adulterer, a predator, a sexual harasser – and despite incontrovertible evidence of all of the above, plus a possible rape, his supporters flipped basic decency the bird and stuck by him to the triumphal end of his political life. Therefore, no Democrat will ever have any right to say “boo” about Roy Moore or Roger Ailes or Donald Trump or any other right-wing perv who may eventuate anywhere on the face of the earth as long as it’s still turning. At least that’s what Republicans have been shouting since the 1990’s, loudest and proudest at scandal-soaked times like the present.
If you would rather drink your own urine than revisit any particulars of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, please understand: I feel exactly the same. But if we can both eschew the fetid flask long enough to go through some points from that sorry political moment, we may arrive at some painfully relevant insights into the current one.
As someone who did not take 19 years to arrive at the opinion that Clinton should have resigned the moment the world learned the word “Lewinsky,” I am the first to admit that the Republicans’ all-purpose “what about Bill Clinton?” deflection of all GOP problems penile has an essential ring of truth. But at this moment of “reckoning,” it seems worth pointing out….albeit for the three hundred millionth time….just a couple of its false notes.
It is not true, for example, that Democrats enthusiastically elected and re-elected a man they knew to be a pathological lech. In 1992, most thought that they were voting for a good but flawed person who -- somewhat refreshingly, compared to all the other philanderers who had been running the world forever -- didn’t pretend to be perfect. In those innocent, pre-Internet days, Clinton’s famous admission, offered to 60 Minutes while seated beside his wife, that he had “caused pain in his marriage,” was enough for people to gather that he had cheated plenty. Few desired names, dates and fetishes.
Incidentally, the Clintons did not sit down with 60 Minutes because allegations of Bill’s extramarital adventures had gone blithely unnoticed by the wanton satyrs of the Democratic primary electorate. They did so because those allegations threatened to destroy him in the eyes of that electorate. At the time, Clinton’s sole public accuser --- unlike the multiple accusers of Roy Moore – had shot her credibility by selling her story to Star magazine, later to peddle it to Penthouse. Meanwhile, along with Clinton’s reputation for skirt chasing, the public was becoming acquainted with another, even more pronounced feature of his personality: that of the ultimate political animal; someone who had coveted the presidency since boyhood.
All of this together led to a general consensus as follows: whatever Clinton had done in the horndog department, it was personal, it had cost him, and it was in the past. Hindsight geniuses love to roll their eyeballs at this, with an “oh come on!” as if only an idiot could imagine that Bubba had ever put a stop to his womanizing. Perhaps – but it was anything but obvious that going forward, he’d risk his presidency for it.
In retrospect, of course, he did just that. But for six years, the public saw no sign of that coming. By the time the cases of Monica Lewinsky – and the related testimonies of Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey -- came to light, Clinton was halfway through his second term. Granted, Paula Jones did bring the underlying sexual-harassment lawsuit in 1994, but she was so aligned with such blatant enemies of the president that her credibility would have been strained, even at our own #metoo moment.
While we’re at it, let’s call out another decidedly alternative fact: the assertion that all throughout the Lewinsky scandal, the liberal media did nothing but try to preserve, protect and defend their darling Clintons. What a load of elephant dung. Love them or hate them, the Clintons spent those years in such a blinding glare of scrutiny, it’s amazing either one of them emerged with an intact retina. As for the leniency of the pundit class, read the contemporaneous writings of Michael Kelly, Christopher Hitchens, and Maureen Dowd, remove the hydrofluoric acid that will have flown off their words onto your face, and then we’ll talk.
One could go on about the other things that Republicans get wrong about the defense of Bill Clinton. But what ought to trouble them now is what they get right. It is true that even after his unforgivable transgressions became clear, most Democrats didn’t just forgive him. They supported him, defended him, in many cases lionized him.
Bear in mind, this wasn’t automatic on the part of Democratic leaders. When it first became clear that the Lewinsky stuff had actually happened, many Democratic politicians and pundits frankly assumed, off the record, that the president was done; it was just a matter of what form his doneness would take. (Would he actually resign, or hobble to the exit as the lamest of ducks? Had he merely committed political suicide, or killed the whole party? How radioactive was he? That kind of talk.) But within weeks – or was it days? -- these same figures were rallying around their shamed yet emboldened chief. Why? Because that’s what the rank-and-file were doing. As it turned out, right or wrong, Democratic base voters cared more about the actions that the president took toward them, in his public capacity, than about the actions he took toward women in what many still viewed as a private capacity. Having voted for him twice, they supported his agenda and didn’t want to sink it. Deep down, they still just liked the guy – and they hated his critics, whose ranks their elected leaders then hesitated to join. Clinton-era Democratic officials thus faced a very unsavory choice: Should they voice their moral revulsion and thus incur the wrath of a still-powerful president, the party apparatus he still controlled, and the voters he still held in the palm of his hand? Or should they swallow their objections, rationalize the greater good of saving the country from Newt Gingrich, and ride it out? Most went with door number two.
Hey, Trump-era Republicans – does that whole dilemma sound at all familiar?
It certainly should. No one should be more understanding of Democrats who once defended Clinton than Republicans who currently defend Trump. Conversely, then, Democrats placed in an impossible position by Clinton in the late 1990’s should feel real sympathy for Republicans similarly stuck by Trump. In fact, at this point, they should feel nothing short of pity.
Clearly, both parties have made Faustian bargains with their respective problematic-yet- popular leaders. But Republicans have made theirs with a much darker, more diversified devil. Let’s (very generously) concede, for the sake of argument, that Trump’s sexual misconduct starts and ends at the level of “locker room talk,” in contrast to Clinton’s deplorable (ha!) acts. That still leaves an endless list of unprecedented transgressions with which Trump supporters will forever be associated.
Right now, of course, Republicans are making the most of this:
“Roy Moore preyed on girls.”
“What about Bill Clinton? He nailed an intern in (well, near) the Oval Office.”
And let them, because 2018 and many years after are going to be full of this:
“Democrat A has a conflict of interest.”
“What about Donald Trump? He didn’t even release his tax returns, he never separated himself from his businesses, his daughter got three Chinese trademarks the day she dined with Xi Jinping...”
“Democrat B has made these outrageous patronage hires of totally unqualified people.”
“What about Donald Trump? He gave his son-in-law the Middle East.”
“Democrat C is lazy as sin and dumber than a bag of hair.”
“What about Donald Trump? He plays more golf than a retired dentist and didn’t know that health care was complicated.”
“Democrat D said something unbelievably offensive.”
“What about Donald Trump? He said…well, how long have you got?”
Honest to God, there aren’t enough letters in the alphabet to delineate easy, inevitable examples. There may not even be enough alphabets. The central, most defining figure in the Republican Party at the dawn of the 21st century is a turpitude savant: an eerie knack for debasement is in his DNA. Even discounting anything yet to come from Robert Mueller….even laying aside any policy position, no matter how destructive, his administration may take…the case still stands: Trump has taken a wrecking ball to all recognizable standards with regard to bigotry, corruption, national security, international diplomacy, the tone of political discourse, the value of expertise, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the existence of objective fact. That wrecking ball is going to be swinging back on his supporters forever.
So yes: Twenty years later, Democrats are still paying for the illicit sexual acts of Bill Clinton. How many years will it take for Republicans to atone for the explicit, manifold misdeeds of Donald Trump?
In the end, Trumpsters can keep right on ranting and raving all they want about Hillary. For them, posterity is going to be the real bitch.