First things first:
I believe that, by virtue of his, um, “dalliance “ with Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton sacrificed his second term — and any hope of Al Gore’s getting a first term — to his penis.
I concur with Bill and Hillary Clinton that they have long been the targets of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” hell-bent on shooting their agenda down — which I consider all the more reason to have been enraged with Bill for handing that conspiracy such a powerful bullet. (I say “have been” because nearly twenty years and two full presidencies have gone by since then. Enough already.)
Nonetheless, when the subject does arise, I am now, as I was then, intellectually perplexed and morally appalled by those Democratic partisans who seemed to believe that the (alleged) transgressions of then-Supreme-Court nominee Clarence Thomas and the (confessed) transgressions of then-Senator Bob Packwood made them unfit for human interaction, let alone public service. Yet pretty soon after, these selfsame partisans were eager to downplay the inherently abusive nature of the relationship between the president of the United States and an intern.
At gut level, it bothered me then and it bothers me now that such a feminist president, with such a feminist first lady at his side, ended up serving to revive an anti-feminist dichotomy that the culture ought, by then, to have left for dead. That dichotomy consisted in the old idea that there are females for substance (Hillary, Madeleine Albright, Donna Shalala) and there are females for sex (Monica, Gennifer, et. al) and it is fine, indeed charismatic or something, for even the most illustrious male to dabble in both. But if any of the gals in that second group should tattle in such a way as to inconvenience Golden Boy and his great plans, she’d better watch out.
None of that is even what I am posting about. But I wanted to get all of it out of the way up front because lately, if you are a Hillary Clinton supporter and you express revulsion at Donald Trump’s enthusiastic approach to misogyny, a whole crowd of people on the right instantly tag you as a big fat hypocrite for giving Bill a pass on all his womanizing stuff, even if you have never, ever done any such thing.
What I am posting about is how the political dilemma faced by Lewinsky-era Democrats — not the moral or ethical dilemma, the political dilemma — essentially differed from the political dilemma faced by Republicans now. This is, admittedly, old and very political-junkie terrain. But amid the current swirl of “Democrats didn’t give a hoot about this stuff when it was their guy doing it,” it strikes me as worth covering it once again.
A few points:
First of all, at the time that the Monica Lewinsky scandal became public, Bill Clinton was a sitting president. For any American political leader of either party to call upon the president to resign is a very different, infinitely more problematic, action than that of withdrawing support from someone who has yet to become president. (And just to forestall all those “It wasn’t just Monica! How about Juanita and Paula! And Gennifer Flowers spoke up in 1992!” retorts, let me say: With regard to Flowers, in my view, a presidential candidate’s having previously had a consensual extramarital affair — or even many consensual extramarital affairs — does not remotely equate with a current president having an extramarital affair that cannot, by its very nature, be considered consensual. Although the alleged rape at its center took place in the 1970’s, the case of Juanita Broaddrick, like that of Monica Lewinsky, did not take take on national significance until the Paula Jones sexual-harassment lawsuit went forward, well into Clinton’s presidency. So it is that late 1990’s time frame that matters.)
Second, Clinton was a sitting, second-term president. Although the Lewinsky affair occurred before he was re-elected, it did not come to public attention until two years after. Had the scandal broken in his first term, it would have been a much larger bombshell for Clinton. At a minimum, some Democratic factions would have seriously considered mounting a primary challenge, if only for fear of the incumbent’s vulnerability to attacks on the issue. But Clinton had already won, and he could not run again. Thus, if you were a Democrat, no matter how disgusted you might have been, you had only two practical options. You could either call upon your party’s leader to join Richard Nixon on the resigned-Presidents page of history — thus aligning yourself with a Republican opposition that was busily becoming its own special brand of repugnant. Or you could hold your breath and hope that this whole ugly business would resolve itself with minimal damage to Al Gore and the rest of the 2000 ticket, none of whom had done anything to deserve punishment for the actions in question.
Third, Bill Clinton was brilliant. That was the tragedy of him. He was that rare beast who could fully understand politics and policy, and how truly to interweave the two. Yet he lacked the basic wherewithal not only to curtail his tomcatting for the time he got to live in the White House, but also to keep it away from work. For those who valued the politics-and-policy side of him, it was like watching a unicorn pee itself. “He’s so gifted in so many ways,” his wanted-to-be-admirers would say. “If only he didn’t have that.”
This is not the tragedy of Trump. Long before this crisis hit, he had already dynamited away mile-wide squares of what should have been his bedrock constituency. Evangelical Christians were already divided over his candidacy. Many major GOP donors had already shut their wallets. The gray hairs of national-security eminences who had served Reagan and/or Bush(es) were curling with dread at the thought of The Donald as commander-in-chief. The Republican governor of Ohio did not attend the Republican National Convention…in Ohio. Yes, Trump does have a critical mass of diehard supporters. Yet it is hard to imagine even them saying, “If only Donald could quit walking in on half-naked pageant contestants and then bragging about it, our party and the nation could benefit from his amazing ability to sell our tough stand on immigration (or whatever) while maintaining, and even growing, our base.”
Finally, by the time his fellow Democrats had fallen in line to save him, Clinton had well begun to save himself. Granted, this was partly by getting Americans to conflate their disgust at him with their disgust at his Republican antagonists. But Clinton also at least went through the motions of a public apology and something of a “doghouse” period at home. If all that p.r. did come across largely as b.s., it was at least sanity-based. It did not involve, for example, attacking the Lewinsky family, or arguing that by hitting on Monica he had been doing her a big favor, considering how pudgy she was; or any of the other responses that one can imagine playing out with Trump in the center of that scenario. Most relevant, in years seven and eight of a popular presidency, Clinton was able to draw upon what had become a very deep well of personal and political good will among a very broad range of Americans.
Not so Trump. Not remotely so Trump.
Strictly on the sexual-offensiveness front, I’ll leave it to others to delineate the grossness of Bill Clinton relative to that of Donald Trump (anybody out there want that job?) But as political headaches for their respective parties, these two horndogs could not be more different.