Hillary Clinton won the political battle over Bill Clinton's sexual misadventures in the 1990's at the cost of having to litigate them forevermore.
In the era of #MeToo, her defenses and rationalizations for Bill are especially tinny and embarrassing. But she can’t show any weakness — any more than she could in 1998, when she helped rally the White House — lest she implicitly admit that providing cover for her husband’s misconduct for years was a mistake, or at least a significant compromise of her feminism.
Advocating for “believing women” when your husband and political partner has had so many accusers is a test of audacity that Hillary remains determined to pass, as she demonstrated when two recent interviewers brought up the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
CBS News correspondent Tony Dokoupil wanted to know if a 49-year-old President Clinton carrying on with a 22-year-old intern was an abuse of power. Hillary rejected the notion out of hand. How, Dokoupil followed up, could an intern really consent, given the vast power dynamic? She was an adult, Hillary shot back.
About this she is obviously correct. Monica Lewinsky may have acted immaturely and foolishly, but there’s no doubt that she acted willingly, no matter how much she may — understandably — regret it now.
Bill Clinton’s role was blameworthy nonetheless. It doesn’t take a fourth-wave feminist to realize that a president of the United States having an intern he barely knows perform oral sex on him while he talks on the phone in the Oval Office is grossly exploitative. If this had been a movie director or a media executive, everyone would recognize it as an appalling abuse of power, even Hillary Clinton.
When Christiane Amanpour also asked Hillary about 1998 and what the difference is between what Clinton did and Donald Trump is accused of, Hillary replied, “the intense, long-lasting, partisan investigation in the ’90s.”
The investigation doesn’t make the underlying conduct any better, though. Clinton should have been fully aware of the potential political and legal consequences of his actions. That he initiated a sexual relationship with a White House intern while former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones pursued a sexual-harassment lawsuit was practically an invitation to get asked about Lewinsky under oath. Of course, when he did, he lied, and the rest is history.
Beneath Hillary’s answers in both interviews — and whenever Bill is asked about the scandal — there’s clearly a simmering anger. Both of them are still infuriated that he got caught and paid a price, and that it keeps coming up.
Usually, they are only asked about Lewinsky. But Clinton’s White House misadventure wasn’t a one-time lapse. In keeping with the most compelling #MeToo cases, there was a pattern of conduct going back decades. Clinton used Arkansas state troopers to procure women for him. Most troubling, Juanita Broaddrick accuses Clinton of raping her in the 1970s, an allegation that liberal journalists Chris Hayes, Michelle Goldberg, and Ezra Klein now say they find credible.
If Hillary doesn’t want to spend her time re-litigating 20-year-old scandals — as well as her loss in 2016 — she could simply step out of the public eye. It’s not as though her own side gains anything from her constant presence. Nor will the 2020 Democratic field lack for women candidates. All of those candidates will presumably be less conflicted talking about #MeToo, because they’ve never mounted bare-knuckled political defenses of their powerful, scandal-plagued husbands.
But Hillary isn’t going anywhere. She and Bill are about to embark on a nationwide speaking tour. Their prominence will serve as a reminder that no matter what progressives say now, when push came to shove and they had to decide between protecting one of their own in high office and their feminist principles, it wasn’t even a close call.
This is a public service of a sort, although one that no Democrat should welcome.