Sometimes it sucks to be right. Just before the new year, I wrote a piece suggesting that a new wave of attention to Bill Clinton’s sex scandals could damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It didn’t take any great political insight to see this coming. All you had to do was pay attention to the attacks bubbling up on the right, and to understand how, historically, anti-Clinton arguments from the margins have a way of crossing over into the mainstream.
Still, I had no idea how eagerly the media would leap at the opportunity to blame Hillary for Bill Clinton’s misdeeds. I thought that our new norms about sexual harassment and assault might force reconsideration of old charges against Bill Clinton, which seems fair. I didn’t foresee how quickly the mainstream media would follow Donald Trump’s lead in tarring Hillary as her husband’s enabler.
Every credible account of the Clinton marriage shows that Bill Clinton repeatedly sought to hide his affairs from his wife, who was devastated anew by each revelation of infidelity. In A Woman in Charge, Carl Bernstein’s biography of Hillary, he describes how Bill initially refused to settle a lawsuit with Paula Jones—setting off the events that led to impeachment—because he feared admitting a dalliance to Hillary. “Bill didn’t dare acknowledge to his wife that something had transpired with Jones, so he rolled the dice and risked his presidency on the outcome—just as he would when he denied for months that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky,” Bernstein writes. It is grotesque to blame Hillary for the way Bill’s staff managed the crises brought on by his priapic indiscipline. Yet that, increasingly, is what the mainstream media is doing.
Consider last week’s incoherent New York Times editorial, “Donald Trump Drags Bill Clinton’s Baggage Out.” First, the Times wrote that Trump is “way out of line bringing up Mr. Clinton’s philandering.” Yet if Bill isn’t fair game, the editorial board suggested, Hillary’s role in supporting Bill is. “For decades Mrs. Clinton has helped protect her husband’s political career, and hers, from the taint of his sexual misbehavior, as evidenced by the Clinton team’s attacks on the character of women linked to Mr. Clinton,” the Times says. “When Mr. Clinton ran for president in 1992, Mrs. Clinton appeared on television beside him to assert that allegations involving Gennifer Flowers were false.”
This inverts moral responsibility, suggesting that there’s some sort of statute of limitations on criticism of Bill Clinton for having affairs, but not on his wife for standing by his side. It also conflates what Hillary did—appear on television with her husband while he denied an affair—with the actions of Clinton operatives like James Carville and Sid Blumenthal, who did indeed smear Bill’s mistresses. (“If you drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” Carville infamously said.) Hillary was a betrayed woman who nevertheless fought to salvage a marriage and political project she believed in. Perhaps she shouldn’t have. But the Times editorial casts her as an icy schemer stage-managing her hapless husband’s misdeeds. It turns her from The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick into House of Cards’ Claire Underwood, from victim to villainess.
Since then, more and more people have been piling on Hillary for the very fealty to her husband that once earned her national support. “Trump can be a bully. But Hillary was a bully, too, in the way she dealt with her husband’s paramours,” writes Maureen Dowd. That, in turn, led to Joe Scarborough crowing in Politico, “[T]he Times’ coverage this weekend signals that the free pass older feminists and left-leaning editorial boards gave Bill Clinton 20 years ago will not be extended to Mrs. Clinton, especially while she is preening on about the importance of sexual assault survivors having ‘the right to be heard and the right to be believed.’ ” The Des Moines Register’s editorial board asked Hillary whether she felt “empathy” for the women involved in Bill’s sex scandals; its website is now touting a story about her refusal to comment.
If people want to reconsider Juanita Broaddrick’s rape accusations against Bill Clinton in light of the new feminist consensus on sexual assault, they’re entitled to. But the least credible part of Broaddrick’s story is that Hillary Clinton tried to silence her. According to Broaddrick, she met Hillary at a campaign event, where Hillary said, “I want you to know that we appreciate everything you do for Bill.” Broaddrick took this as a veiled threat. Far more likely, however, is that Hillary was just offering the sort of banality that politicians’ wives are required to repeat over and over to their husbands’ supporters. If Bill Clinton really did sexually assault someone—a charge for which there is absolutely no evidence—it defies everything we know about the Clinton marriage to think he would tell his wife about it.
The repeated attempts to blame Hillary for Bill’s sexual failings rely on such distortions and bad faith that they seem to be a cover for some more elemental reproach. It’s common for people to attribute men’s affairs to the inadequacy of their wives. Indeed, Hillary blamed herself for Bill’s entanglement with Monica. Her onetime best friend, the late political science professor Diane Blair, wrote of Hillary in her journal, “She thinks she was not smart enough, not sensitive enough, not free enough of her own concerns and struggles to realize the price he was paying.” That’s the self-recrimination of a woman in agony, but perhaps it’s also the subterranean judgment of much of the political press. Either way, if Hillary ends up paying a greater price for Bill Clinton’s sex scandals than he did himself, it will show that the sexist constraints she’s operated under for her entire political life have scarcely loosened.