Undaunted, the GOP is back on sex patrol. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted in February: “Remember all the #Clinton scandals … That’s not what America needs again”—an acknowledgment that Clinton scandals are exactly what his party does remember and does need again, whether America needs them or not. Priebus elaborated to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC that a Hillary run “provides a lot of opportunity for us” and that “everything’s on the table.” You don’t need a slideshow to surmise what “everything” is a euphemism for.
The Democrats will publicly scold the Republicans for recycling yesterday’s garbage. But in private they should pray that Priebus and his camp will bring it on—the old Clinton sex scandals and, better still, some new ones, real or fantasized, the more women the better. The received wisdom that sex scandals threaten a Hillary run is preposterous. It’s the reverse that’s true. The right’s inability to stanch its verbal diarrhea on the subject of female sexuality—whether provoked by rape, contraception, abortion, “traditional marriage,” gay marriage, gay parenting, or pop culture—did as much as anything to defeat Mitt Romney, his “binders full of women” notwithstanding, in 2012. (He lost women voters to Obama by 11 percentage points.) And that obsession with sex can defeat the GOP again. Todd Akin, the avatar of “legitimate rape,” may be gone, but many of the same political players will be in place in 2016 as in 2012—more than a few of them alumni of the Clinton sexcapades of the 1990s. No matter how much Republican leaders talk of reining in their sexist language (though not their policies) to counter charges that the GOP conducts a war on women, they just can’t help themselves. Whether or not there’s a war on women in 2016, there will be a rancorous and tasteless war on one woman. And it is guaranteed to backfire, drowning out fair G-rated questions about the Clintons’ dealings just as Monica and other “bimbo eruptions” drowned out such now-forgotten Clinton scandals as Filegate and Castle Grande.
To appreciate how inexorably the Clintons will seduce the GOP into another orgy of self-destruction, it helps to recall the tone of the insanity the couple induced among their opponents the first time around. That recent past has been obscured in the American memory by the rise in Bill Clinton’s stature and, most of all, by the subsequent detour of right-wing ire to a new hate object in the White House, an actual black president as opposed to merely an honorary one. In addition, many Americans who will vote in 2016 are too young to have grasped or witnessed the Clinton craziness firsthand. (Some first-time 2016 voters weren’t yet born when the Lewinsky story broke in early 1998.) They may be startled to discover what they missed. Only a novelist could capture the mood back then, as Philip Roth did in The Human Stain: “In the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band … all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman’s ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again. No, if you haven’t lived through 1998, you don’t know what sanctimony is … It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind.”
If you revisit the avalanche of contemporaneous Clinton-scandal journalism—if journalism is the word for it—you discover that even the high end of Clinton hatred was crazy and creepy. Take the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal—then still owned by the Bancroft family, not the unabashedly agenda-driven Rupert Murdoch. So voluminous was its scandal coverage, and so highly did the Journal estimate its historical import, that the output was collected in six books published from 1994 to 2001 under the umbrella title Whitewater: A Journal Briefing. The complete set weighed in at 3,213 pages, with a collective list price of $100. In the last of these Whitewater volumes, only 15 of 429 pages make any mention of Whitewater itself, so far afield had the Journal ventured from the original scandal (which even it conceded was “a two-bit land deal in the Ozarks”) into True Detective–esque swamps of sexual fever and its noir companions, drugs and murder. Along with the many assessments of Bill Clinton’s alleged paramours in the Whitewater collection, there is an editorial plugging The Clinton Chronicles, a hugely popular video that perpetuated the “Body Count List”—a running tabulation of mysterious deaths linked to the First Family. (The count would rise above 50.) While the Journal is skeptical of some of the video’s contents, it praises it anyway for getting at “something important about the swirl of Arkansas rumors” and recaps as many of the suspicious deaths as it can pack in. The Whitewater books also spill rivers of ink on the goings-on at a rural airstrip where drug running, money laundering, and the Iran-contra scandal were all said to intersect—but whose sole overlap with the Clintons was its location in the state of Arkansas. It was the Journal’s editorial page, too, that ran an excerpt from Unlimited Access, a tell-all book by Gary Aldrich, a former FBI agent who served in the Clinton White House. Aldrich claimed that Bill Clinton frequently snuck out of the White House in the dead of night, camouflaged by a blanket in the backseat of a car, to have assignations at a Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington. He also accused Hillary Clinton of countenancing pornographic White House Christmas-tree ornaments, among them two turtledoves “joined together in an act of bird fornication” and “five gold-wrapped condoms.” With the imprimatur of the Journal and ABC’s This Week as a send-off, this work of fiction reached No. 1 on the Times’ nonfiction best-seller list.