Scandal Loves a Clinton

Hillary Clinton, in 1996, before testifying to a Whitewater grand jury.Photo: Mark Wilson/AP

About the only political conviction uniting Americans in Election Year 2014 is that Election Year 2016 will be about Hillary Clinton. The likelihood of her unannounced candidacy has stilled the rest of the slim Democratic field, forged a truce among most of the party’s congenitally warring factions, and induced past Clinton antagonists like David Geffen to disarm. At the fractured GOP, where the presidential timber is as thick as a forest if not as towering, Hillary is also a unifier of sorts as the de facto opponent-in-waiting. And Republicans are fine with that too. With the Clintons, you get scandal and the serious shot at victory that Clinton-scaled scandal seems to promise, even if you have no candidate of comparable stature to pit against them.

Such is the right’s undying theory, anyway. But what scandal are we talking about this time? There’s Benghazi, of course, pounded daily at every conservative venue, as it has been since emerging mid–Romney campaign as a last-ditch hope for bringing down the Obama administration. But Benghazi will be a nonfactor in 2016, as it was in 2012, because most voters don’t give a damn—any more than they care about Vladimir Putin’s Crimea grab, which will also be pinned on Clinton’s reign at State—in no small part because the Bush administration’s Iraq fiasco depressed public engagement in foreign affairs for a generation. A more promising alternative might be the persistent odor of sleaze that trails the Clinton Foundation, the subject of both New York Times and Washington Post scrutiny last summer. As Alec MacGillis of The New Republic summed up what we know thus far about the Clinton Global Initiative, there’s “an undertow of transactionalism in the glittering annual dinners, the fixation on celebrity, and a certain contingent of donors whose charitable contributions and business interests occupy an uncomfortable proximity.” Those proximities will be fodder for many dense flowcharts to come, as will the tentacles of Hillary’s extreme speaking fees (an estimated $400,000 for two talks to Goldman Sachs alone).

Yet what the right really wants to talk about when it talks about the Clintons is none of the above. The conversation will quickly turn to sex. It always does. It always has. And it already is.

The sex talk began after New Year’s. Rand Paul, the closest the GOP has to a presidential front-runner, denounced Bill Clinton’s “predatory behavior” with women on Meet the Press. Fox News played host to Kathleen Willey, whose charge of an Oval Office sexual assault by Clinton, made on 60 Minutes in 1998, remains unsubstantiated, as does her insinuation that he played a role in her husband’s suicide. The Washington Free Beacon, a rising right-wing website, mined the Diane Blair papers, the archives of a deceased political-science professor and Hillary friend held at the University of Arkansas. The most breathlessly bandied discovery: an undated letter to an unknown addressee, circa 1976, in which Bill Clinton, just turning 30, “closed by confessing that he had fallen asleep the night before while reading an erotic love poem from the seventeenth century.” (That would be Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”) At another right-wing outlet, the Washington Examiner, the pundit Michael Barone alerted his readers in late March that “a decade ago,” Clinton traveled on “the private plane of a man later convicted of having sex with a minor.” It apparently hasn’t occurred to these outraged moral arbiters that the projection of sex scandals onto a couple campaigning as beloved national grandparents—Bill Clinton turns 70 in 2016, Hillary 69—will strike many Americans as ludicrous.

The mainstream press is nonetheless following the right’s lead, as it did last time under the merry tutelage of Matt Drudge. In late February, Politico posted a helpful Cliffs Notes remembrance of Clinton scandals past, pegged to the fact that thousands of pages of documents had yet to be made public by the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. These secret files, we were told, will “fuel media attention to the Clintons’ past and pose a threat to Hillary Clinton’s possible presidential ambitions in 2016.” A slideshow revisits Whitewater, Travelgate, and the Rose Law Firm—all of which failed to incite mass indignation (or much public comprehension) when litigated ad infinitum two decades ago, and none of which resulted in proof of criminal wrongdoing by the Clintons. But these are just amuse-bouches before the main courses on the menu: Vince Foster and Monica Lewinsky. Foster was the Hillary Clinton law partner and friend who shot himself while serving as deputy White House counsel but whom Clinton haters tried for years to portray as a murder victim, silenced to cover up a supposed affair with Hillary. (According to Foster’s wife, among others, there was no affair, and the police and two independent counsels all concurred that Foster had committed suicide while suffering from clinical depression.) Lewinsky remains the only old ­Clinton scandal that needs no introduction. That incident of extramarital oral sex and the lying that accompanied it led to the sole impeachment in American history of an elected president. Clinton was acquitted of the charges in the Senate and in public opinion. One can only imagine what the House managers of his 1999 Senate trial—among them Lindsey ­Graham—make of the March Wall Street Journal–NBC News poll in which Clinton ties with Pope Francis for the highest approval rating among a slate of world figures. (Hillary follows right behind.)

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.

When you read all this stuff at a somewhat historical remove of 15-plus years, what emerges is how gratuitously Hillary Clinton is often dragged into charges leveled at her husband, the Clinton actually holding public office, and how frequently she’s the victim of drive-by character assassination. The Journal bizarrely faults her for wearing a “pink suit” when “defending her $100,000 commodities market killing” and holds her accountable for having “had a good deal to do with setting the legal and moral tone of her husband’s administration.” Such tortured logic reached its pinnacle in a sensational 11,000-word investigation of Troopergate in the right-wing rag The American Spectator. Troopergate—not to be confused with Travelgate, which the Spectator hawked with a cover drawing of Hillary on a broomstick—alleged that Bill Clinton, while Arkansas governor, used state troopers to procure women for sex. Yet Hillary is damned along the way on grounds like these: “She would phone the mansion from her law office and order troopers to fetch feminine napkins from her bedroom and deliver them to her at her law firm.” Besides being utterly implausible, this accusation is a non sequitur, and never would have been included if, say, Kleenex were being fetched instead of feminine napkins. But such reportage is in keeping with the misogyny that underlies much of the Clinton literature, including the epic report delivered to Congress and the public by the puritanical independent counsel Kenneth Starr. As the fierce Clinton aide and defender Sidney Blumenthal would later point out in a memoir, Starr kept interrupting his prurient through-the-keyhole account of Bill Clinton’s priapism with weird asides about the First Lady’s whereabouts: “Mrs. Clinton was in Africa … Mrs. Clinton was in Ireland.” The point, Blumenthal writes, is that Starr “wishes her to be stained as well,” for “there is no other reason for her inclusion.”

The Troopergate story was written by David Brock, a self-described right-wing hit man who made his bones by maligning Clarence Thomas’s accuser, Anita Hill, as a sex freak (“a little bit nutty … a little bit slutty”) in a best-selling book as the Clintons arrived at America’s center stage. Brock would later recant his entire canon, become persona non grata among his old circle, create the liberal media-watchdog operation Media Matters, and morph into the Clinton wingman he is today. He is a contradictory figure, to put it mildly, but his 2002 book about his political change of heart, Blinded by the Right, owns up unstintingly to his own misogyny and is specific and persuasive about its prevalence in the right’s ranks. He tells of both the Starr deputy Brett Kavanaugh (now a George W. Bush–appointed judge on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit) and the literary agent Glen Hartley (still a prominent representative of conservative authors) calling Hillary Clinton a “bitch.” Ron Burr, the American Spectator publisher, implored him, “Can’t you find any more women to attack?”

In a telling moment of the 2008 campaign, John McCain didn’t object when a female supporter, referring to the still extant presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, asked him, “How do we beat the bitch?” McCain’s silence may say less about his character than about the status quo of a party where such thinking and locutions are business as usual; Ted Nugent and Glenn Beck described Hillary as, respectively, a “worthless bitch” and a “stereotypical bitch” in that same election cycle. Sex-tinged Hillary hatred on the right has dimmed nary a bit since the Clintons left the White House. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the book-length screeds. In American Evita (2004), by Christopher Andersen, there are three references over 23 pages to the young Hillary’s (purported) habit of not shaving her legs; her body odor and penchant for wearing no makeup also get pride of place in the narrative. In Edward Klein’s The Truth About Hillary (2005), the misogyny is laced with a heavy dose of homophobia. “There was a long tradition of lesbianism at Wellesley,” he writes about her alma mater, citing what he seems to think is a damning differential between the marital rates of the Wellesley student body and faculty and the national norm at the dawn of the 20th century. Hillary’s gay friends, “military-barracks vocabulary,” “neglect of personal grooming,” and reported disinclination to shave her underarms (as well as her legs) as an undergraduate are intrinsic to Klein’s weasel-worded indictment that she “was much more interested in lesbianism as a political statement than a sexual practice.” While this line of attack tells us absolutely nothing about Hillary Clinton, it is yet another reminder that the right still regards lesbianism as sinister in an era when most Americans have moved on, including the young voters who reject the GOP precisely because of such antediluvian bigotry.

It’s not just men who peddle a misogynist point of view about Hillary Clinton. Peggy Noonan—a frequent contributor to the Journal’s Whitewater volumes—described her as a “squat and grasping woman” and a “highly credentialed rube.” As Hillary geared up for her Senate run, Noonan poured such observations into an obsessive book-length indictment, The Case Against Hillary Clinton (2000). Along the way, she puts several lengthy imaginary speeches in the former First Lady’s mouth (one of them 16 pages long), including a “free associating” monologue with references to “Howard Stern’s penis” and Joey Buttafuoco. By the 2008 campaign, Noonan was warning that Hillary “may be lethal” like “the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction,” and arguing that she “doesn’t have to prove she’s a man. She has to prove she’s a woman.” She rooted for her to beat Barack Obama because a Clinton candidacy “would be easier” for Republicans: “With her cavalcade of scandals, they’d be delighted to go at her.”

Yes, they would! Democrats can only hope that Noonan appears on as many Washington talk shows as humanly possible in 2016: Her scandal­mongering and attacks on Hillary’s sexuality will be the gifts that keep on giving to a Clinton campaign. The talk-show auxiliary, meanwhile, will be in the reliable hands of Rush Limbaugh, who can return to slamming Hillary in the terms he had to deploy against a lower-level target, the Georgetown University law student and women’s-health-care advocate Sandra Fluke, in 2012.

Since the last election, Washington GOP leaders have made a big show of trying to curb the sex talk that drove away those women voters who weren’t already repelled by the party’s wielding of transvaginal probes and its hostility to bills protecting women from violence and unequal pay. “Some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be,” said John Boehner last year. The National Republican Congressional Committee has conducted consciousness-raising tutorials in “messaging against women opponents,” but it’s all been to no avail. Wendy Davis, the Texas gubernatorial candidate, has been reviled as “abortion Barbie.” Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia, defending Todd Akin’s views, told a local chamber of commerce that female rape victims can avoid pregnancy because if they’re “tense and uptight … all that adrenaline can cause you not to ovulate.” Mike Huckabee has chastised women who “cannot control their libido or their reproductive system” for turning to “Uncle Sugar” to provide them with “a prescription each month for birth control.” Chris Christie spent at least $1 million of taxpayers’ money on a report heaping much of the blame for Bridgegate on the emotional “state of mind” of his fired aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, after a ruptured love affair. A new anti-Clinton super-pac for 2016, the Hillary Project, has revived an online game from 2000 that allows you to “virtually slap” her “across the face.”

It’s a measure of how entrenched this ethos has been in the GOP for two decades that not even repeated political defeat can move the party to expunge it. The run of electoral setbacks began with Bill Clinton’s first election in 1992: He won despite the Gennifer Flowers scandal, and he was further aided by backlash to the notorious “family values” Republican convention in Houston where Marilyn Quayle, the wife of the incumbent vice-president, gave a speech in which she argued that “most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women.” Her husband, Dan, had already attacked the fictional sitcom heroine Murphy Brown, a single working mom, for making an errant “lifestyle choice.”

Once more Clinton sex scandals arrived, the GOP never wavered in its belief that Troopergate, Paula Jones, Willey, Lewinsky, and all the rest would bring the Democrats down. Yet as the Journal kept noting to its shock and amazement, Bill Clinton would “bounce back from the mat” after every presumed knockout blow. He became the first Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to be reelected to a second term and also the only incumbent 20th-century president besides Roosevelt whose party netted House seats (five of them) in a midterm election—and this in 1998, at the height of the impeachment craziness. Clinton further benefited from what the baffled Journal labeled “the Clinton poll paradox”: The hotter the sex scandals got, the higher his poll numbers soared. In a March 1998 Times–CBS News survey, the president’s approval rating reached 73 percent (and Starr’s fell to 11). Yet only a few weeks earlier, when the Lewinsky scandal first broke, the Sunday-morning seers Bill Kristol and George Will had declared the Clinton presidency dead—in Will’s historical wisdom, “deader really than Woodrow Wilson’s was after he had a stroke.” The good news for Democrats is that Kristol, Will, and Noonan—all of whom called the 2012 election wrong too—will still be on hand to declare the next Clinton campaign dead the moment a new round of “bimbo eruptions” is put on the table by Priebus, Drudge, Fox News, the Journal, or anyone else. And the rest will be history repeating itself, yet again.

It’s at this juncture I must add that political predictions are mostly worthless. Let’s not forget, for instance, that a ­Hillary­-versus-Rudy race had been the foregone conclusion in the run-up to 2008. But it’s hard to imagine at this point why, acts of God aside, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t run, or how she could lose. And should any acts of godlessness surface anywhere near the Clinton household, particularly those of the carnal variety, we may well be looking at a ­landslide.

Scandal Loves a Clinton