Part of the continuing series Are They Really That Bad?
Everyone accepts now that Bill Clinton is a skirt-chaser, and as a country, we’ve decided that doesn’t bother us much. Clearly, some of his supporters must think it’s a plus, however they protest. The Clintons were still worried that it might be a political liability in the early 90’s however, and took steps to eliminate or reduce the damage. When such accusations come up we expect a denial, and we know that some percentage of both the accusations and the denials are lies. Suggestions that the woman is trying to get money, or attention, or revenge are considered at least possible, so we withhold convicting the accused in our minds. Bill Clinton did it repeatedly, including to a Grand Jury, but the country has decided that it’s no big deal. People lie about sexual things because they’re embarrassed, so let’s not make a federal case about it.
Now that we go back over those scandals, knowing that Bill Clinton did have sexual relations with most or all of them, and that their accusations are true, the other parts of their accusations become more important. If you don’t want to be upset about Clinton hitting on women, fine. That he is evasive, or lies by omission, or even lies directly to get himself off the hook, seems to strike many people as no big deal. That those around him made statements that later turned out to be false – well, we cut people slack on that as well. Maybe they believed what he told them. Maybe they closed their eyes to what they should have known. We can all see ourselves in that situation.
Our own reaction at the time also is not morally reprehensible. There was legitimate doubt about the accusations, and whatever our private suspicions were, maintaining an official neutrality is fine, even good. Sometimes people do accuse powerful political figures unfairly. Some of the accusations against Clinton remain shaky or poorly supported.
We draw a right moral line between making statements that are known to be false, and statements that turn out to be false. In the face of sexual allegations, the Clintons and their supporters not only denied them, they went out of their way to hurt the accusers. When Paula Jones had her turn at the plate, James Carville offered the opinion that you could get people to say a lot of things if you trawled a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park. We now know that was not just Carville cautioning us to proper suspicion or offering possible explanations. He knew her story was true – but lied to destroy her anyway.
This is not merely lying and being evasive. This is lying to destroy innocent, powerless people who call you accountable. Linda Tripp was fired from her Pentagon job as revenge – a court awarded her over half a mil on that. When Gennifer Flowers came forward about her affair with Bill Clinton, Carville and Stephanopoulos asserted on national TV that her tapes had been doctored. Perhaps they believed that (see my post on Political Loyalty, immediately preceeding this one), but some of her information turned out to be true despite the denials, and she stands by the rest; nor has anyone offered disproving evidence. Monica Lewinsky gets called to testify and the word goes out from the White House through Sidney Blumenthal that she’s a stalker.
These are not wild accusations from the fringe of the Democratic party. (Heck, everyone’s got nutcases willing to spin stories about the opposition). These came from the White House. It bears repeating: these are not just denials, reinterpretations, and evasions. These are attacks on powerless people by the powerful. Nor are they the common source-attacks of politics, undermining claims by pointing out that it is a conservative (or liberal – conservatives do this too) news source or funded by conservatives. Those happened also, but those are at least attacks on people who have some ability to defend themselves. These incidents are that one step further that allow me to claim yeah, they are that bad.
Kathleen Willey – well, her story changes and it’s hard to know how much of it is true. But the subsequent intimidation of her has substantiation. Were the Clintons behind that, and the phone threats and IRS audits of Sally Perdue and Juannita Broaddrick? Can’t say. Maybe not. I’ve left that out of consideration here. The point is we don’t need those dark suspicions to make our case. We have stuff right out in the open.