Why Hillary Clinton Won't Pay for Disparaging Her Husband's Accusers

Yes, she behaved badly. But under the circumstances, how many people would've managed better? And how is it relevant to the job she may seek?
Reuters

When I wrote about attacks on Bill Clinton earlier this week, I focused on how they might help Republicans confronting the charge that they're waging a "war on women." A retrospective on Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, and Gennifer Flowers won't help the GOP when it comes to the politics of abortion or contraception. It will remind voters that Rush Limbaugh's party isn't the only one that is happy to strategically embrace men who've behaved badly toward women.

In passing, I added that the GOP would nevertheless be foolish to attack Hillary Clinton over her husband's sexual indiscretions, though doing so will be a temptation. Subsequent coverage has persuaded me that the temptation will prove even greater than I thought, and that what seems to me the strongest case against attacking Hillary Clinton on these grounds isn't as widely held as I'd imagined. 

Any attack on Hillary Clinton would have to clear a high hurdle: The public wisely presumes that it's unfair to attack a woman for her husband's misbehavior. Clinton's most persuasive critics argue that they're not attacking her for her husband's transgressions, but for compounding them by attacking his victims. These critiques have come from the feminist left as often as the Clinton-hating right. For example, Dave Weigel notes that MSNBC host and academic Melissa Harris-Perry is among the feminists who have expressed biting criticism of Hillary Clinton's behavior. The years-old analysis says Clinton "made an appalling choice as a feminist—not that she stayed with her husband, but that she did not speak out in defense of a barely-older-than-teenage girl who was harassed by her husband ... And then she used that experience to create sympathy for herself." 

The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner points to evidence that Hillary Clinton expressed contempt for "whiney women" who accused GOP Senator Bob Packwood of sexual harassment, and concludes that she benefits from a double-standard:

Try the following thought experiment: Chris Christie, or Sarah Palin, or Andrew Cuomo is asked by a friend about sexual harassment allegations against a powerful Senator. Christie, or Palin, or Cuomo responds that he or she is tired of all these whiny women. Now imagine the friend's records are released. What would be the reaction in the media and among feminist organizations? It is inconceivable that there would not be an uproar, a forced apology, and some articles about how this will hurt the prospective candidate ...

As he notes, other mainstream-media journalists have highlighted this side of Clinton in the past. Melinda Henneberger put it this way in a 2008 Slate article:

After the Gennifer Flowers story came out during her husband's '92 presidential run, her response, according to Carl Bernstein, was to throw herself into efforts to discredit Flowers and to try to persuade horrified campaign aides to bring out rumors that Poppy Bush had not always been faithful to Barbara.

Henneberger also co-wrote a piece with Dahlia Lithwick that is even harder on Clinton:

... she consistently relates to and protects and stands with the oppressors in the gender wars, not the victims. It isn't only that she stayed with Bill Clinton, but that she invariably sees him as the victim, preyed upon by a series of female aggressors. According to Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge, as her husband prepared to run for president, she pushed to get sworn statements from women he'd been rumored to have been involved with ... She even interviewed one of these women herself, at her law firm. She also led efforts to undermine Gennifer Flowers, whom she referred to as "trailer trash."

In their analysis, "Hillary Clinton the candidate has largely benefited from her husband's extracurricular activities. That's because—and this is the tragic part—America seems to like her best when she's being victimized—by Bill or Rick Lazio or the media."

The critiques these writers are making don't strike me as blaming Hillary Clinton for her husband's transgressions, and I agree that there's strong evidence for the proposition that she's treated various young women more shabbily then they deserved when they got in the way of her family's political ambitions. But even with all that in mind, I want to defend the notion that attacking her in this way won't move voters. In fact, though I very much hope her political career is over, I think I want to go even farther and argue that voters would be acting prudently if they didn't hold this particular flaw against her. 

Without endorsing any of Hillary Clinton's behavior, or minimizing any unfairness experienced by her husband's sex partners or alleged victims, it seems to me that asking a man or woman to react rationally and sympathetically to a person just as they're revealed to be having an affair with their spouse, or accusing their spouse of a crime, is to demand superhuman self-control and circumspection. Few could do it. In the first case, who wouldn't deeply resent a spouse's cheating partner, and be inclined to see them in the most unfavorable light? In the latter case, who wouldn't believe that their spouse was being wrongly accused, especially if the spouse really did have powerful enemies trying to destroy him?

True, Americans are right to expect more from their president than an average citizen. If a skill or capacity bears directly on presidential performance, it is fair to expect candidates for the position to excel at it. What's pernicious is the expectation that presidential candidates need to be practically perfect in every way, and totally irreproachable in every aspect of their private lives, no matter how trying. If Clinton's behavior toward her husband's accusers was deeply flawed—if amid the barrage of accusations, her judgment grew so skewed that she even wrongly disparaged women accusing another politician of sexual harassment—should we presume that this is evidence of a character unfit to be president? Or should we conclude that, but for the fact that she was going through a wrenching crisis in her marriage with the national media looking on, she'd have behaved better? I'd argue that her flawed behavior is recognizably how a lot of capable, decent people would react under similarly trying circumstances. 

That doesn't make it right. But her actions would seem to reflect the impossible situation she faced during her husband's rise (one brought about through no fault of her own) more than her attitudes about sexual misconduct. I imagine when such allegations don't involve her husband, or the political milieu in which he was accused, her reactions are a lot different. Her alleged reaction to Packwood's accusers is perhaps most difficult to forgive. Then again, we only have a second-hand, out-of-context account of how she reacted. Who knows if it's right? 

Then there's the fact that it isn't clear how any of this would bear on her performance as president. Lots of her traits are worrisome: Her record suggests she'd be an unapologetic hawk who can't distinguish between a prudent intervention and a historic folly, and who would casually violate civil liberties. But her bygone reaction to her husband's accusers don't bear on her future. Those who want to cite it as an insight into her character should reflect on whether someone's true character is best judged by how they react to the intern giving their spouse oral sex. 

Perhaps it would make sense to hold Hillary Clinton's behavior against her anyway if we thought it signaled that she wouldn't take sexual harassment or sexual assault seriously as president, but I rather think that she'd take both seriously.

Would electing her be tantamount to giving her a pass for disparaging wronged females, sending the signal that America tolerates that in its leaders? Again, given the context, I don't think forgiving her bad behavior is tantamount to minimizing its seriousness, so much as acknowledging that almost everyone's judgment, perspective and behavior might be skewed upon the discoveries she gradually made. And if signals sent to young women are the metric being judged, electing the first female president would seem to overwhelm every other narrative. 

I suspect voters will see this issue similarly.

If asked to look back on Hillary Clinton's reaction to her husband's sex scandals, I imagine most Americans will be inclined to sympathize with her position and forgive some degree of unfair behavior toward the women involved with her husband. "Were I in her position," these people will think, "I'd have behaved no better." (In fact, the national media often did behave no better, and it had no excuse.) The women who claimed they were victims of harassment or assault are much harder cases. But if Hillary Clinton credibly thought that they were lying, attacking her on these grounds will still seem obtuse, perhaps even mean-spirited—especially since her long public life, with time as a senator and a secretary of state, offer far better material to judge how she'd conduct herself as president. (In my opinion, they suggest she'd engage us in imprudent wars of choice.)

That isn't to say that Clinton should get a free pass no matter what emerges about her behavior. My analysis would change if there's some unknown memo with her signature on it plotting the calculated destruction of a truthful Bill Clinton accuser. But barring new information, I stand by the judgment that the GOP would be foolish to pursue this line of attack, and that if they do, voters will reject it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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