Hillary Clinton, Burns Strider, and the Fault Lines of #MeToo

During her 2008 presidential campaign, The New York Times reports, Clinton shielded an adviser who had been accused of sexual harassment.

People carrying a poster of Hillary Clinton take part in the Women's March in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., January 20, 2018
People carrying a poster of Hillary Clinton take part in the Women's March in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., January 20, 2018 (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

Here is the top line, from The New York Times:

A senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign who was accused of repeatedly sexually harassing a young subordinate was kept on the campaign at Mrs. Clinton’s request, according to four people familiar with what took place.

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager at the time recommended that she fire the adviser, Burns Strider. But Mrs. Clinton did not. Instead, Mr. Strider was docked several weeks of pay and ordered to undergo counseling, and the young woman was moved to a new job.

But Mrs. Clinton did not. Instead, The Times reports: Clinton kept the man who had been accused of sexual harassment—Strider, the co-founder of the American Values Network—on her staff, and in the role of her faith advisor; the woman who had made the accusation stayed on the campaign, as well, but she lost the role she had had before. (“Moved to a new job,” The Times puts it, euphemistically.) The man who, the young woman said, “rubbed her shoulders inappropriately, kissed her on the forehead, and sent her a string of suggestive emails,” remained in his place; the woman who had reported the wrongdoing was the one who was made to move. The circumstances outlined in the Times report, taking place as they did within the context of a historic campaign for the American presidency, are exceptional; the contours of it, however, are extremely familiar.

They are also, in this case, deeply—and instructively—ironic. One of the paradoxes that has defined Hillary Clinton as a public figure, after all, is the seemingly deep disconnect between who she has been as a person and who she has been as a candidate. Clinton the person, the familiar framings often go, is warm and funny and charismatic and caring and, in the end, manifestly and messily and relatably human; Clinton the candidate, on the other hand, is controlled. Careful. Strategic. And yet, for all that—American politics is a pitiless thing—failing to effect the kind of performative authenticity that contemporary campaigns demand of those who engage in them.

Here, though, in the story the Times is telling, is another extension of the Clintonian disconnect—one that is as much about the current #MeToo moment as it is about Clinton herself. Here is Hillary, the advocate of women in general, colliding awkwardly with Hillary, the advocate of women in particular. Here is the woman who, in 2008 and again in 2016, proposed to fight for all women—through political policy, and also through the more broadly symbolic fact of her own power—seemingly failing to fight for one of the women who was right in front of her, and directly under her management. Many observers have attributed the force and speed of this #MeToo moment, in a backhanded way, to Clinton herself: #MeToo, that logic goes, came about in part because of the outrage that simmered in many women who had watched the way Clinton, as both a soaring symbol and a vulnerable person, had been treated by Donald Trump. The way he mocked her appearance in his speeches. The way he hulked over her in debates. The way he defeated her in the election itself, grab ‘em by the pussy and all.

And yet. The Times story paints a picture of a Hillary Clinton who is, given her history, both a recipient of harassment and a passive enabler of it. A manager, in other words, like so many of the others who have been revealed in the journalism of the post-Weinstein months: one who learns of an accusation of harassment and addresses it by disrupting the life of the alleged victim, rather than the life of the alleged perpetrator. The boss who found enough evidence of Burns Strider’s wrongdoing to dock his pay and put him in counseling … but who kept him on staff—with all its many other young women—nonetheless. Here is Clinton serving, yet again, as a rich metaphor—this time, though, for complacency and complicity. For powerful people who are concerned, but not concerned enough.

And also: for managers who meet the humanity at the heart of harassment allegations with the clinical language of corporate callousness. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, but notable nonetheless that Clinton responded to the Times’ reporting with a statement that was many steps removed from Clinton, the person: It was written by Utrecht, Kleinfeld, Fiori, Partners, the law firm that had represented the campaign in 2008 (and that, the Times puts it, has “been involved on sexual harassment issues”). The statement was delivered, from there, through an unnamed Clinton spokesman. “To ensure a safe working environment,” it read, “the campaign had a process to address complaints of misconduct or harassment. When matters arose, they were reviewed in accordance with these policies, and appropriate action was taken. This complaint was no exception.”

So while it was Clinton, the manager, the Times report goes, who made the decision to keep Strider on her team, Clinton, the manager, is notably absent from today’s explanation of things. She has outsourced her own decision-making, it seems, to discussions of process and policies—the same anonymous structures that so many other managers have relied on for legal, and moral, insulation. What were the “processes” that kept Strider in his job and his accuser out of hers? You are not supposed to ask. “Processes” are meant to be the answers to their own questions. So are “policies.” Corporations-as-people, if you’d like, but the framework falls apart when organizations are able to deny that humanity as soon as it becomes a liability.

Presidential campaigns are, certainly, exceptional settings. They are simultaneously highly organized and ad-hoc; they are entrepreneurial efforts that are selling not products, but a single person as filtered through a set of ideas. And they revolve around that person, centrifugally, not just as the subject of their collective efforts, but also as a kind of CEO of the enterprise at large. In that sense, there’s a certain institutional logic to the “processes” here getting overridden, seemingly, by Clinton herself—by Clinton’s reported decision not to take her staff’s advice to dismiss Strider. And there’s a certain feminist logic, too: The woman at the top of the ticket should be in charge of her campaign’s staffing, and decision-making, just as a male candidate should be. The buck should stop with her. Even though—another sad irony of Hillary Clinton’s public life—that executive authority can put her in the position, once again, to be answering for the misbehavior of the men in her orbit.

The choice Clinton ultimately made, however, in the sharpness of retrospect, was remarkably in line with many of the precise institutional biases #MeToo is attempting to fight against. Whatever Clinton’s reasons for the decision she made in 2008, the result of it today—the blunt, brute optics of it—amounted to the same thing: power protecting itself. The man keeping his job. The woman losing hers. The woman, too, muted through a nondisclosure agreement; the man silent because he chooses to make no comment. The powerful person prioritized; the less powerful one made to accommodate. And the presidential candidate who had embraced women’s humanity—the leader who had declared that “women’s rights are human rights,” in an age when the obvious still needed stating—doubling as a candidate who had also, in her own small way, compromised it. Here, in the person of Hillary Clinton—the rule-breaker, the ceiling-shatterer, the grandmother clad proudly in suffragette white—was, also, the specter of every boss who has heard a complaint and done nothing. Who has looked the other way, and turned the other cheek. Who has seen something, but chosen not to say anything.

And here, too, is another reminder of the challenges #MeToo will face as it struggles to transition from a “moment” to a “movement”: the human difficulties of marrying rhetoric and action, words and deeds. It’s easy—so easy, perhaps too easy—to talk about progress, and justice, and empowerment. It’s easy to say that we need “structural change.” It’s so much harder to live the words, to internalize them, to make them personal and actionable and real. Hillary Clinton has fought, for much of her life and for most of her career, for many of the ideas and ideals that #MeToo is talking about. Even she, though, hasn’t always lived up to her own soaring rhetoric. Even she, it seems, all those years ago, faced with a woman who said, “me too,” found a way to look away.