What Hillary Knew

Hillary Clinton once tweeted that “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” What about Juanita Broaddrick?

Peter Turnley / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

If the ground beneath your feet feels cold, it’s because hell froze over the other day. It happened at 8:02 p.m. on Monday, when The New York Times published an op-ed called “I Believe Juanita.

Written by Michelle Goldberg, it was a piece that, 20 years ago, likely would have inflamed the readership of the paper and scandalized its editors. Reviewing the credibility of Broaddrick’s claim, Goldberg wrote that “five witnesses said she confided in them about the assault right after it happened,” an important standard in reviewing the veracity of claims of past sex crimes.

But Goldberg’s was not a single snowflake of truth; rather it was part of an avalanche of honesty in the elite press, following a seemingly innocuous tweet by the MSNBC host Chris Hayes. “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is,” he wrote, “it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”

What happened next can only be compared to the moment when Glinda the Good Witch of the North came to Munchkinland and told the little people that it was finally safe. Come out, come out, wherever you are!

The tweet galvanized not just the usual Clinton haters of Fox News but also a cadre of the most unexpected players: editors of the kind of prestige publications that have traditionally handled the accusations of Clinton’s accusers with nearly pathological disdain. But not this time. When Hayes’s tweet became a sensation, editors at the best shops gave marquee writers a radioactive assignment, which they gladly accepted. By midday Wednesday there was such a glut of “I Believe Juanita” pieces that Chelsea Clinton couldn’t have sold one.

Peter Baker of The New York Times wrote a story about this watershed moment that included the testimony of the liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias writing, “I think we got it wrong”; Jeff Greenfield of Politico observing that liberals could be having a “moral awakening”; and David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, saying that even Monica Lewinsky—who never claimed she was abused in any way by Clinton—“deserves an apology from many of us she has never received.”

Enough time has passed that outing Clinton for his alleged sex crimes now has the same retro “Oh grow up” feeling as revealing that John F. Kennedy had lovers—nobody’s perfect. But let’s not fool ourselves. “I believe Juanita” doesn’t just mean that you’re generally in favor of believing women when they report sex crimes. It means you believe that for eight years our country was in the hands of a violent rapist.

Broaddrick’s account—now accepted not just by a vast right-wing conspiracy, but also by a gathering number of liberal writers—is of an attack as brutal and unambiguous as the worst of the alleged assaults by Harvey Weinstein. Clinton, she says, manipulated his way into her hotel room, threw her down on the bed, yanked off her pantyhose, and raped her. She says he bit her lip hard enough to leave it bloodied. “You better put some ice on that,” she remembers him telling her as he walked out the door, headed off to his important work of feeling other people’s pain.

When I have talked about these matters with progressives over the past week, I have encountered a fairly consistent response. It is no longer a frank denial of the weight and gravity of Broaddrick’s testimony. Rather it is a frustrated and dismissive statement of fact, one that can be reduced to the following formulation: I feel sorry for Juanita Broaddrick, but Bill Clinton was an excellent president. It’s a sentiment that encompasses the bitter and irreducible truth about being female in this world. There is sympathy for a rape victim—but she shouldn’t go around destroying a man’s reputation or family or career. Rape, unlike murder, is accepted as such an unremarkable fact of the human experience that a woman who spends years seeking redress for the crime comes to be viewed as some kind of lunatic, rejected lover, or tool of a vast conspiracy.

When three of Clinton’s principal accusers accepted Donald Trump’s invitation to sit front-row at a presidential debate, they were largely regarded by the left as a gallery of ghouls and liars. But that was politics, and an election was stake. Now—when all is lost—there’s been a change. The truth bats last.

Liberals seem almost giddy with relief, admitting what they believe—which is how it always feels when you finally decide that you’re going to say what you really think and to hell with the consequences. The truth does set you free, but it usually comes at a price, which is why it will probably take another 20 years to open The New York Times and read an editorial called “Hillary Knew.”

How could she not have known?  She’s a hugely intelligent woman, a visionary, and a political street fighter; someone who knows her way through a difficult thicket of legal explanations as well as someone who understands as well as anyone the insane tactics of the fringe right and the surprising number of people who are gullible enough to fall prey to them. She didn’t kill her friend Vince Foster; she wasn’t running a child-trafficking operation at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria; and the Whitewater land deal was not the product of a white-collar crime on the scale of Enron’s pension thefts. Nor was she merely a machine politician lost in the wonkery of policy and unable to effect meaningful change.

As first lady, Hillary Clinton created a children’s health-insurance program that continues to provide health care to millions of American children; as a U.S. senator, she secured the billions of federal dollars necessary to right the great damage done to New York City and its residents after 9/11.  But in addition to these great and good works, she must have looked at the facts about Juanita Broaddrick and decided to put them in the same locked box where she kept the truth of Bill’s consensual affairs. As a wife, she had every right to do that. But as a Democratic candidate for president—one whose historic campaign was largely centered on the glass ceiling and the rise of women—she had a Grand Canyon–size vulnerability, as she learned a year before the general election when she blithely tweeted out this corker: “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.”

That’s our Hillary—and that’s the woman even some of her staunchest supporters have been gritting their teeth about for decades. (At least O. J. Simpson had the grace to spend a few months looking for “the real killer.”)  Hillary had put the many women who’d credibly accused her husband of sexual misconduct into the forgetting hole and forgotten that women—progressive women and conservative women alike—have a very different view of rape and assault than they did 20 years ago. We don’t send victims who lack a police report or a photograph of their bruises to the back of the line. We understand that rape is so violent and so scarring that it can take years for a woman to come forward to describe it. We understand that—as with the women now accusing the U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of sex crimes—it can take an abuser’s rise to greater fame and power to prompt them to stand up for themselves and tell the painful truth.

Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, posed the greatest existential threat to progressive goals and values of the past half century. He also had a long string of women come forward with very credible accounts of sexual harassment and misconduct. A different Democratic candidate would have cut him off at the knees for that, but Hillary had to be careful because of her husband’s past and because of her own widely believed complicity in helping to marginalize and silence his accusers.

So maybe, in the end, she’s one more casualty of the truly vast conspiracy: the one that swings into action every time a woman stands up—usually alone, and almost always afraid—and says, “He raped me.”