Mainstream media outlets are finally coming to terms with Bill Clinton’s sordid past. Liberal New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote a piece this week admitting that she believes Juanita Broaddrick’s claim that Bill Clinton raped her; Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic agrees: “[T]he women involved [in the Bill Clinton scandals] had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks.” It’s worth noting that there have been plenty of mainstream outlets that have published similar takes over the years. Nevertheless, it seems like we are finally on the verge of a tipping point.
The bulk of Flanagan’s column focuses on how feminists saved the 42nd president, an assertion that is hard to dispute. But while it’s nice that Clinton’s accusers are finally being taken seriously, it’s worth considering that at least some of what is happening today is actually the result of the lesson Bill Clinton’s political survival taught us—and that at least some of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of those who provided cover for Clinton back in the 1990s.
What are the lessons Clinton taught us? The first one is obvious: that you can get away with it if you’re a celebrity.
The second one is a sense of entitlement—that interns are the spoils of victory for a successful and virile alpha male.
Another maxim—from Hugh Hefner to Bill Clinton—seemed to be that having the right politics (specifically, favoring abortion rights and feminism) covered a multitude of sins. “He’s married to a woman who’s at least his equal, whom he clearly likes and respects,” declared Gloria Steinem (in defense of Clinton). Betty Friedan argued that Clinton’s “enemies are attempting to bring him down through allegations about some dalliance with an intern... Whether it’s a fantasy, a set-up, or true, I simply don’t care.”
And who could forget feminist writer Nina Burleigh’s 1998 declaration that “I would be happy to give [Bill Clinton] a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs”?
Who would have bet that this hedonistic culture would become, in some ways, more puritanical and less bacchanalian in the future? Who would have bet that being a good liberal would someday not suffice? I would have lost money on that bet. So would Harvey Weinstein.
Another lesson is this: Don’t quit. Admit nothing. Never apologize. Try to discredit the accusers.
I am reminded of Clinton strategist James Carville, who, seeking to discredit Paula Jones, said: “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” This lesson is currently being employed by Breitbart.com, which has sent two top reporters to Alabama to try to dig up dirt on Roy Moore’s accusers.
Yet another example is the increased belief that politicians can compartmentalize behavior. Clinton’s defenders largely argued that he could be perfectly moral in other areas of life. Today, a recent survey demonstrates that 72 percent of white evangelicals now believe that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Note: This is a fairly recent shift in opinion, so it’s likely that white evangelicals are retrofitting their values to accommodate their support of Donald Trump. Still, I suspect that Bill Clinton created a permission structure whereby this notion was injected into the realm of acceptable argument. What is more, it is likely they rationalize this as a sort of tu quoque argument (“Bill Clinton got away with it, so ‘our guy’ should get away with it, too!”).
As you can see, these lessons from Bill Clinton’s political survival are alive and well today.
At this point, though, you might be thinking that I believe the only reason to be a decent person is for fear that you could get in trouble. No—we should all behave virtuously simply because it’s the right thing to do. Even so, there’s a reason we have laws and customs to discourage or stigmatize certain behavior.
These things don’t merely exist to punish bad behavior retroactively; they exist to proactively discourage certain behaviors and encourage others. They act as a deterrent to things that we as a society have deemed to be bad. But when someone as prominent as a president flouts these rules with impunity, that has an impact on how society views this behavior.
To be sure, many truly moral people (even those who have no religion whatsoever) do not need these guardrails. And the sociopaths among us are likewise not influenced by social cues or rules. But a good many of us do adapt our behavior to what is deemed to be acceptable and permissible during our lives. And it occurs to me that at least some of what we have witnessed in the past year or so—from Trump to Weinstein to Roy Moore—can be at least partly explained by virtue of the lessons Bill Clinton’s survival taught us.
I’m not saying Bill Clinton explains the world. There are multiple cultural trends at work here. Bad people have been doing bad things since time immemorial, so we can’t lay everything that happens at the feet of Bill Clinton (or the men and women who enabled his behavior). What is more, Hollywood (I’m thinking of shows like Mad Men, Californication, and Entourage and movies like Woody Allen’s Manhattan—but I’m sure there are tons of others) has also contributed to mainstreaming norms that are suddenly no longer condoned as… normal.
Still, it should be said that so-called feminists and liberals who defended Bill Clinton have, to some degree, helped create the environment we are living in today. Ideas have consequences. And one of those consequences is President Donald J. Trump.