A torrent of sexual abuse allegations against powerful figures in politics and the media has reignited the defining political fight of the 1990s.
Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told the New York Times that by today’s standards, the “appropriate response” for Bill Clinton would have been to resign the presidency when his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was revealed in 1998.
It jolted Democrats and again forced them to face an uncomfortable question: Are Democrats guilty of the sin they accuse Republicans of committing?
Many Republicans continue to support President Trump and Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore, despite allegations of sexual offenses. Yet throughout Bill Clinton’s political career, multiple women accused him of offenses ranging from groping to exposing his genitals to rape.
A growing number of people now say they were wrong to have so stridently defended the former president.
During the 1990s, allegations about the president’s behavior went far beyond the Lewinsky affair, which led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment after he lied about it under oath during a deposition in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. Jones claimed that in 1991 Bill Clinton, then Arkansas governor, summoned her to a hotel room, where he dropped his pants and asked for oral sex.
Bill Clinton settled Jones’s lawsuit in November 1998 for $850,000, acknowledging no wrongdoing and offering no apology.
“I wish I had done more to be supportive of her,” said Patricia Ireland, a longtime president of the National Organization for Women, who is now a lawyer in Florida. “For Paula Jones, there were nice distinctions that people made: She didn’t work for him, he didn’t have the power to hire or fire her. But that ignores the reality that he was a very powerful man.”
At the time, however, the attitude of many feminist leaders was summed up in a 1998 New York Times op-ed by Gloria Steinem, who wrote:
Steinem was similarly dismissive of other women who came forward with stories of sexual abuse by Clinton before and during his time in the White House. A spokeswoman for Steinem said that she “isn’t doing interviews at this time.”
In the 1990s, many defended Bill Clinton, arguing that his infidelities were a private family matter and that his pro-feminist agenda had to be protected.
But the first line of defense for many of Clinton’s allies was to attack his accusers with lacerating insults that now seem not only sexist but elitist.
James Carville, who had been the top strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, once said: “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”
In retrospect, would he make that comment again?
“I don’t know,” Carville said.
He had been referring to Gennifer Flowers, who came forward during the 1992 campaign claiming that she had had a 12-year affair with Bill Clinton. She reportedly was paid $100,000 by the Star, a supermarket tabloid, to tell her story. Both Clintons denied that it was true, prompting Flowers to hold a news conference at which she played tapes of her phone conversations with the Arkansas governor.
“The circumstances were considerably different than what we see today,” Carville insisted. But he added:
Though the issue of Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual abuse has taken on fresh currency, it had also surfaced during his wife’s campaign last year to become the nation’s first female president.
Hillary Clinton has long positioned herself as a champion of women’s issues.
Her adversaries on the right, however, saw her as her husband’s enabler and shield.
At an appearance she made in New Hampshire in December 2015, a woman stood up in the audience and read a question from a card:
Broaddrick had accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978, and Willey claimed he had groped her when she came to the White House to ask him to give her a job. Late in the 2016 campaign, as Trump was trying to contain the damage from his own crude and boastful comments about assaulting women, he brought three of Bill Clinton’s accusers — Jones, Broaddrick and Willey — to his second presidential debate against the former first lady.
In a radio interview with WABC host Rita Cosby on Friday, Hillary Clinton was again asked whether she should have been more supportive of her husband’s female accusers.
“Every situation has to be judged on its own merit,” she said. She added that those allegations were investigated and that recent comments by others about her husband are not relevant.
Ireland, the former NOW president, said there is much young feminist activists can learn today from her generation of movement leaders and what could be argued are the mistakes they made.