The XX Factor

It’s Astonishing That It Took This Long for the Bill Clinton Moment of Reckoning to Arrive

Bill Clinton.

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One of the many remarkable things about this cavalcade of comeuppance for sexual abusers and harassers is that it’s taking down men who once seemed untouchable to the media in part because they were on the right team: editors and executives at media outlets beloved by progressives, actors and comedians who were the faces of prestige TV shows, Democratic donors. Having “good” politics, it turns out, isn’t the same thing as having good sexual politics. Donating or pontificating on behalf of progressive values doesn’t stop men from pressing their erections against unwilling colleagues, or kissing co-workers on the mouth, or taking out their penises in front of aspiring mentees.

The nonpartisan nature of the current moment of reckoning helps explain why the Bill Clinton moment has finally arrived. On Monday, Caitlin Flanagan published an essay in the Atlantic arguing that it’s time for liberals to reassess Bill Clinton’s moral legacy. On Tuesday, Michelle Goldberg wrote a column in the New York Times titled “I Believe Juanita.” “I think we got it wrong,” Matt Yglesias wrote in Vox on Wednesday. “The [Lewinsky] scandal was never about infidelity or perjury—or at least, it shouldn’t have been. It was about power in the workplace and its use.” In hindsight, he concludes, Clinton should have resigned.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and there’s a lot of it happening in 2017. Two decades ago, our first national conversation about President Clinton’s behavior toward women ended in a muddled draw. Clinton eventually confessed to two consensual affairs, with Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky. He was also publicly accused of three cases of serious nonconsensual sexual contact. Paula Jones said he exposed himself to her in a hotel room in the early 1990s, and Kathleen Willey said he groped her in the Oval Office. In 1999, former campaign volunteer Juanita Broaddrick told Dateline NBC that Clinton had raped her in a hotel room in the late 1970s.

Clinton and his team distracted and dissembled through all of those accusations, though to what extent we may never know. They pointed out that several of the women changed their stories over time; when Paula Jones’s lawyers approached Broaddrick, for example, she testified in a deposition that Clinton made no unwelcome advances toward her. She came forward later, she said, because misinformation was starting to bubble up in the press. Clinton’s legal team called her story “false and outrageous.”

By the end of the 1990s, it was clear to just about everyone that Clinton was not a good husband, but we never did agree on whether he was a good man. Progressives and even many feminists seemed happy to defend the country’s most important Democrat. In a 1998 column in the New York Times that Flanagan revived in her Atlantic essay this week, Gloria Steinem brushed aside what Clinton allegedly did to Willey as nothing more than “a gross, dumb, and reckless pass,” at worst. Jones, too, was the victim of nothing more than “a clumsy sexual pass.” Steinem brought up the fact that Willey sold her story to a book publisher, and then magnanimously allowed that she needed the money. The Steinem column “slut-shamed, victim-blamed, and age-shamed,” Flanagan wrote.

This was partly a matter of Democrats circling the wagons in response to Republican attacks. But there was something else going on, too. It had only been a few years since Anita Hill introduced the term sexual harassment to the American vocabulary. It wasn’t yet widely understood that a woman doesn’t need to be a “perfect victim” to have been abused. Patterns of abuse and harassment remained unfamiliar to those who hadn’t experienced it. Stories like Broaddrick’s still seemed shady: She went up to his hotel room voluntarily! She didn’t scream! Broaddrick herself seems to have thought this way for a long time. “I let a man in my room and I had to take my lumps,” she said in a 1999 interview, explaining why she waited so long to tell her story. “It was a horrible, horrible experience and I just wanted it to go away.” (She, like several of Clinton’s accusers, has since been embraced by conservatives as a vocal critic of both the former president and his wife. “We have the right to be believed,” she said on Fox News this week.)

One of the many gifts that the “Weinstein moment,” as it has been ickily branded, has given us is a shared critical apparatus for assessing claims like this. Broaddrick’s account in particular now seems perfectly credible. Five people have said she told them about the assault soon after it occurred. She says Clinton invited her to meet at a hotel coffee shop, and then at the last minute suggested they go up to her room instead because the lobby was crowded with reporters. (Many of Weinstein’s accusers have said he used a similar ploy to get them alone.) Victims fail to scream for many reasons, including self-protection and shock.

About six months before Bill Cosby’s reputation fell apart in 2014, I bought tickets with some friends to see him perform onstage in a theater in Concord, New Hampshire. Accusations against Cosby had swirled for years but had never seemed to stick. On the drive to the show, I made some kind of off-hand crack about this. My friend asked me what I meant—she’d never heard the allegations—and I was dismissive. Oh, you know, there are these stories, but I don’t really want to know, ha ha ha. We drove on and went to the show.

I’ve thought about that moment over and over this fall. Onstage in New Hampshire, Cosby was masterful; he slipped in and out of familiar set pieces to riff and banter, in complete command of the audience. I laughed for two hours straight. Looking back on that night now, I can’t remember what on Earth could have been so funny. We should have known better, of course, with Cosby and Clinton and all the other culturally beloved men whose sordid reputations it was convenient to dismiss for so many years. But we were in the dark until we weren’t.