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For a moment, join the legions of embittered Democrats who imagine a world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election. Would that world have a #MeToo movement?
Eleven months after Clinton lost to Donald Trump, New York Times and New Yorker stories about film executive Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct ignited #MeToo. Social media quickly spread new accusations, destroying the reputations and careers of U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Kevin Spacey, and many others.
The counterfactual argument—if President Hillary Clinton, then no #MeToo—starts with the observation by Matthew Yglesias of Vox.com that because Clinton launched her electoral career in 2000, shortly after the effort to impeach her husband had failed, a “reputational vortex . . . shielded her husband’s behavior from scrutiny.” As long as she was the first-female-president-in-waiting, progressives refused to revisit the 1990s’ lurid sagas: Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, etc.
Since that shield stayed intact for 16 years, there’s every reason to believe it would have held together for another four, or eight. The object was not just for Hillary Clinton to be a successful candidate, after all, but a successful president. The same incentives would have encouraged those invested in her political career to maintain their silence regarding what columnist Michelle Goldberg called Bill’s Clinton’s “priapic indiscipline.”
It was painful enough for Goldberg, upon finding plausible Broaddrick’s accusation that Clinton was a rapist, to conclude that private citizen “Bill Clinton no longer has a place in decent society.” But if Hillary Clinton had won in November 2016, her husband would have had an extraordinarily prominent place: an ex-president returning to the White House as the new president’s First Spouse.
Under those circumstances, would stories about sexual harassment and abuse really have dominated the national conversation for months? Would it not have occurred to people wishing President Hillary Clinton well that sooner or later #MeToo would target #BubbaToo?
Even the most creative, determined apologists face limits on how much they can dissemble. Liberal credibility suffered after Monica Lewinsky became famous in 1998, the year Gloria Steinem argued that even if Governor Bill Clinton really did expose himself to Paula Jones, a state employee, and ask her to perform oral sex, this incident was not harassment, just a “clumsy sexual pass.”
The problem goes deeper than looking like an idiot and a shill for the sake of advancing the Clintons’ political careers. #MeToo’s revelations argue that the 1990s’ lessons were learned too well by too many. If former president Bill Clinton could go on to be a star speaker at four Democratic conventions and President Obama’s “Secretary of Explaining Stuff,” other big shots whose words, works, reputations, or money advanced the progressive cause expected their own priapic indiscipline to be ignored and excused.
For two decades they were right. Harvey Weinstein assumed that powerful men with the correct political opinions were permanently immune. After the first damning stories appeared, the generous donor to Clinton campaigns and women’s causes declared that he would “channel [his] anger” by working against the National Rifle Association and President Trump, along with “organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors.”
Similarly, everybody knew that journalist Mark Halperin was not the ideal moral arbiter to pronounce Todd Akin’s notorious remark about “legitimate rape” to be “outrageous” and deserving to be “denounced by all.” After all, Halperin said, “Sexual assault is a serious matter.”
But Halperin was a prominent and powerful journalist whose lewd, aggressive treatment of women was an “open secret,” according to the Daily Beast. In effect, wrote columnist Glenn Harlan Reynolds, “The ‘open secret’ was open to the insiders, but secret to the public.” For all their sanctimony about championing transparency, political journalists cared more about bad publicity than getting the truth out when it came to one of their own.
After #MeToo became a phenomenon, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson Sorkin wrote that Bill Clinton’s prominence in his wife’s campaign cost her the election by canceling, after the “Access Hollywood” tape, Donald Trump’s biggest liability. “As hard as it is to hear,” Sorkin said, “her nomination compromised the Democratic Party.”
But the compromises started far earlier. Some of them, in fact, appeared in the New Yorker, where Larissa MacFarquhar wrote in 1998, after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, that it would be “a rare young woman who could resist … a chance to sleep with a man who is (a) the President and (b) a babe.” If we start with the premise that “there’s something intrinsically dubious about sex between people who have different amounts of power,” MacFarquhar warned, we might wind up with “the proscription of sex altogether.”
#MeToo is frequently described as a “reckoning.” The list of things to reckon with includes Bill Clinton’s priapic indiscipline but, more importantly, how Democrats’ compromises for his sake made #MeToo necessary.
Editor’s note: A longer version of this essay, “After the Pervalanche,” appears in the Winter 2018 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
Photo credit: Dirck Halstead/Liaison Agency via Getty Images