Bill Clinton’s sex life has moved to the forefront of the news again.
Thanks to Donald Trump — who wrote a tweet stating “If Hillary thinks she can unleash her husband, with his terrible record of women abuse, while playing the women’s card on me, she’s wrong!” — there’s a lot of chatter about Bill Clinton’s affairs and alleged predatory behavior and unwanted advances against women. The Washington Post has even done a “fact check” that separates “Bill Clinton’s womanizing” into five “consensual affairs” (one of which was a “consensual affair” with a 22-year-old intern, Monica Lewinsky, when Clinton was the President) and other “allegations of an unwanted sexual encounter.” And some are asking: is it fair to delve into Bill Clinton’s sexual history?
Fair? Seriously? Since when does “fairness” enter the equation in presidential politics, particularly when Donald Trump is involved? The lack of “fairness,” and the harsh spotlight that tends to shine on the families and friends of candidates for the Oval Office, is one big reason why some people decide never to throw their hat in the ring in the first place. Every candidate — and every member of their families — has to know that. It would be absurd to think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, who have spent a lifetime in politics, don’t understand that reality.
I guess the better question is, is Bill Clinton’s “sordid sexual history” — as an opinion piece by Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post described it — relevant to deciding whether Hillary Clinton should be president? Marcus says it is, reasoning that if Hillary Clinton is going to send her husband out as a campaign surrogate and play the sexism card against Trump and others, it’s fair to point out that, in Marcus’ words, Bill Clinton’s “predatory behavior toward women or his inexcusable relationship with a 22-year-old intern,” in “the larger scheme of things,” is “far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said.”
The Wall Street Journal goes farther, contending that there was a “Clinton war on women” during Bill Clinton’s presidency and arguing that “Mr. Clinton was a genuine sexual harasser in the classic definition of exploiting his power as a workplace superior, and the Clinton entourage worked hard to smear and discredit his many women accusers.” The WSJ opinion piece adds: “This September Mrs. Clinton declared that “every survivor of sexual assault” has “the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed.” But when her own access to political power was at stake, she dismissed the women and defended her husband.”
There are many of us, I think, who would prefer not to revisit these topics. We don’t want to hear about Bill Clinton’s lechery or think about what kind of marriage could survive so many affairs and allegations of sexual misconduct. But if Bill Clinton is going to be out on the campaign trail, and if Hillary Clinton is going to play gender politics in her bid for the White House, Bill Clinton’s personal record inevitably is going to come up.
And the Clintons had better be ready for it, because it can’t really be fully dismissed as old news. One thing is true: American culture has changed a lot since the ’90s, and the notion of what constitutes appropriate behavior in the sexual arena has perhaps changed most of all. In an era where California has enacted a “yes means yes” statute to define what constitutes sexual consent, where workplace sexual harassment allegations are much more prevalent, and people’s careers can be effectively quashed simply by using language that is deemed not politically correct, how are people going to react to detailed information about a President having an “affair” with a 22-year-old White House intern, his initial lies about it, and the humiliation the intern endured at the hands of minions seeking to excuse or explain the President’s egregious behavior? I may be wrong about this, but I doubt that a modern politician who admitted to Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky — to say nothing of the other allegations about what Bill Clinton has done — would be able to survive it.
If a new generation of voters, steeped in our current culture, are hearing about that conduct in detail for the first time, how will they look at Hillary Clinton? And how will revisiting Bill Clinton’s “sordid sexual history” in the light of current social mores affect his historical reputation and his status as a kind of avuncular figure on the American political scene?