Commentary: Don't hold your breath for a 'reckoning' on Bill Clinton
The word has gone forth that a "reckoning" is due. Democrats are preparing to come to terms with Bill Clinton's sexual transgressions. Sort of. Depending on what you mean by "reckoning."
Last week, in a conversation with a male Democratic consultant about the extraordinary wave of sexual harassment allegations -- or, more accurately, the reaction to those allegations -- shaking American culture, it seemed as if some sort of grappling with the sordid side of Clinton's history was inevitable. Clinton is 71 years old. His wife has run her last race. There is nothing he can do for Democrats now in return for their continued silence about a sleazy past.
Some ambitious Democratic politician, we agreed, might even perceive long-term benefit in lambasting the former president for his sins. (On Thursday night, Nov. 16, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., seized the opportunity, saying Clinton should have resigned from the presidency.)
Just about everyone seems to recognize that at least some of the allegations leveled against Clinton over the decades were too credible to be dismissed. Paula Jones was cynically manipulated by right-wing operatives. But, c'mon, something must've happened in that hotel room where she said Clinton exposed himself.
In the New York Times, liberal columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote a column this week titled "I believe Juanita," referring to Juanita Broaddrick, a woman who accused Clinton of rape. In The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg denounced "moral sickness in the service of partisanship." She was referring specifically to the partisan hacks -- shout-out to Ann Coulter! -- justifying Roy Moore's Senate campaign in Alabama. But she meant the Democrats who explained away Clinton's behavior as well.
Younger liberal men such as MSNBC host Chris Hayes and Vox writer Matthew Yglesias were on board with the Kill Bill vibe, too. It seemed like a consensus was in the works to disinter Clinton's presidency, let out a collective hiss and then bury it all over again with an ugly new epitaph.
But if the conversations I had this week with a few Democratic women in their 50s and 60s are any indication, not everyone's ready for the funeral.
These are women who worked for sexual equality and abortion rights. Women who in the 1990s or since had worked in powerful positions in Democratic politics and government. None was willing to talk on the record. None was ready to cut Clinton loose from the party that they had given decades of their lives to. Each was ambivalent in her own way.
In the most striking conversation, an extraordinarily accomplished professional recalled Clinton as a philanderer. She sighed over Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky. But she had completely, conveniently, forgotten the non-consensual parts of the Clinton saga.
Another woman of forceful opinions, forcefully expressed, hemmed and hawed uncharacteristically. She spoke of her anger at the awkward, impossible position in which Clinton had placed his liberal supporters during the Lewinsky scandal. And she talked about forgiveness -- not reckoning.
Another circled around the chessboard without ever landing on a square. "This is going to churn for a while," she said. "I don't know that there will be a spotlight moment on Bill Clinton. But I do believe the portrait of him will change."
That seems like a good guess. But watching devoted Democrats rationalize the past does put the sight of Alabama Republicans rationalizing the present in context. White Christians in Alabama are busy triangulating the basis of their vote for skeevy Roy Moore, just as last year they rationalized their support for skeevy Donald Trump. No doubt they would prefer an honest senator who didn't molest teenagers. But they're going to the culture war with the candidate they've got, not the candidate they wish they had.
Democrats in the 1990s did the same, albeit with a man, unlike Moore, who had intellectual and political gifts that paid dividends for the whole nation. Democrats are now responding to far less serious accusations against Senator Al Franken by pushing him into the equivalent of purgatory -- an ethics committee investigation. If things work out, and no other credible accusations are made, he may very well keep his seat.
In New York, Jonathan Chait wrote of Moore's candidacy: "It's easy to feel superior about this when opposition to grotesque treatment of teenage girls lines up neatly with your own party's well-being."
The awkward truth is that the nation's politics are balanced on a needle right now. Otherwise decent people will tolerate the intolerable, the indecent, even the criminal for the chance to nudge the world ever so slightly in their direction.
In one sense, with Harvey Weinsteins on the way down, women are on the rise. Surely that's the pulse of the moment, and the long-term trend. But with a groping sexist in the White House, and Republican men running Congress, women are also vulnerable in the short term.
A Clinton reckoning -- whatever that means -- will likely come in some form. But it may have to wait until the world shifts further toward the more equitable balance that Clinton himself, for all his grim faults, sought to bring forth.
- Column by Francis Wilkinson. Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.