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The Clintons and the press are caught in a pointless, toxic cycle of scandal

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In retrospect, it seems almost too perfect that the most notable scandal of the Obama administration, the one that necessitated a public statement from the director of the FBI, was about Hillary Clinton rather than Barack Obama. Or maybe it was one of two somewhat notable scandals, along with Benghazi — another case where the scrutiny on Clinton was far greater than on the actual president.

It makes sense because the Clintons have, since even before Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992, been magnets for scandal, many of them trumped-up nothings. When their close friend killed himself, they were accused of murder. When they lost money on a bad real estate deal that a friend who turned out to be a con artist suckered them into, it triggered a federal investigation, culminating in Clinton’s impeachment for completely unrelated conduct. When they tried to clean up a White House office that the FBI was investigating for financial improprieties, the independent counsel wound up looking into their actions. So of course when Clinton joined Obama’s administration, similar blow-ups would follow.

But it also makes sense because Obama has been almost entirely immune to this kind of imbroglio. The 2008 presidential campaign made him defend his past contact with Weather Underground militant Bill Ayers, his ties to now-imprisoned Chicago developer Tony Rezko, and his attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s fiery, anti-American, conspiracy theory–touting sermons at Trinity Church. But none of those stuck. The Wright incident instead led to the best speech of Obama’s career, arguably helping him secure the Democratic nomination.

None of these scandals have carried into his administration at all. What few scandals there have been have either involved people far enough down the federal government org chart such that Obama was barely implicated ("Fast & Furious," the IRS scandal, the VA scandal) or were so transparently ridiculous that they didn’t hurt Obama at all (the "birther" conspiracy theories being the canonical example).

So while Clinton faced the typical barrage of attacks while in the Obama administration, Obama himself is emerging from his eight years in office entirely untainted by scandal, to a degree matched by few presidents in history.

One way to read this is that Obama is unusually clean and the Clintons usually sketchy in their dealings. Another is that the Clintons were targets of an unusually intense smear campaign. The reality is a mix: The Clintons really were unfairly targeted in the early 1990s, but the experience has left them sufficiently jaded and paranoid that they think their own conduct is irrelevant to whether they’ll be targeted. That leads to carelessness, which in turn leads to more scandals, and on and on the cycle goes.

Why is Clinton so scandal-prone and Obama so scandal-proof?

Whitewater Clinton
Clinton leaving the DC federal courthouse in January 1996, following four hours of testimony before a grand jury on her role in the Whitewater land deal.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

There are two ways to interpret the discrepancy between the Clintons’ propensity for attracting scandals and Obama’s seeming immunity to them. One, which you’ll hear Clinton loyalists voice, is that there’s a double standard, that the Clintons get battered for offenses that would barely raise an eyebrow coming from any other politician, including Obama. On that interpretation, the email scandal was just another example of how the Clintons just can’t catch a break. Even when there’s a totally different Democrat in the White House, the guns are still trained on them.

The other interpretation, which you’ll hear Obama loyalists voice, is that the Clintons provoke more scandals because they do more fishy stuff. "Fishy" here doesn’t mean "criminal" or even "unethical." No one in the Obama camp, to my knowledge, actually thinks that Clinton used an offsite email service as part of some nefarious scheme to keep records from the public. But they do think it’s really dumb to do anything that might be misconstrued by congressional Republicans as malfeasance and spark an investigation, especially when that thing you’re doing is completely unnecessary.

"No Drama" Obama doesn’t do stuff like give paid speeches at Goldman Sachs or chat up the head of the Justice Department when his wife is being investigated or keep around personally loyal aides who nonetheless provoke unnecessary dust-ups (like Philippe Reines or Sidney Blumenthal). He doesn’t do it not because he thinks it’s wrong but because it’s imprudent; it gets in the way and makes it harder to get stuff done.

So while Obama loyalists absolutely do not think that Clinton should be indicted or that she did anything wrong regarding Benghazi, you will sometimes hear them lament that the Clintons sometimes bring this stuff on themselves.

The trouble with the Clinton loyalists’ theory is that it encourages a fatalism about the war on the Clintons that causes complacency, and spurs the Clintons to do stuff that really does bring more criticism and scrutiny upon them than they’d endure if they were as careful as Obama has been.

To hear the Clintons tell it, conservative anti-Clinton animus is a force of world-historical scale and gravity. In 2004, Bill Clinton gave a speech following a screening of The Hunting of the President, a pro-Clinton documentary adapted from the book of the same name (subtitle: "The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton").

Both the book and film contend that Hillary Clinton’s much-mocked assertion that there was a vast right-wing conspiracy out to get her and Bill was literally true; that there really was a concerted effort from funders like Richard Mellon Scaife, outlets like the American Spectator, congressional Republicans, and the independent counsel’s office to take down the Clintons on trumped-up, phony charges.

In his speech, Clinton explains his scandals as the inevitable consequence of anti-'60s backlash to social liberalism, and as a natural byproduct of the end of the Cold War. "When the Berlin Wall fell, the perpetual right in America, which always needs an enemy, didn't have an enemy anymore," Clinton argues. "So I had to serve as the next best thing. I think it's really important that you understand that."

If you believe you are being targeted with the same intensity as the Soviet Union, then the question of how you can change your behavior starts to feel like so much fiddling around the margins.

Reporters who’ve spent time with Hillary Clinton find that she’s absorbed this view, that she and Bill feel they can’t catch a break with the press, and so she isn't too concerned about taking actions that could exacerbate the problem.

"It’s clear that even today she and her campaign feel that they can’t win with the press, that the story lines about her are already written," Rebecca Traister wrote in a New York magazine profile of Hillary Clinton in May. "It’s a paranoiac cycle — Clinton and her team think that everyone is after her, and their behavior creates further incentive for everyone to come after her."

The Clintons’ targeting really is unusual

Kenneth Starr 1996
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, in 1996.
Travis Heying/AFP/Getty Images

From the vantage point of 2016, the Clintons’ theory of their own persecution can seem self-pitying and almost pathologically distanced from their own actions. Even if you think the impeachment was an idiotic waste of the country’s time and resources, it remains the case that Bill Clinton never would’ve been impeached if he hadn’t slept with an intern and lied about it under oath. He didn’t have to do that.

The same, to a much lesser extent, with Hillary and the email server. The scandal is overblown, it’s true, but she still could’ve avoided all this hassle and drama if she’d just used her official email account for all State Department business.

But for the Clintons, everything from 1992 onward is part of the same ongoing saga, and it began way before they did anything particularly fishy at all. Bill slept with Gennifer Flowers? Not great, but a normal, survivable sex scandal. Whitewater? The Clintons did literally nothing wrong; it was all made up nonsense. Travelgate? Made-up nonsense. Vince Foster? Made-up nonsense. There was even a scandal about a haircut Bill Clinton got in 1993.

"You will never hear me criticize or complain about the press coverage I got in the aftermath of all the stuff that happened in '98 with my deposition in the Jones case," he says in the Hunting of the President speech, alluding to the Lewinsky scandal. "I'm talking about what happened before."

And what happened before is tough to explain in terms of the Clintons’ actions. Obama’s relationship with Tony Rezko is more suspicious than the Clintons’ role in Whitewater, yet it did not result in any federal investigation of Obama. That’s a real discrepancy, one that has to be explained through historical context, through the unique status the Clintons have, and through the uniquely intense campaign to build up scandals relating to them. Bill Clinton is probably right that the Cold War made politics less issues-based, which, combined with the existence of the now-defunct independent counsel’s office, set the stage for a presidency constantly under investigation.

There’s also something to be said for the Clintons’ DGAF attitude toward their scandals. One of the major failures of the Obama presidency was its hypercautious approach to appointments, requiring intense vetting that left key administration and judicial positions unfilled for too long. That was a direct result of his administration’s caution when it came to potential scandals, a caution the Clintons are willing to throw to the wind.

The Clintons’ peculiar relationship with scandal did not begin with them being unusually sketchy characters. They weren’t; they had flaws, but Bill Clinton in 1993 was no dirtier than Barack Obama in 2009. He was painted as much dirtier, though, and he and Hillary responded by adopting an assumption that the press would target them no matter what, and so a self-destructive secrecy, self-righteousness, and fatalism took hold.

The result is a mutually reinforcing cycle, in which the particular historical circumstances of the 1990s created the image of the scandal-ridden Clintons, and the Clintons gave up on trying to erase that image, ensuring its perpetuation long after it should’ve faded away. Politics is not set up to create presidencies like Bill Clinton’s anymore, but the Clintons themselves are not set up to reap the benefits of that shift.

Benghazi, the attack and the scandal, explained