Hillary Clinton’s defense of Bill Clinton is why women don’t come forward

Hillary Clinton with Bill Clinton at President Trump’s inauguration ceremony.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The rise of the #MeToo movement has prompted many politicians and public figures to reexamine President Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Hillary Clinton, it seems, isn’t one of them.

In a CBS interview on Sunday, correspondent Tony Dokoupil asked Clinton if she thought her husband should have resigned after his affair with Lewinsky, then a White House intern, became public.

“Absolutely not,” Clinton said.

Clinton also said the relationship wasn’t an abuse of power on the former president’s part. Lewinsky was “an adult,” she said, before changing the subject to talk about sexual harassment and assault allegations against President Donald Trump.

Clinton’s history when it comes to sexual misconduct allegations against her husband — and others in her circle — is a complicated one. She’s never had a satisfying response to questions about the accusations against her husband, which include Juanita Broaddrick’s accusation that he raped her in 1978. On the other hand, she allowed an adviser to keep his job with her 2008 campaign despite allegations of sexual harassment — and when she addressed that decision this year, her comments left a lot to be desired.

As a woman married to a powerful man accused of sexual misconduct, Hillary Clinton is in a difficult position, forced to answer for someone else’s alleged misdeeds. But Clinton is also powerful in her own right, and when it comes to preventing and punishing harassment, she may not always have used her power wisely. Her latest interview is another example of a core problem for her legacy: She does not seem to have fully reckoned with the seriousness of sexual harassment and assault, especially when it comes to the men closest to her.

Bill Clinton has been accused of sexual misconduct multiple times

Bill Clinton has faced a number of allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and other misconduct over the course of his long political career. Probably most famous was the revelation that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky while he was in office. After a now-famous denial — “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” — he admitted to the relationship in 1998.

As Vox’s Dylan Matthews has written, the affair, “while consensual in some sense, was nonetheless textbook sexual harassment of a subordinate of a kind that would (or perhaps more accurately, should) get many CEOs fired from their companies.” After all, Clinton was not only Lewinsky’s boss, but also the president of the United States.

If Lewinsky had wanted to refuse an advance from Clinton, or break off their relationship, would she have felt free to do so? Or would she have felt trapped, knowing that the president had all the power over her future career?

Questions like these are the reason that relationships between bosses and subordinates are sometimes banned by employer sexual harassment policies — given the power differential at play, it’s not clear that such a relationship can ever be truly, fully consensual. Since the rise of #MeToo, some high-profile men have lost their jobs as a result of allegations of relationships with subordinates — for instance, such allegations were among those that cost Lorin Stein his position as editor of the Paris Review.

In an essay at Vanity Fair earlier this year, Lewinsky wrote that the question of whether her relationship with Clinton was consensual was “very, very complicated.”

“I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent,” she wrote. “The road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege.”

For Bill Clinton, the road to the affair with Lewinsky was also dotted with other allegations of sexual misconduct. Paula Jones said that Clinton sexually harassed her when she worked for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission in 1991; Kathleen Willey said he assaulted her when she was a volunteer at the White House in 1993. And Juanita Broaddrick says that Clinton raped her in a hotel room when she was volunteering for his Arkansas gubernatorial campaign in 1978. Clinton has denied all these allegations.

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and the #MeToo movement prompted many to revisit the allegations against Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton’s history with women started to get renewed public attention in 2016, during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Before the second presidential debate, Donald Trump recorded a Facebook Live appearance with Willey, Broaddrick, and Jones, all of whom said they were supporting him. The three then sat in the audience for the debate.

Focusing on the allegations against Clinton was a way for the Trump campaign to divert attention from the Access Hollywood tape, on which Trump was heard bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.” But Clinton’s candidacy, and the rise of the #MeToo movement, have also prompted a serious reexamination not just of the allegations against Bill Clinton, but of Hillary Clinton’s responses to them.

As the #MeToo movement gained steam — and especially when Democratic Sen. Al Franken was accused of groping women — some argued that Bill Clinton should have resigned after his relationship with Lewinsky. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said in November 2017, as the allegations against Franken were becoming public, that Clinton should have stepped down. She later walked her comments back to some degree, but they were notable given Gillibrand’s prominence and her close relationship with the Clintons.

Others, too, called for a reexamination of the former president’s past. “Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations” against Clinton, MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted in November.

“In this #MeToo moment, when we’re reassessing decades of male misbehavior and turning open secrets into exposes, we should look clearly at the credible evidence that Juanita Broaddrick told the truth when she accused Clinton of raping her,” New York Times op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote the same month. “It’s fair to conclude that because of Broaddrick’s allegations, Bill Clinton no longer has a place in decent society.”

And Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote that Clinton’s failure to resign after his affair with Lewinsky set back the cause of preventing sexual harassment: “Had he resigned in shame, we all might have made a collective cultural and political decision that a person caught leveraging power over women in inappropriate ways ought to be fired. Instead, we lost nearly two decades.”

While many now see the allegations against Bill Clinton as damning, Hillary Clinton’s role is less clear. At the second presidential debate, Trump said that Hillary Clinton had “viciously” attacked Willey, Broaddrick, and Jones after they came forward with allegations against her husband. That’s not really true. At least in public, Clinton mostly kept quiet about the allegations, as PolitiFact notes.

Broaddrick has said that soon after Bill Clinton raped her, she saw Hillary Clinton at a rally. She said Clinton shook her hand and thanked her for what she had done for Bill, in a way that felt like a threat. But beyond that, there’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton ever intimidated or attacked Broaddrick. And Broaddrick admits she’s not completely sure of her interpretation of the encounter: “When you look back over almost 38 years, some of the anger fades, the fear fades, and you think, I hope she didn’t know,” she told BuzzFeed’s Katie J.M. Baker.

Clinton did say that the allegations of an affair between her husband and Lewinsky were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” — but, as PolitiFact notes, at that time Lewinsky was still publicly denying the affair.

In general, Bill Clinton’s history has put Hillary Clinton in a difficult position. She can either call him to account publicly — and possibly leave him — or she can keep silent or defend him, knowing that in doing so, she discounts the experience of women who say he harmed them.

In her 2017 book What Happened, Clinton criticizes Trump for bringing Willey, Broaddrick, and Jones to the debate, saying “he was just using them.” But she doesn’t offer any real insight into what she believes about the allegations against her husband, or how she squares her marriage with her commitment to promoting women’s rights — including the right to have one’s accounts of sexual harassment or assault taken seriously.

Of her relationship with her husband, she only writes that “there were times that I was deeply unsure about whether our marriage could or should survive. But on those days, I asked myself the questions that mattered most to me: Do I still love him? And can I still be in this marriage without becoming unrecognizable to myself — twisted by anger, resentment, or remoteness? The answers were always yes. So I kept going.”

Hillary Clinton made questionable decisions regarding sexual harassment within her 2008 campaign

Bill Clinton isn’t the only man in Hillary Clinton’s sphere to be accused of sexual misconduct. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that Burns Strider, Hillary Clinton’s faith adviser during her 2008 run for president, was accused of sexual harassment while working on the campaign. Instead of firing him, Clinton kept him on and reassigned the woman who had made the allegation. According to the Times, he later went on to work for Correct the Record, a group supporting Clinton’s 2016 run — and was fired for various issues, including allegations of sexual harassment.

In January, Clinton issued a statement on the allegations against Strider in which she said she would have made a different decision if confronted with the situation today. However, she wrote, “I didn’t think firing him was the best solution to the problem. He needed to be punished, change his behavior, and understand why his actions were wrong. The young woman needed to be able to thrive and feel safe. I thought both could happen without him losing his job.”

Clinton did not apologize for her decision, nor did she say whether she considered warning future employers of the 2008 allegations against Strider, potentially protecting his future co-workers. Her statement also included an irrelevant and unnecessary swipe at the New York Times for keeping on reporter Glenn Thrush after allegations of sexual misconduct by him were published by Vox.

The statement as a whole left the impression that Clinton, while perhaps more thoughtful on the issue now than in 2008, had not fully reckoned with the problem of sexual harassment and an employer’s responsibility to address it. Her interview on Sunday only adds to that impression.

By saying that Lewinsky was “an adult” when the affair took place, Clinton ignores the inequities between the president and an intern that Lewinsky made very clear in her Vanity Fair essay. And by insisting that then-President Clinton’s actions did not constitute an “abuse of power,” she denies one of the most obviously problematic aspects of her husband’s relationship with Lewinsky.

You can argue that the affair was consensual — Lewinsky herself acknowledges this is a complicated issue. But it’s very hard to argue that Clinton didn’t abuse the power of the presidency when he had sex with an intern in the Oval Office. For Hillary Clinton to make this claim suggests that either she doesn’t understand how abuse of power works or that she’s simply blind to it where her husband is concerned.

In general, it’s hard to know how Clinton should have responded, over the years, to allegations against her husband and the father of her child. To some degree, it’s understandable that she chose to remain largely silent for a long time. But since the rise of the #MeToo movement, she’s chosen to speak directly about the issue of sexual misconduct several times, and several times she has fallen short.

Clinton’s feminist legacy has always been complicated. She undeniably blazed a trail for women in politics — really, for countless women trying to rise up in what remains a man’s world. In What Happened, Clinton poignantly recalls various struggles with sexism, including a linguistic expert who told her that she needed to make her voice softer and lower in speeches.

“Other women will run for President,” Clinton writes, “and they will be women, and they will have women’s voices. Maybe that will be less unusual by then. Maybe my campaign will have helped make it that way, and other women will have an easier time. I hope so.”

Clinton’s campaign may well make it easier for future women to run — at the very least, she’s given them a (mostly) clear-eyed account, in What Happened, of what it was like. But for women who, on their way to whatever career they strive for, are sexually harassed or assaulted, Clinton hasn’t made it easier to come forward. If anything, her comments and decisions have made it harder.

As one of the most visible women in the world, Clinton has a rare opportunity to send a message of support to survivors everywhere. But by getting defensive about her former employee, and denying that her husband abused his power when Lewinsky has said that he did, she’s done the opposite. She’s become one of the many, many people showing survivors that, too often, people in power will be protected by their powerful friends.

Hillary Clinton will always have a place in feminist history. But when the history of #MeToo is written, she may be remembered as someone who supported women — until their words hit too close to home.

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