Gennifer Flowers is probably not coming to the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tonight, but that’s not really the point. When Clinton invited Mark Cuban, a businessman and sharp critic of Trump, to the debate, Trump responded (whatever his campaign says now) not by inviting someone who questions Clinton’s credentials to be president, like Patricia Smith, whose son died in Benghazi, to join him. Instead, he suggested that he might bring along a woman who had an affair with Clinton’s husband. The point wasn’t to debate Clinton but to reduce her, yet again, to being nothing more than Bill Clinton’s wife.
There’s no question that Hillary Clinton’s marriage is an important part of her biography and resume, or that the Clintons themselves made their relationship a selling point during the 1992. I found Bill Clinton’s rendition of the fractured fairy tale that is their marriage at the Democratic convention this summer to be touching. But it’s maddening to watch the conversation about Clinton narrow, time and time again, to her marriage.
Witness the fuss over what Bill Clinton will be called should his wife become the president, whether he’ll pick out china patterns, and how the country can possibly survive if the president’s spouse does something other than the ceremonial duties that have traditionally been the purview of the first lady.
Less flippantly, I’ve been disappointed to see some otherwise smart conservatives express concern that by giving Bill Clinton a role in policy, Hillary Clinton will be setting him loose to harass his new co-workers. Somehow, a legitimate question about how Clinton might pursue harassment policies for 2.6 million civilian federal employees, not to mention 1.5 million members of the military, which has its own shocking weaknesses when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault, comes down to a question about one man.
And while conservatives have often focused on Clinton’s responses to individual women who have said they had relationships with her husband, or accused him of sexual harassment or sexual assault, they tend to ignore her substantive work on behalf of women around the world. I don’t have to like the way Clinton spoke about these other women, or to pretend that going to Beijing and declaring that “women’s rights are human rights” somehow wins Clinton some sort of pass to be unkind to other women, to see that the sum of Clinton’s life and work are more than her reactions to her husband’s actions.
But here we are, yet again, in a place where Donald Trump thought that the proper response to Cuban’s criticisms of Trump’s business success and dishonesty about Trump’s charitable giving, was to remind the world that Hillary Clinton’s husband cheated on her.
In a sane world, we’d recognize that one of these things is manifestly not like the other. Trump is responsible for his falsified reputation as a businessman and his failures to follow through on his charitable pledges. Bill Clinton’s inability to control himself is his problem, not a failing of Hillary Clinton’s making. And in that universe, it might have seemed particularly foolish or hypocritical of Trump to draw attention to the difficulties in the Clintons’ marriage, which has survived, given that his own unions have not.
But Hillary Clinton has never gotten any credit for keeping her marriage together. Instead, the people who might be inclined to admire another wife who preserved her union in the face of humiliation and insult have instead used the Clintons’ marriage as evidence of Clinton’s hunger for power.
And in a way, the fact that the Clintons stayed together while Trump has twice divorced and remarried actually bolsters Trump’s brand. He traded up, while the Clintons — those suckers — stayed together. Calling attention to Bill Clinton’s adultery is a way to ridicule him for staying and to mock Hillary Clinton as a woman who could keep her husband legally married to her, but not compel his fidelity.
“When a man leaves a woman,” Trump told reporter Marie Brenner for a 1990 profile in Vanity Fair that chronicled his divorce from Ivana Trump and his marriage to Marla Maples, “especially when it was perceived that he has left for a piece of [a–] — a good one! — there are 50 percent of the population who will love the woman who was left.” But Ivana’s temporary surge in popularity didn’t seem to have soured Trump on this particular deal. In the same piece, he said of Maples, “She’s smart, she’s very nice, and not ambitious. ”
Hillary Clinton is very smart. She has not always been very nice. And she is definitely ambitious. But unlike Ivana Trump or Marla Maples, she’s not merely another wife Donald Trump can trash when he finds his next bauble.