By obsessing over the Clintons, President Trump and the Republicans are getting medieval.
In the year 897, one of the most sordid of the many sordid episodes of the medieval Church took place. In the storied Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, a pope had to answer charges of perjury and of serving as a bishop while a mere layman. Such charges were in themselves not out of the ordinary in the day’s politically charged climate — except these charges were leveled against a pope who had been dead many months.
As a rotting corpse freshly dug from his grave, Pope Formosus (a name, ironically, meaning “beautiful”) was dressed in his finest papal vestments and placed on a throne, while the current Pope, Stephen VI, put him on trial. Despite having a deacon to speak on his behalf, Formosus failed to put up, let’s say, a spirited enough defense and was found guilty. His entire papacy and all its acts were decreed null and void, the three fingers of his blessing hand severed, and his corpse hurled into the Tiber. Such was the result of the “Cadaver Synod.”
This past week, we have seen the Republicans eager to call a Cadaver Synod of their own, this time to try the Clintons, or rather the festering corpse of the Clintons’ political ambitions.
At least until the recent revelations of Sen. Al Franken’s past boorish conduct, a standard right-wing response to the shocking allegations against the creep of the moment, Roy Moore — who apparently was so dogged in his pursuit of teenage girls that he was said to have been banned from a mall — has been plaintively to cry “What about Bill Clinton?”
Indeed, what about Bill Clinton? Many liberals have for a long time thought a Clinton reckoning is long overdue, and we look back with great horror and shame at the way the allegations against Clinton were handled in the ’90s, not to mention the appalling and life-ruining treatment meted out against his accusers.
James Carville’s infamous dismissal of Clinton’s accusers as mere trailer-trash is nearly unfathomable in today’s post-Weinstein #MeToo context: “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” Gloria Steinem is now widely seen as betraying feminist principles by arguing in the New York Times that Bill Clinton’s indiscretions were between consenting adults and, thus, the president was guilty only of marital infidelity.
Steinem did not face up to the staggering abuse of power Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky represented, nor did she mention the more serious allegations of assault leveled by Juanita Broaddrick and others. Her own fury at the seemingly endless investigation by Kenneth W. Starr and her support for Clinton’s legislative agenda were, it seems, too important to sacrifice for higher principles and ideological integrity.
None of this, however, should distract from the “indiscretions” and alleged crimes committed by someone running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. More than that, since Bill Clinton is no longer president (and hasn’t been for more than 16 years), we should probably be more concerned by the allegations, some of which were openly admitted on tape, of sexual misconduct by the current president.
What about Hillary Clinton? Attorney General Jeff Sessions looks poised to appoint a special prosecutor to look into her supposed involvement in a uranium deal. Even Fox News anchor Shepard Smith has called this latest scandal involving Clinton utterly without merit, a rare stand that has earned him the ugly reproach of his network’s viewers.
Unlike the figure at the center of the Robert S. Mueller III investigation, Hillary Clinton is not (to the ongoing horror of many) president. Any scandal or backroom and self-interested deals she may or may not have been involved in are immaterial for the current administration of the republic, or, at the very least, should be relegated to the back burner.
Donald Trump’s label of “Crooked Hillary” to describe his presidential opponent stuck, just as his chant of “lock her up” was echoed by the masses at his rallies, and continues to be well after the election. Trump’s portrait of Hillary Clinton as mired in scandal draws from a history that stretches back more than 20 years, to the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
The American Spectator, now largely defunct but once one of the most influential conservative magazines, ran several stories designed to paint the Clintons as particularly scandal-prone. In 1994, it published a piece titled “His Cheatin’ Heart: David Brock in Little Rock,” which was the origin of “Troopergate.” The author of that story, David Brock, who had also first reported the Paula Jones allegations, later wrote a book called “Blinded by the Right” in which he admitted to being hired specifically to find dirt on the Clintons. Brock also claims the state troopers in question had actually been paid to give testimony against Bill Clinton.
There certainly was a great deal of money invested to bring down the Clinton presidency. The work of the Spectator and much of the right-wing media campaign to tarnish the Clintons was financed by billionaire Richard Scaife via the Arkansas Project, which in addition to Troopergate funded stories on the Whitewater real estate deal and popularized the conspiracy theory that White House aide Vincent Foster had been killed (when Rush Limbaugh shared a rumor that Foster had been killed in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton, the stock market actually dropped).
A “vast right-wing conspiracy,” which is how both Clintons referred to the smear campaign arrayed against them, would seem to be a characterization not without merit. Scandal and conspiracy theories have dogged the Clintons ever since, just like they followed Formosus even to his grave, providing plenty of fodder for Trump and his base.
Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations died a year ago and have been festering in the ground at least as long as the body of Formosus had been. Bill Clinton’s presidency would barely hold together as a fleshless skeleton at this point. For the Trump administration, and for a great many Republicans, the Clintons will for all time remain their whipping boys, for a very good reason: The right has never gotten over the fact that despite his impeachment in Congress, Bill Clinton finished his second term as president.
Yet, unlike the current president, Clinton actually did pay for his sins: He was the first president impeached since Andrew Johnson. He was thoroughly humiliated and relentlessly investigated.
Regardless, no matter what happens in America or on the world stage, no matter how close we get to nuclear war or a climate apocalypse, it will always be a grand time to bring up Benghazi, private email servers, or, heck, Whitewater and Lewinsky. While we’re digging up the dead, Starr is out of work, having been ousted as the president of Baylor University once the world learned its football program was awash in rape culture. Perhaps he could serve as the special prosecutor of the Clinton corpse.