The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s the real difference between Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby? The media is starting to ask.

Bill Cosby campaigned for Hillary Clinton during her Senate run in 2000. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
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What’s the difference between the alleged sexual misconduct of Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby? No two cases are identical, of course, but can you really articulate why one man is a national disgrace and the other remains a political icon, hitting the campaign trail for the wife who stood by him in the face of multiple allegations?

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough doesn’t think you can. “I am fascinated to hear why comparing Bill Clinton to Bill Cosby is wrong,” the “Morning Joe” host said on Monday’s program.

He added: “I wonder how the public looks at Bill Cosby and says, ‘This beloved man who changed American culture as much as any entertainment figure in our lifetime is going to have to be accountable for the way he treated women behind closed doors.’ How does a public that has come to that conclusion say, ‘The Bill Clinton stuff is okay?'”

Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, drew the comparison during an exchange with guest Harold Ford Jr., the former Democratic congressman from Tennessee. Ford contended that “Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton’s cases are completely different,” noting that more than 50 women have come forward with similar accounts of being drugged and sexually assaulted by the legendary comedian.

It’s true that Clinton’s list of accusers isn’t nearly as long. He’s generally portrayed in the media as a philanderer, not a predator, owing to admitted extramarital affairs with Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, as well as claims of affairs by Dolly Kyle Browning, Elizabeth Ward Green and Sally Miller.

But Clinton has also been accused of rape by Juanita Broaddrick, a former campaign volunteer who repeated her claim last week on Twitter and in an interview with Vox.

Clinton also paid $850,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, who said the then-governor propositioned her and exposed himself in 1991. And Kathleen Willey, a former White House aide, accused Clinton of groping her in his office in 1993.

Aside from the difference in volume, we're left with some parallels: These are two men who face unproven accusations that they used positions of power to sexually assault and/or harass women who were essentially dealing with a superior. The press seems unsure how to deal with the overlap.

Unsurprisingly, conservative news outlets, such as Breitbart and the Blaze, are happy to point out what they consider a double standard. And Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has played up the Cosby-Clinton link. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has also labeled Clinton a sexual predator who abused his position of authority.

But others wrestling with similarities and differences include left-leaning Salon and columnists in mainstream outlets such as USA Today and the Boston Globe.

Two leading theories hold that Clinton gets better treatment from the press because he is a Democrat and because he is white. Perhaps there is truth in both arguments. But Clinton’s greatest advantage over Cosby might be that these issues have been talked about for decades already -- and that he's not himself on the ballot again this year. Are old allegations against Bill Clinton suddenly relevant just because his wife is running for president again?

By contrast, most of the Cosby allegations are very new. There have long been whispers and isolated allegations, but they had never really attained the current level of public scrutiny -- which has led to more and more women coming forward and with Cosby being charged with sexual assault in Pennsylvania two weeks ago.

And the media don't have to worry about looking like they are trying to sully someone be association, as they do with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton’s history might be fair game in this year’s presidential election, as Hillary Clinton deploys him as a surrogate and makes standing up for sexual assault victims part of her platform. But it also seems that the person who could pay the biggest price for Bill Clinton’s alleged mistreatment of women would be another woman — his wife.

So expect the media to keep treading carefully when recounting claims about the 42nd president’s misdeeds, even as it pursues the Cosby story aggressively.