Twenty-five years ago on Nov. 3, 1992, William Jefferson Clinton was elected president of the United States — and Hillary Clinton is still trying to take his place.
As historians and pundits recall his third-way presidency, another slice of his legacy can't be ignored — the trickle-down effect of his womanizing, his DNA-proved extramarital involvement with Monica Lewinsky in the nation's most important workplace and the couple's treatment of women overall, from "bimbo eruptions" to Paula Jones to Juanita Broaddrick.
The behavior of adults at the top of the food chain seeps into the culture and can’t be extracted from events of the future. Today’s eruptions of sexual harassment claims can be explained as a volcanic reaction to simmering rage among women, who, as a group, have been sexualized, victimized and silenced for too long. We have reached not so much a tipping point as a boiling point.
What goes up comes down, all right. But what goes underground — forced to steep in darkness and silence — comes back up with a vengeance.
A quarter-century is a long time to stew, and that's about the span between Anita Hill's testimony in 1991 against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas for sexual comments he allegedly made at work — the first widely publicized case — and the recent deluge prompted by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson's takedown of network founder Roger Ailes.
This in-between period also corresponded more or less to the life span of the Clinton political machine, once-essential to a Democrat's successful run for office, now knocking and hissing as Hillary winds up her revenge book tour. It is also, roughly, the span of a human generation. The last of the baby boomers, who squired sexual amorality to the White House and secular relativism to most other institutions, are moving toward retirement and taking their boys-will-be-boys attitude with them.
Bill Clinton wasn't the first president to misbehave in the White House, as we are frequently reminded. But he was part of the first "two-fer" presidency, as he put it, with a first lady who championed women's rights. Presumably, these rights would have included not being objectified or treated as human litter. And Clinton was the first, as far as we know, to have a sexual relationship with an intern.
It doesn’t matter if Lewinsky, then 21, pursued the president and “knew” what she was doing. Obviously, given the long-term effects of this episode on her life, she didn’t. In any case, it was Clinton’s job as her superior not to abuse his power by taking advantage of her.
He knew the rules. He didn’t care. Or he couldn’t control himself. Which is worse is hard to say. Meanwhile, Hillary’s dogged pursuit of women claiming to have been targets of her husband’s unleashed libido and her ultimate metamorphosis into Tammy Wynette cumulatively displayed a contempt for women rather than for her husband.
It is little wonder, then, that other men of the era didn’t feel compelled to curtail their proclivities, or that women felt their power to fight back minimized by the first lady.
Fast-forward to the present and each day seems to produce the name of another man accused of sexual harassment. Though they are being lumped together in round-up stories, it would be unfair to put them all in the same cell. There's a world of difference between what movie mogul Harvey Weinstein is alleged to have done and, say, what another recently named Mother Jones writer is alleged to have done. Apparently, among other offenses of minor note, he gave gratuitous shoulder rubs.
With all due sympathy to victims of abusive behavior, I confess to a certain reticence as #MeToo momentum continues to grow. This isn't because I know a few of the alleged harassers, who are disgusting if the accusations are true, but because we are becoming too comfortable with condemnation without due process. Life is unfair — and women inarguably have been on the receiving end of unfairness for long enough. But life shouldn't be a zero-sum game and men, even those one dislikes, deserve a fair hearing before their life and livelihood are taken away.
Karma will take care of the rest.
Had the Clintons played their cards differently, our country might have become less coarse, and our infantile impulsiveness less pronounced. It might not have taken 25 years for women to find their voices. More men might have treated their female colleagues with greater respect. Who knows? Hillary Clinton might have become president. And Donald Trump, whose disrespect toward women is epic, might not have.
Karma, baby: It’s Bubba’s fault.
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Read more on this topic:
Alyssa Rosenberg: The 6 worst things men have said about sexual harassment in just one month
Helaine Olen: Sexual harassment is a huge problem in politics, too. What can we do about it?
Lara Setrakian: I’m one of Mark Halperin’s accusers. He’s part of a bigger problem we need to fix.
Jennifer Rubin: Spare the outrage over Harvey Weinstein. These people voted for Trump.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Why we’re condemning the wrong people in the Harvey Weinstein scandal