correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of journalist Lesley Stahl. This version has been updated.
Between the man who is president and the woman who ran against him, there is, for me, no contest; Hillary Clinton would have been a far better president than Donald Trump. But both Trump and Clinton, in their own trademark ways, stepped in it again this week when it comes to women.
Trump’s comments — describing Stormy Daniels as “Horseface” — are the more offensive if for no other reason than that he is the president, and presidential words carry extra weight. Yet Clinton’s comments — insisting that her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky did not constitute an abuse of power because Lewinsky, then 22, “was an adult” — are the more painful because she could have, should have, done better.
Trump played to piggish type with his comment about Daniels, the adult-film actress who was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about a sexual encounter she says she had with Trump. This was not a spur-of-the-moment utterance, it was a tweet about a judge’s ruling in Trump’s favor in a defamation suit filed by Daniels: “Great, now I can go after Horseface and her 3rd rate lawyer,” Trump wrote.
“Horseface” now joins the panoply of Trump’s greatest sexist hits: “Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?” (Carly Fiorina). “Face of a pig” (Gail Collins). “Fat, ugly face” (Rosie O’Donnell). “Blood coming out of her wherever” (Megyn Kelly). That this is not anywhere near the complete list tells you everything you need to know about Trump’s unrelenting offensiveness.
This far into the administration, it is folly to expect some version of presidential Trump to emerge. Indeed, just two days before “Horseface,” there was Trump on “60 Minutes,” behaving in a way that is more subtle but also more chilling. At one point in the interview, Lesley Stahl recounts Christine Blasey Ford’s searing testimony about the indelible laughter of Brett M. Kavanaugh and his friend. Trump shrugs it off, literally. His shoulders rise. He tilts his head in one direction, then another. “Okay fine,” he says. Whatever.
“I watched you mimic her and thousands of people were laughing at her,” Stahl told Trump. She invited regret; the president responded with unadulterated callousness. “The way now-Justice Kavanaugh was treated has become a big factor in the midterms. Have you seen what’s gone on with the polls?” And, the ultimate in Trumpian instrumentalism: “It doesn’t matter. We won.”
Once we scoffed at Bill Clinton for being the feel-your-pain president. Now we have a president who is only capable of feeling the pain of those who are similarly aggrieved.
Speaking of Bill Clinton, there was his wife on CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” being asked about workplace conduct in the clarifying light of the #MeToo movement. “In retrospect, do you think Bill should’ve resigned in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal?” asked correspondent Tony Dokoupil.
Clinton, without hesitation: “Absolutely not.”
Dokoupil: “It wasn’t an abuse of power?”
Clinton: “No, no.”
Dokoupil: “There are people who look at the incidents of the ’90s and they say, ‘A president of the United States cannot have a consensual relationship with an intern, the power imbalance is too great.’ ”
Clinton, interjecting mid-sentence: “Who was an adult. But let me ask you this: Where’s the investigation of the current incumbent against whom numerous allegations have been made and which he dismisses, denies and ridicules?”
Who was an adult . How can she say that, as if that is relevant in any way? Lewinsky’s technical adulthood is no defense for Bill Clinton’s behavior — in the workplace, as her superior (not to mention president), as a man old enough to be her father. And whatever the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s instinctive defense of her husband’s behavior then, her summary dismissal of it now diminishes her claim to feminism.
Would it not be possible for her to choke out something like: “We’ve all had some time to think about this and, yes, this was unacceptable workplace behavior. I don’t think a president who was elected by the country should have resigned over it, but I also think this conduct was seriously wrong.”
But this is not, it never has been, in Hillary Clinton’s emotional repertoire. She does not cede a millimeter; like Trump, she is allergic to apology. Like Trump, she is prone to whataboutism. If what Bill Clinton did was wrong, why does it matter if what Trump has done is wronger, if indeed it was? Whataboutism is an argument for losers, whichever side deploys it.
And so we are left with this depressing juxtaposition: a president who never hesitates to stoop in demeaning women. And a should’ve-been-president who is a champion for women, except those mistreated by her husband. If Trump never fails to infuriate, Clinton consistently disappoints.