A torrent of sexual abuse allegations against powerful figures in politics and the media has reignited the defining political fight of the 1990s.
But this time, the battle is being waged within the ranks of Democrats and their allies, including leaders of the feminist movement. A growing number now say they were wrong to have so stridently defended former president Bill Clinton against the women who over the years accused him of offenses ranging from groping to exposing his genitals to rape.
The uncomfortable question is whether Democrats then were guilty of the sin they accuse Republicans of committing now by continuing to support President Trump and Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore, despite allegations of sexual offenses. Were they also putting partisanship and their desire to hold on to power above the principles they claim to hold dear?
A remarkable exchange of fire began Thursday when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) — Hillary Clinton’s successor as senator from New York, a staunch backer of her presidential campaign and a talked-about presidential possibility — told the New York Times that by today’s standards, the “appropriate response” for Bill Clinton would have been to resign the presidency when his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was revealed in 1998.
That brought a retort from longtime Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines on Twitter, where he dismissed the president’s affair with a subordinate as a “consensual” sex act. Reines lobbed an additional shot at Gillibrand: “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
In a radio interview with WABC host Rita Cosby on Friday, Hillary Clinton deflected a request for a response to Gillibrand: “I don’t exactly know what she was trying to say.”
During the 1990s, allegations about the president’s behavior went far beyond the Lewinsky affair, which led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment after he lied about it under oath during a deposition in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. Jones claimed that in 1991 Clinton, then Arkansas governor, summoned her to a hotel room, where he dropped his pants and asked for oral sex.
“I wish I had done more to be supportive of her,” said Patricia Ireland, a longtime president of the National Organization for Women, who is now a lawyer in Florida. “For Paula Jones, there were nice distinctions that people made: She didn’t work for him, he didn’t have the power to hire or fire her. But that ignores the reality that he was a very powerful man.”
At the time, however, the attitude of many feminist leaders was summed up in a 1998 New York Times op-ed by Gloria Steinem, who wrote that “Mr. Clinton seems to have made a clumsy sexual pass, then accepted rejection.” She was similarly dismissive of other women who came forward with stories of sexual abuse by Clinton before and during his time in the White House.
A spokeswoman for Steinem said that she “isn’t doing interviews at this time.”
Clinton settled Jones’s lawsuit in November 1998 for $850,000, acknowledging no wrongdoing and offering no apology.
His defenders argued that his infidelities were a private family matter and that his pro-feminist agenda had to be protected. But the first line of defense for many of Clinton’s allies was to attack his accusers with lacerating insults that now seem not only sexist but elitist.
James Carville, who had been the top strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, once said: “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”
In retrospect, would he make that comment again?
“I don’t know,” said Carville, who this weekend is joining the Clintons and other alumni of that campaign in Little Rock, where they are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their victory in an election where speculation about the candidate’s sex life and the state of his marriage became major topics.
Carville said he had been referring to Gennifer Flowers, who came forward during the 1992 campaign claiming that she had had a 12-year affair with Clinton. She reportedly was paid $100,000 by the Star, a supermarket tabloid, to tell her story. Both Clintons denied that it was true, prompting Flowers to hold a news conference at which she played tapes of her phone conversations with the Arkansas governor.
“The circumstances were considerably different than what we see today,” Carville insisted. But he added: “There is no doubt the ground has shifted between that time and now. There’s no question this is a different environment, probably for the better.”
Others from Clinton’s orbit in those days said he had been punished heavily for what he did, by becoming the second president in U.S. history to be impeached. They also point to the fact that some accusers aligned themselves with right-wing groups that were determined to destroy Clinton politically.
“Those of us who lived through it know how fierce the criticism and condemnation were, and the price he paid,” said Ann F. Lewis, who was a top White House official.
Republicans, meanwhile, are doing their best to add to the Democrats’ unease, which grew this week with the allegation by broadcaster Leeann Tweeden that Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) had forcibly kissed and groped her while the two were traveling overseas on a USO trip in 2006. Her accusations were accompanied by a photo of Franken apparently groping her breasts while she slept.
The news brought calls for a Senate investigation from members of his own party — among them Franken himself, who also apologized.
On Friday, Trump tweeted: “The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?” He followed that tweet with another one: “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women.”
Trump has not taken to his favorite medium to discuss the growing pile of allegations against Moore.
“Well, Al Franken was a brand-new news story yesterday, and the president weighed in as he does on the news of the day, often enough,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News. “The Roy Moore story is eight days old, and the president put out a statement during his Asia trip on that.”
That statement, issued under the name of press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said that Trump believes Moore should exit the Senate race “if these allegations are true.”
Though the issue of Clinton’s alleged sexual abuse has taken on fresh currency, it had also surfaced during his wife’s campaign last year to become the nation’s first female president. Hillary Clinton has long positioned herself as a champion of women’s issues and tweeted at one point: “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.”
Her adversaries on the right, however, saw her as her husband’s enabler and shield.
At an appearance she made in New Hampshire in December 2015, a woman stood up in the audience and read a question from a card: “You say that all rape victims should be believed. But would you say that about Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and/or Paula Jones?” Broaddrick had accused Bill Clinton of raping her in 1978, and Willey claimed he had groped her when she came to the White House to ask him to give her a job.
Candidate Clinton responded, “Well, I would say that everyone should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
In the radio interview Friday, she was again asked whether she should have been more supportive of her husband’s female accusers. “Every situation has to be judged on its own merit,” she said. She added that those allegations were investigated and that recent comments by others about her husband are not relevant. “I don’t know that we can rewrite and revise history.”
Late in the 2016 campaign, as Trump was trying to contain the damage from his own crude and boastful comments about assaulting women, which were picked up on a hot microphone during the taping of an episode of “Access Hollywood,” he brought three of Bill Clinton’s accusers — Jones, Broaddrick and Willey — to his second presidential debate against the former first lady.
Ireland, the former NOW president, said there is much young feminist activists can learn today from her generation of movement leaders and what could be argued are the mistakes they made.
“There are things that we can learn from each other. And we have to listen without being defensive,” Ireland said. “We all reflect the culture of our time.”