Published February 2, 2018
The New Criterion - January 2018 issue
If I were the sort of person inclined to believe in conspiracy theories — as so many people on both sides of the political divide seem to be these days — I would also be inclined to believe that the moral panic over celebrity male sexual misbehavior that has raged through the media since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October had a deeper political purpose. True, the multiplying scandals took down a lot of progressive eminences in politics and the media, beginning with Mr Weinstein himself, but some at least of the survivors must have seen a way to turn even this to account in the on-going progressive effort to bring about the eviction of President Trump from the executive mansion.
The theory might go something like this. Having put all their scandal eggs in the Russia-“collusion” basket, the media began to see that, with the indictment of Paul Manafort on charges unrelated to the Trump campaign, the Watergate model was not after all going to serve them very well, as they had been devoutly hoping it would from the beginning of the Trump presidency. Therefore, with some misgivings, they decided that, although they would keep pushing the Mueller investigation and making the most of anything it threw up, such as the guilty plea of Michael Flynn to a charge of lying to the FBI, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal model would henceforth be more likely to serve their purpose of driving the President from office.
Of course, there was an obvious problem with that. The media had, at least between President Clinton’s acquittal of the impeachment charges by the Senate in February of 1999 and the death of the last fading of hope for a revival of Clintonism under the leadership of the former President’s better half, got into the habit of loudly seconding the arguments of Clinton partisans that their hero’s peccadillos weren’t worth much, if anything, as scandal. They were “lying about sex.” Everybody does that. As Shakespeare’s Juliet, wise beyond her years, puts it: “At lovers’ perjuries, they say, Jove laughs.” Therefore Kenneth Starr and the Republicans, who had been disposed to make much of President Clinton’s sexual misbehavior, even to the length of impeaching him for it, had to be discredited instead, along with the women who had made allegations of sexual impropriety and even rape against a sitting president.
Now here his former allies found themselves, nearly 20 years later, looking at a baker’s dozen of women who are presumably willing and eager to play the parts of Monica Lewinsky, or Paula Jones, or Kathleen Willey or Juanita Broaddrick or even Gennifer Flowers vis à vis President Trump, and the media’s own history of contempt for these women and their charges against Mr Clinton was keeping them from making any use of the potential scandal. Let alone multiple scandals. The media haven’t got much of a sense of shame, it’s true, but they must have had enough to know that the public would have laughed them off the media stage if they had tried to ruin Mr Trump with the same sort of scandal they had long insisted was no scandal at all.
What was to be done? Clearly, before they could mount a spring offensive against Mr Trump on the grounds of being a sex pest or worse, they would have to walk back their long-standing and hitherto adamantine defense of Mr Clinton. Cue Caitlin Flanagan, a feminist author whose feminist credentials have been questioned by more militant colleagues, writing in the high-brow Atlantic. “The Democratic Party needs to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton,” wrote Ms Flanagan on the magazine’s website.
The party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant, Big Dog president and his stunning string of progressive accomplishments that it abandoned some of its central principles. The party was on the wrong side of history, and there are consequences for that. Yet expedience is not the only reason to make this public accounting. If it is possible for politics and moral behavior to coexist, then this grave wrong needs to be acknowledged. If Weinstein and Mark Halperin and Louis C. K. and all the rest can be held accountable, so can our former president and so can his party, which so many Americans so desperately need to rise again.
Notice the exquisite subtlety. She made no mention of Mr Trump or of his putative wrongdoings, though the reference to other, more recently exposed malefactors (all of them Trump-haters) and to the desperate need of the country for more Democrats in power must have brought him and them to the minds of Atlantic readers. All the words of reproach in the piece were instead directed at feminists, and in particular Gloria Steinem, for their willingness to excuse the “Big Dog” for almost any offense, and on nakedly partisan grounds. She even dared to put the Democratic Party, for the nonce, on that now famously “wrong side of history,” hitherto reserved for Republicans and conservatives. Why, in a dim light it almost looked like self-criticism!
Within days of the appearance of Ms Flanagan’s piece on November 13th, an apparently well co-ordinated, pre-attack bombardment of the enemy’s forward positions was taken up in other prestige publications. “‘What About Bill?’ Sexual Misconduct Debate Revives Questions About Clinton,” wrote Peter Baker in The New York Times, echoing the same paper’s op ed the day before by Michelle Goldberg headed “I Believe Juanita.” That would be Juanita Broaddrick, who had accused Mr Clinton of raping her when he was Arkansas attorney general in 1978. The next day, Matt Yglesias of Vox also reconsidered his former opinion, arguing in light of the current crop of scandals that “Bill Clinton should have resigned.” By the next day, Ruth Graham of Slate was finding it “Astonishing That It Took This Long for the Bill Clinton Moment of Reckoning to Arrive.”
The next day it was the turn of Slate’s former sister publication, The Washington Post, wherein Karen Tumulty and Katie Mettler proceeded to note that “Abuse allegations have revived scrutiny of Bill Clinton — and divided Democrats” — though it seems not to have divided them so much that a quorum for Bill’s defenestration could not still be mustered. Even on the other side of the Atlantic (the ocean, not the magazine) progressive-minded and Trump-hating media types appeared to have got wind of the new strategy. “I saw how we failed Bill Clinton’s accusers,” wrote Yolanda Wu in the London Sunday Observer. “We can’t do that again.” Meanwhile, over at the London Daily Telegraph, Rob Crilly could not help noticing that, “As women declare ‘me too’, Democrats look with fresh eyes at the claims against Bill Clinton.” If poor old Bill, now a mere shadow of his former White House self, could smell diesel fumes, it was because he was being thrown under the bus by his erstwhile defenders. It’s not personal, Bubba. It’s just business. We’ve got to get Trump, and we can’t do it with you on board.
The shamelessness of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York surpassed even that of the media. She had been happy to accept the help, both in money and in kind, from both Mr and Mrs Clinton when campaigning for the senate seat she now holds back in 2010 and 2012. Her Wikipedia entry, at the time of writing even identifies Mrs Clinton as her “mentor” and quotes her as saying that the former First Lady had inspired her to go into politics in the first place, when she was a volunteer in her first senatorial campaign back in 2000. Now, however, according to Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times the Senator has jumped aboard the band-wagon and believes that Mr Clinton should have resigned in 1998. “Things have changed today, and I think under those circumstances there should be a very different reaction,” she said. “And I think in light of this conversation, we should have a very different conversation about President Trump, and a very different conversation about allegations against him.”
Oops! I think she might have jumped the gun a little bit there by mentioning President Trump prematurely in a context which made clear that the reason for this “different conversation” and “different reaction” was something that went beyond changing times. Senator Bernie Sanders also broke ranks when he took the occasion of Senator Al Franken’s resignation — which itself seems likely to have been influenced by pressure from fellow Democrats seeking to clear their own closets of obvious skeletons — to call on Mr Trump to follow his example. But at the time of writing, the anti-Trump forces seem for the most part to be holding their fire until the heat of indignation against Hollywood and the media and Democrats like Senator Franken and John Conyers has died down (if it ever does) and the unity of right-minded Democrats in condemning Mr Clinton, now as great as their former unity in defending him, has had time to sink in with the public (if it ever does)..
It’s a bit of a high risk strategy, I admit, going back on decades of media and Democratic orthodoxy as it does, but the conspiratorily-minded, as I suggested at the outset, might be disposed to believe it anyway. For myself, I take it as axiomatic that there is little or nothing that a conspiracy ever explains which cannot be more plausibly accounted for by sheer (moral) stupidity. Sure, some if not all of these new-minted anti-Clintonites are as well aware as Kirsten Gillibrand is of the potential for Trumpian vulnerability to charges of sexual wrong-doing and at least as dimly aware as she is of the uncertain moral ground their long defense of the Clintons puts them on should they try to exploit it. But the very cynicism with which she and others now pretend to have changed their minds in the light of “circumstances” suggests rather moral obtuseness and the long habit of self-righteousness than any conspiratorial plotting.
Moreover, it is altogether of a piece with the disingenuousness of the media’s allegedly agonized re-appraisal of their own scandal culture back in the Monica-time and its echo in regard to the new issue of scandals which has at times appeared to be spinning out of the media’s control and to the media’s detriment. Here, for instance, is Callum Borchers in The Washington Post, worrying that “Sexual harassment accusations against Charlie Rose and Glenn Thrush feed the ‘fake news’ narrative.”
Sexual harassment accusations leveled against journalists Charlie Rose and Glenn Thrush on Monday portray both men as predators — and something else, too: fakers. Behind Rose’s dignified image, cultivated over decades on PBS, is a groping exhibitionist, according to women who told The Washington Post’s Irin Carmon and Amy Brittain about their experiences working for him. Vox reported that Thrush, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, masks a penchant for unwanted advances under the facade of a mentor. . . The notion that these men successfully misled many colleagues and the public about their true natures feeds the “fake news” narrative pushed by President Trump, U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and others. If they were fake in the way they presented themselves, the reasoning goes, maybe they were fake in their reporting, too. Maybe lots of reporting is fake.
It is almost charmingly naive of Mr Borchers to suppose that people all over the country are slapping their foreheads and exclaiming: “What! You mean journalists and media folk are not the disinterested truth-tellers and all-round perfect people we always imagined them to be?” His piece was written before the revelations of Matt Lauer’s extracurricular activities brought a premature end to the “Today Show” host’s career, but Mr Borchers must have thought that the whole nation was as shocked and saddened by those revelations as Andrew Lack and everybody else at NBC professed to be. The idea would be laughable if it were not so pathetically unself-aware. Yet it is typical of much of American journalism and the real reason, along with its too-frequent resort to scandal-mongering, why scandal has been — and is likely to continue to be, in spite of their re-think of Mr Clinton’s scandals — so ineffectual in getting rid of Mr Trump.
For a little-understood consequence of the media’s self-transformation into proud, no longer surreptitious advocates for progressivism, as announced by Jim Rutenberg in a front-page, signed editorial in The New York Times in August of 2016 (see “After the Fact” in The New Criterion of October, 2016), has been the blunting of the scandal weapon they have so long relied on to attack non-progressives with. Now that they have come out of the closet, most people will simply assume — as, formerly, only a few cynical right-wingers like myself would do — that the only reason such stuff is in the “news” is that it is useful as a political weapon. Which of course practically destroys its usefulness as a political weapon.
At the beginning of December, Bret Stephens wrote a column in The New York Times headed “Writing at the speed of Trump’s scandals” which complained about his own difficulty in keeping up with the the President’s malfeasances, so numerous were they. It reminded me of the German finance minister during the hyperinflation of 1923 who complained about the difficulty of keeping up with the demand for ever higher denomination bank notes. Both men, that is, are blind to their own role in creating the situation complained of, because their mental model of reality is inadequate to changed circumstances. Scandal is no longer what it was in pre-Watergate days when the media’s pretense of non-partisanship was still widely accepted. Scandal, like the media themselves, is now nakedly partisan — which means that it is scandal no more. We need some new word to describe that which outrages only one side of the partisan divide, since scandal, properly so called, has always presupposed a common standard of decency across it. Now, those of us not locked into an outdated idea of the rhetorical culture ought to be able to see that decency itself has become partisan — and so, likewise, is no longer decency in any traditional sense of the word. Hillary Clinton implicitly acknowledged as much when she called Mr Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables.” As much as one hesitates to indulge in conspiracy theories, so much (and maybe more) does one hesitate to attribute Machiavellian brilliance to Donald Trump, but it is impossible for me to imagine his being elected to the presidency in any other media environment than the one we have got today, in which vile character-assassination has become so routine, even against such transparently decent men as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, that no one takes it seriously anymore, even when it is employed against someone like Mr Trump, who might otherwise have been vulnerable to it. Maybe it’s time for rethinking more than just the sins of Bill Clinton.
James Bowman is resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.