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The Clinton Double Standard

There's little in the Weinstein story that doesn't apply to Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton speaks at a symposium for the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Democratic Leadership Council in April 2010. Ralph Alswang / Center for American Progress / Flickr

“Who’s next after Harvey Weinstein?” feminist outlet Jezebel asked after the film producer’s decades of abuse of women came to light.

“Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, R. Kelly, Roger Ailes, and Donald Trump are not the only men who have allegedly abused women from positions of great power,” the website’s staff wrote. “There are men out there who have sexually harassed and assaulted women and gotten away with it who are now looking over their shoulders, hoping no one will be brave enough to tell the truth about them.”

They are right. Weinstein is just one case of an influential man using his clout to abuse vulnerable women, and the number of such cases is likely depressingly high. But there was one powerful figure missing from Jezebel’s list of abusers: former president Bill Clinton.

The elements of the Weinstein scandal sound familiar. It was an “open secret” in the film world — so open that seemingly everyone now finds it hard to believe it could have taken so long to come out. At least one of the accusations was well-documented long before these most recent revelations. And then there are Weinstein’s years of involvement in the Democratic Party, which have now led numerous outraged and embarrassed Democrats to condemn the former Miramax executive and even give away his campaign donations.

The question is on everyone’s lips: how could we have let Weinstein’s crimes continue for so long? Yet there’s little in the Weinstein story — the years of whispers of impropriety, the past allegations by women, the intimate connection with a party that advertises itself as a defender of women — that doesn’t apply to Bill Clinton.

While Weinstein’s decades of abuse have cost him his company, turned him into something of a pariah, and led him to the tried and true PR strategy of claiming sex addiction, Bill Clinton is doing fine. He’s still heading the Clinton Foundation, charging exorbitant prices for speeches, being applauded at public events, and gallivanting around the world, most recently at Northeastern University, where he nearly crossed a picket line.

More Than Whispers

Let’s be clear: the “whispers” around Clinton’s abuse of women have been far more specific than anything that appears to have trailed Harvey Weinstein before 2015. The allegations against Clinton even briefly became a campaign issue in 2016, when Trump cynically tried to use them to distract from his own serial assault of women. But it’s worth briefly going over them again.

First there was Juanita Broaddrick, who in 1978 was a volunteer on then-Attorney General of Arkansas Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial run. One day, she made the mistake of agreeing to have coffee alone with Clinton in a hotel room. According to her, after a few minutes, the thirty-one-year-old Clinton started kissing her, and when she resisted, he forced her down on the bed and raped her, biting her lip so hard it swelled. “You better get some ice for that,” he told her before putting on sunglasses and leaving. A friend says she found her with her clothes ripped and her lip cut, and corroborated the story.

Broaddrick later swore an affidavit claiming it never happened, a fact used by Clinton supporters to throw cold water on her accusations. “I don’t want to relive it,” she explained in 1997, when lawyers for another Clinton accuser tried to get her to testify in their case; “You can’t get to him, and I’m not going to ruin my good name to do it.”

That second accuser was Paula Jones. In 1991, Jones, a state government clerk, was escorted by a state trooper to meet then-Governor Clinton in a hotel room. Jones thought she might be receiving a job offer. Instead, Clinton put his hand up her skirt, tried to kiss her, exposed himself to her, and asked her for oral sex.

Unlike Broaddrick, Jones acquiesced when Clinton’s political enemies tried to use her against him, and she sued Clinton in 1994 under guidance from Clinton-hating conservatives like David Brock and Ann Coulter. (Coulter allegedly wrote her legal complaint, which Jones didn’t read, a fact that contributed to her public discrediting). After a judge dismissed her original suit — not because it was proven untrue, but because Clinton’s “boorish and offensive” behavior supposedly didn’t constitute sexual harassment — Clinton settled with Jones for $850,000. An earlier deal fell through because Jones had insisted on an apology.

The whole gamut of smears has been thrown at Jones over the years to discredit her story: she’s a conservative who now supports Trump; she later used her notoriety to campaign for a Republican; she appeared three times in Penthouse (though only once of her own volition); the magazine published a piece (written by a serial fabulist) painting her as a “small-town vamp.”

For some, the most damning evidence against Jones came when she claimed Clinton had two different distinguishing characteristics on his penis, which later accusers denied. But, as today’s experts remind us, such errors are common: as the American Prosecutors Research Institute put it, sexual assault victims “often omit, exaggerate or fabricate parts of their account,” or they simply misremember.

Moreover, a combination of legal bills, divorce, and taxes had left Jones broke, leading her to pose in the same magazine she once sued to keep her photos out of its pages.

Most recently, former Arkansas news reporter Leslie Millwee claimed that Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, assaulted her three times in her editing room, groping her and rubbing himself against her until he climaxed. The accusations, which first appeared in Breitbart in the midst of the uproar over Trump’s behavior, were supported by three people who told Breitbart that Millwee had recounted the assaults to them in the late 1990s. The story made a brief blip on the public stage before being forgotten almost entirely.

These are the most high-profile cases, but far from the only ones. There was also the flight attendant who claimed Clinton groped her in 1991; White House volunteer Kathleen Willey who has been saying for decades that Clinton made a “very forceful” sexual advance toward her in the Oval Office when she came to ask him for a job; and Hillary Clinton’s cousin’s wife, who said Clinton groped her at a wedding, putting “his hand up there where it shouldn’t have been,” as the cousin recounted to journalist Jerry Oppenheimer.

In 1999, the DC gossip rag Capitol Hill Blue claimed to have tracked down numerous women who described incidents similar to those of Jones, Broaddrick, and Willey, and a number of them — such as former fundraiser Sandra Allen James — let the publication use their names (the Washington Post took these allegations seriously enough that it included them in a run-down of Clinton’s accusations last year).

Then there’s Clinton’s friendship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, whose plane — disturbingly nicknamed the “Lolita Express” — was used by Clinton on numerous occasions, including more than a dozen times when a woman whom prosecutors believe to have been tasked with wrangling underage girls for Epstein, was on the plane. Perhaps it’s just coincidence. But would we say the same if we found out it had been Harvey Weinstein’s name on those flight logs instead of Clinton’s?

It’s true that the details around many of these accusations are murky. Yet at one point the crimes of Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Donald Trump were also just stories — uncorroborated accounts floating around that many knew about but few dared to utter on the record. As New York Magazine’s Ruth Spencer put it in the wake of the Weinstein scandal: “reminder that if you’ve heard ‘rumors’ about a guy you know being ‘handsy,’ the truth is going to be worse.”

True, for some of Clinton’s most high-profile accusers, certain details or allegations have been reported as casting doubt on their stories. But it’s also true that of the many women who’ve come forward about other powerful abusers, few have been subjected to the kind of sustained public grilling and scrutiny that, say, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey received; in fact, such cases likely served as a reminder to women of precisely why they should stay quiet, lest they open themselves up to such relentless hounding and attacks.

Deafening Silence

And yet, despite becoming a major flashpoint in last year’s campaign (and despite the emergence of a never-before-heard accuser coming forward), the allegations around Clinton have again faded into virtual nonexistence. In fact, many of the media commentators who, quite rightly, have spent the last few days tweeting and writing about Harvey Weinstein to condemn him — and have denounced Trump for the same kind of behavior — have either ignored the accusations about Clinton, or outright dismissed them.

There’s a disparity in the way progressives treat the allegations against Clinton and those of other powerful men. Trump, Weinstein, O’Reilly and the rest are unequivocally denounced as sexual predators, and their alleged victims are believed. But when progressive pundits even bother to comment on Bill Clinton’s wrongdoings, the former president is merely accused of crimes; he has alleged misdeeds on his record; his actions require us to uncomfortably re-evaluate his legacy; his accusers are untrustworthy, or they’re simply promiscuous; and besides, it doesn’t matter, because he’s not running for president anymore.

Take Vox’s Ezra Klein, for instance. Last Friday he tweeted that he was “honestly shocked how open a secret Weinstein’s behavior was. And nothing was done! No social shaming, no quiet censure from his board, nothing.” This was one of a number of other tweets on the subject. Yet despite having promoted two pieces gushing over “the genius of Bill’s speech” at last year’s Democratic convention, Klein didn’t say a word on Twitter to promote Vox’s explainer on Leslie Millwee, and his only tweets about Juanita Broaddrick were two perfunctory ones promoting Vox pieces about her allegations.

Vox has published scores of stories on Weinstein, Cosby, and other serial abusers (many of them entertainers) yet only three about the accusations against Bill Clinton, a former president of the United States. One described a “sometimes uncomfortable reevaluation of Bill Clinton’s legacy with women” and focused largely on defending Hillary Clinton from criticism over her husband’s actions; another was devoted to discrediting Willey and Jones’ accusations.

This is a familiar pattern. Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca has been vigilant on the subject of sexual assault, writing or tweeting about Weinstein and the various other rape and harassment scandals. But when the Clinton allegations were in the news, she tweeted a gif with the caption “Tfw people want to debate how bad Bill Clinton is in 2017” under an image of a distressed Drew Barrymore saying “Please leave me alone.” In 2016, she minimized the importance of the charges by pointing out that “Bill Clinton isn’t running for president”; the same can of course be said of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and many others.

Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall has commented numerous times on Weinstein and other abusers, but tweeted out a piece that suggested Clinton had been framed as a “sex predator.” The View’s Joy Behar has criticized Weinstein and Trump, saying the latter’s victory proved “men can get away with anything.” But she called Clinton’s accusers “tramps” and said Clinton was merely a “dog” who was no different from the many other men who cheat on their wives. Jill Filipovic recently charged that “right-wing media pushed a sexual predator for president” (i.e., Trump); as for Clinton, he was merely “accused of” sexual harassment. (She also promoted Buzzfeed’s Juanita Broaddrick piece, calling it “challenging.”) One of the more depressing sights in the media’s coverage of the Clinton controversy was watching presumably feminist commenters on Jezebel tie themselves in knots to dismiss Juanita Broaddrick’s story after Buzzfeed’s profile of her dropped.

And then there’s the Clintons themselves. Hillary Clinton has said that she’s “appalled” by the news about Weinstein. “The behavior described by women coming forward cannot be tolerated,” she declared, and pledged to return the mogul’s donations. But during her campaign, her staff plotted to discredit Juanita Broaddrick’s accusations; her spokesman called them “fabrications that are unsubstantiated.” When challenged about her husband’s accusers, Hillary said “everyone should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence” — despite the fact that for many of the allegations, no evidence has ever surfaced to disprove them, particularly Broaddrick’s. When a protester yelled at Bill that he was a rapist, he shot back: “if you only listen to one television station, and nobody ever tells you the truth, you get like that” — fake news, in other words.

To some extent, these statements have to be understood within the context of last year’s election; after all, Trump’s attempt to distract from his own crimes by pointing the finger at Bill Clinton was a cynical ploy that deserved to be called out. But they also betray an attitude toward the Clinton allegations that differs markedly from those against other alleged abusers. When progressive pundits who are otherwise good on this issue weren’t outright dismissing the Clinton allegations, they were soft-pedaling or simply ignoring them.

What accounts for the double standard? No doubt it’s the same mindset that led Gloria Steinem (of all people) to pen a New York Times op-ed in March 1998 telling feminists to resist right-wing attacks on Bill Clinton. She claimed there was a difference between the actions of Clarence Thomas and what Clinton was accused of by Kathleen Willey: Clinton made a “clumsy sexual pass,” she wrote, but it wasn’t sexual harassment. (Clinton’s “pass,” for the record, involved allegedly groping Willey’s breasts and genitals, then putting her hand on his genitals.)

It should go without saying that whether or not Bill Clinton is running for president at a given moment is beside the point. Neither were Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, or almost all the other famous alleged serial abusers. Nor should it matter that accusers’ claims were cynically used by the Right to damage Hillary Clinton; why do people think Trump’s Access Hollywood tape suddenly emerged a month before the election? At the very least, such arguments can’t justify ignoring the allegations now that the campaign season is over.

If we were to treat the case of Bill Clinton using a standard remotely resembling that applied to abusers like Weinstein, reporters would be tracking down women who wanted to finally open up about their encounters with the former president. Prominent commentators would be referring to Clinton in the same terms as we now refer to Roman Polanski, Woody Allen — and, yes, Weinstein, O’Reilly and others. Bill Clinton certainly wouldn’t be a guest of honor at an event honoring the CEO of a leading children’s book publisher.

Accusations against figures like Bill Clinton are inconvenient for progressives because they require them to denounce their own political standard bearers, even as the latter are subjected to virulent and sometimes baseless right-wing assaults on their characters and records. Such conflicts of loyalty are exactly what lead decent people to look the other way when it comes to people like Harvey Weinstein — he had befriended them, helped them, or shown kindness to them, so the idea of denouncing him seems out of the question. Better to close ranks instead.

But if we want the crime of sexual assault to be taken seriously, it has to be seen as something more than a political football.