Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Feminists Loved How Clinton ‘Sexualized’ the White House

A Democrat blind spot coming into focus amid today's sex scandals.
bill clinton

As the date for the Alabama Senate special election gets closer, the (if true) appalling revelations about Roy Moore have reignited a dialogue that began with Donald Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape released last year. Moore is merely the latest character in a month-long tsunami of sexual assault allegations that have already claimed Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Al Franken, and so many more.

It also revived a national conversation about Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and all the other allegations of wildly inappropriate (proven) and forcible or illegal (not proven, at least yet) Clinton-era sexual shenanigans. Republicans and conservatives have used “Bubba” as their get-out-of-jail-free card for the past two years. But how can Democrats and feminists object to people like Roy Moore or Donald Trump now, when they went to the edge of the envelope to shield and protect Clinton from similar charges of exploiting vulnerable employees, and even possible rape?

The brouhaha was kicked up many a notch by MSNBC liberal Chris Hayes tweeting:

A-list essayists Caitlin Flanagan and Michelle Goldberg quickly jumped into the fray, with think pieces provocatively titled (especially for non-Right writers), “Reckoning With Bill Clinton’s Sex Crimes” and “I Believe Juanita (Broaddrick).” Matt Yglesias probably outdid them all, writing in Vox that Clinton should have resigned in 1998.

Yet as worthwhile as the reading has been on both sides, it seems like everyone is still walking on eggshells to avoid the central point of exactly how and why “feminists saved Bill (and Hillary) Clinton in the 1990s,” as Flanagan pointed out. They may have been on “the wrong side of history,” but from a liberal or feminist point of view during the culture wars of the 1990s, they certainly didn’t think they were.

For one, there is the central and undeniable fact that Bill Clinton had won in 1992 and 1996 where a quarter-century of Democrats had failed—except for Carter, who wasn’t exactly known for his style or pizazz—largely because he had sexualized the office of the presidency, in a way then unheard of, even including his hero JFK. 1990s feminists knew this inconvenient truth all too well, and indeed, many of them breathed a sigh of relief because of it. Remember what kind of people the Democrats had at the head of their class before “Bubba”: pasty, intensely middle-aged, desexualized Debbie Downers like Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and Mario Cuomo. In the media-conscious world of the ’80s and early ’90s, they racked up one loss after another—1984, 1988, the 1994 mid-terms. The public—especially young people—was saying loud and clear, “We’re Just Not That Into You” to the traditional Democrats. As Michael Kinsley noted, after nominating choirboys since Humphrey in 1968, the Democrats got serious about wanting to win in 1992—and that meant nominating a far from “impotent” (in any sense of the word), irresistible-to-the-media “bad boy” who could get the job done with charisma to spare.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_WuGDYawFQ&w=560&h=315]

Bill Clinton rocked the vote. He went on MTV and discussed what kinds of undies he liked to work out in, and played a smokin’ hot saxophone solo on the Arsenio Hall Show—after he’d already revealed everything (almost) about his and Hillary’s love life on 60 Minutes. And given Clinton’s appointment of women to high office and pro-feminist policies, many liberated women of the time were happy to hear it. “I WANT a President who is alive from the waist down,” exclaimed iconic author Erica (Fear of Flying) Jong in 1998, who also added an aperitif too crude to finish here at TAC. (When asked if the Monica Lewinsky allegations were true, Jong laughed, “Ooh, imagine swallowing the Presidential…….”)  

Toni Morrison famously wrote about Clinton’s “unpoliced sexuality,” and how his being “metaphorically seized and body-searched” by the social Right came all too close to reminding one of the kind of bigoted racial profiling and harassment that young black and brown youths had to endure.

Then there is the so-called “Nina Burleigh rule.” After telling Mirabella magazine in 1998 that she was somewhat flattered when President Clinton’s eyes wandered about her legs when she, a White House reporter, was flying with him on Air Force One, Burleigh explained it further in a New York Observer piece :

When (Washington Post media writer) Howard (Kurtz) asked whether I could still objectively cover the President, having found him so attractive, I replied, “I would be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”

When explaining that quote in The Huffington Post in 2007, Burleigh said,

I said it (back in 1998, but a good quote has eternal life) because I thought it was high time for someone to tweak the white, middle-aged beltway gang taking Clinton to task for sexual harassment. These men had neither the personal experience nor the credentials to know sexual harassment when they saw it, nor to give a good goddamn about it if they did. The insidious use of sexual harassment laws to bring down a president for his pro-female politics was the context in which I spoke.”

Critics today cite this as the “Nina Burleigh rule”—that men who politically champion pro-feminist policies like Bill Clinton shouldn’t be taken to task when they violate those policies personally, including sexual harassment and assault. While critics have cited this for its apparent hypocrisy and double standard, it is nonetheless illuminating. 

For it is unfair to conservatives and to liberals alike, and especially to harassment victims themselves, for people to pretend that the unprecedented defense of Clinton happened in a vacuum, or to erase the very specific context of what was happening in 1980s and ‘90s politics (the mainstreaming of the Religious Right, the rise of un-fact-checked tabloid/reality TV and buzzy 24-hour news cycles, the inability of Democrats to elect a “traditional” candidate) that led up to it. The real echo of the Clinton-era battles isn’t in today’s (very important) national conversation about sexual harassment and assault; it’s in today’s zero sum politics of “resisting” The Other—whether it’s Mitch McConnell’s 24-7 obstruction of Barack Obama, or an Antifa activist saying free speech is violence while s/he punches people they think are “evil.”

The outspoken gay writers Edmund White and David Ehrenstein knew the name of this tune. In several articles, both of them have said that what galvanized the LGBT Left in favor of gay marriage (which many leftier gays had written off initially, as a straight-washing attempt to erase proud urban gay culture in favor of a campy gay version of Mary Hartman/Stepford Wives suburban “normalcy”), was the muscle-bound opposition to gay marriage and gay people trying to be “respectable” by the social right. In effect, they said, “We want to have it because they don’t want us to have it.”  

That was what the Clinton did-he-or-didn’t-he sexual harassment/rape wars were ultimately about, and why feminists ultimately defended him. We want Clinton to survive in office because Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms don’t want him to survive in office. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. In many ways, it was just as simple—and as complex—as that.

Now as to Roy Moore. If the accusations are true, Moore certainly violated codes, Biblical and otherwise, as old as modern civilization, whether he wants to admit it or not. The real test now for voters of all stripes is, what kind of code are they going to recognize this time? Will it boil back down, once again, to “we want to have him because our enemies don’t want to have him”? Or, as Sir Winston Churchill once coined, “It’s the worst solution—except for all the others” politically?

Or, will it be that people who violate moral codes (let alone violate real people), with no discernible remorse or apology, have to face the music—regardless of whether there’s an R or a D next to their name? We saw the answer to that question once before. Let’s hope we are more enlightened today.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTNFrumForumAll About JazzFilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series Pioneers of Television.  



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