Would women still feel comfortable having Bill Clinton back in the White House if his accusers had come forward today instead of twenty years ago?
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Now that Hillary Clinton's democratic nomination for president is all but a done deal, it's an apt time to reflect on what it could mean to have her husband, Bill Clinton, back in the White House. To be sure, over the past decade there's been a sea change regarding public accusations of sexual misconduct against high profile men. Now that we find ourselves in a moment where the media, police, and lawmakers are encouraged to believe victims first, what are we to make of the charges against Bill Clinton? Further, in several incidents, Hillary Clinton not only sprang to her husband's defense but actively tried to discredit the women who came forward.
While Republicans and Trump supporters may use the Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct as ammunition against Hillary's presidential campaign, Bill's treatment of women and Hillary's defense of him is a topic any left-leaning voter should consider while heading into the election season. Let's review.
Rumors of affairs and sexual come-ons swirled around Clinton during his two terms (1979–81, 1983–92) as the Governor of Arkansas, but the first significant bombshell to drop publicly was during Clinton's campaign for president in 1991. Gennifer Flowers, a former TV reporter, said she had a twelve-year affair with Clinton and that he told her to lie about the affair on his behalf when others grew suspicious.
The affair became public when Clinton, then Governor, gave Flowers a position within the state government. Charlotte Perry, another woman who had applied for the position in which Flowers was installed, filed a complaint with the state, alleging that she had been passed over in favor of the Governor's mistress. Flowers was called before a state committee to testify on the matter. According to secretly recorded tapes, later released by Flowers, Clinton told Flowers to lie to the committee and deny their relationship. According to the New York Times, Flowers sold her story to Star magazine for $100,000 after Clinton announced his bid for president.
In response, Bill and Hillary Clinton went on 60 Minutes to deny the allegations. Bill categorically denied the affair, telling Steve Kroft, "That allegation is false." Moments later, Kroft asked the question a different way, and Clinton hedged.
"Are you prepared tonight to say that you've never had an extramarital affair?" Kroft asked.
"I'm not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves," Clinton said. "I'm not prepared to say that about anybody."
The following day, Flowers called a press conference and played the tapes.
Hillary Clinton publicly denounced Flowers as a "failed cabaret singer" who was questing her "15 minutes of fame."
Surrogates for Clinton, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos went on talk shows to declare the tapes as fraudulent.
In 1998, under oath for a deposition in the Paula Jones case (more on that below), Clinton admitted to sleeping with Flowers.
Clinton emerged from the Flowers scandal unscathed and went on to win the presidency. What's more, Hillary's strong defense of her husband gained her favorable reviews in the press and among voters. But it was the 1994 sexual harassment suit brought by Arkansas State employee Paula Jones that catalyzed a series of events that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment.
According to her complaint, Jones was working at the registration desk for a conference in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1991 where then-governor Clinton would be speaking. Jones claimed that an Arkansas State Trooper in plainclothes approached her and "delivered a piece of paper to Jones with a four digit number written on it and said: 'The Governor would like to meet with you in this suite number.'"
Jones, who was a state employee making just over $6 an hour, was excited to meet Clinton and said she thought it might lead to a better job.
Once in his hotel suite, Jones claimed that, after a bit of small talk, Clinton began to compliment her body, touch her, and try to kiss her. "Clinton then approached the sofa and as he sat down he lowered his trousers and underwear exposing his erect penis and asked Jones to 'kiss it,'" according to Jones's suit.
Hillary Clinton publicly denounced Flowers as a "failed cabaret singer" who was questing her "15 minutes of fame.
In the complaint, Jones goes on to claim that she "became horrified" and got up immediately to leave. She described Clinton "fondling his penis" when he said: "'Well, I don't want to make you do anything you don't want to do.' Clinton then stood up and pulled up his pants... As Jones left the room Clinton looked sternly at Jones and said: 'You are smart. Let's keep this between ourselves.'"
Lawyers for Jones looked for other women who might be making similar accusations to support their case.
"They cast a wide net in search of various extramarital activities," says Peter Baker, author of The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton, the definitive account of the impeachment. "In the end, they came up with a collection of allegations that ranged dramatically in credibility from wild stories and third-hand gossip to actual assertions by named women who gave sworn testimony."
Her lawyers deposed two former state troopers, who said they solicited women on Clinton's behalf.
"I would talk to them personally, sometimes give them my business card. If they were from out of town, I would find out where they were staying. If we were out of town and/or in town anywhere in Arkansas, I would try to get their telephone number and introduce them subsequently to the Governor," former state trooper L.D. Brown said in a deposition.
During the depositions, there were rumors circulating in Republican circles that Clinton had raped a woman named Juanita Broaddrick. When private investigators hired by Jones' attorneys asked Broaddrick to file an affidavit detailing the assault she refused, saying, "I just don't want to re-live that. You know, it was just a horrible, horrible thing for me and I wouldn't relive it for anything... you can't get to him, and I'm not going to ruin my good name to do it... there's just absolutely no way anyone can get to him, he's just too vicious." Broaddrick added that she would deny everything to keep herself out of the press. Broaddrick went a step further, filing an affidavit as Jane Doe #5 saying that the rumors about a sexual assault were untrue.
You can't get to him, and I'm not going to ruin my good name to do it.
Despite her refusal, one of Paula Jones' attorneys exposed Broaddrick by using her full name in a 1998 filing in Federal Court. After the press got a hold of her name, Broaddrick decided to tell her version of events to Dateline NBC.
In 1978, during Clinton's gubernatorial run, he visited a nursing home where Broaddrick was an administrator. She expressed interest in volunteering for his campaign, and the two later met to discuss her involvement. According to Broaddrick, some weeks later, Clinton suggested the two meet in her hotel room (where Broaddrick was staying for conference). Once inside her room, Broaddrick, who was married, claimed Clinton attempted to kiss her.
"I pushed him away, I told him, 'No,'" Broaddrick told Dateline's Lisa Myers. During the Myers interview, Broaddrick broke down in tears as she detailed Clinton's alleged physical advances:
Then he tries to kiss me again. And the second time he tries to kiss me he starts biting my lip ... He starts to, um, bite on my top lip and I tried to pull away from him. And then he forces me down on the bed. And I just was very frightened, and I tried to get away from him, and I told him, 'No,' that I didn't want this to happen, but he wouldn't listen to me ... It was a real panicky, panicky situation. I was even to the point where I was getting very noisy, you know, yelling to 'Please stop.' And that's when he pressed down on my right shoulder and he would bite my lip... When everything was over with, he got up and straightened himself, and I was crying at the moment, and he walks to the door and calmly puts on his sunglasses. And before he goes out the door he says, 'You better get some ice on that.' And he turned and went out the door."
Three weeks later, Broaddrick participated in a fundraiser event for Clinton. "I think I was still in denial," Broaddrick told Myers. "I still felt very guilty at that time, that it was my fault. By letting him come to the room, I had given him the wrong idea."
When asked by Myers why she didn't come forward earlier, Broaddrick said, "I just don't think anyone would have believed me."
Broaddrick could not recall the exact date or month of the assault in 1978. The issue of her volunteering and faulty memory were used against Broaddrick in scathing op-eds issued by Clinton supporters and pundits across media platforms. Bill Press, the then co-host of CNN's Crossfire, published an editorial in a 1999 edition of the Los Angeles Times calling Broaddrick's story "fishy," in which he went on speculate about Broaddrick's true motives:
Broaddrick says she told her husband, David, what happened. But, at the time, David was not her husband. He was her boyfriend, with whom she was cheating on her first husband. Question: What if Clinton and Broaddrick had consensual sex? If you're cheating on your husband, and then cheat on your boyfriend, do you tell your boyfriend the truth?
"She did not press charges at the time [of the alleged attack], which is not uncommon but obviously made it harder to evaluate her allegation when it became public more than 20 years later," says Baker, who was a staff writer for The Washington Post at the time. "Her husband and a friend both told us at The Post that she told them about the encounter... and had consistently stuck by her account with them for two decades."
Hillary Clinton was asked about Broaddrick's accusations during at 2015 town hall meeting. Hillary responded, "Well, I would say everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence." Then she moved on to the next question.
Kathleen Willey, a former White House staffer, came forward with her own accusations on behalf of the Paula Jones suit. In a 1998 deposition during the Jones case, Willey said that in 1993, while inside the Oval Office, Clinton kissed her on the lips and touched her breasts. "He put his hands—he put my hands on his genitals," over his clothes, Willey testified.
According to Monica Lewinsky's deposition in the Paula Jones case, Clinton confided that in her that harassment allegation was not true because he would never approach a small-breasted woman like Ms. Willey.
Willey also testified before a grand jury about the alleged incident in the Oval Office, but the jury did not find there was not enough evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to indict Clinton.
Clinton settled the Jones lawsuit out-of-court and agreed to pay her $850,000, but admitted no wrongdoing.
"The president's strategy for defending himself during the scandal was to argue that, at worst, it was personal misconduct exploited by his enemies for partisan purposes, but he was focused on his duties and that was what really mattered," says Baker. This was referred to in pundit circles as the "nuts or sluts" defense: a concerted effort by Clinton operatives to discredit accusers as unstable or promiscuous women.
The Jones suit also led to the testimony of Monica Lewinsky about her affair with Clinton. In his deposition on Lewinsky, Clinton infamously declared, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her." Clinton was later charged with one count of lying under oath and one count of obstruction of justice in December 1998, which resulted in his impeachment (the technical term for bringing criminal charges against a sitting president) by a Republican-ruled House of Representatives. In order to have him removed from office, the Senate would have needed a two-thirds majority to find Clinton guilty. No Democratic Senator voted "guilty," and Clinton was acquitted in January 1999.
For her part, Hillary Clinton dismissed her husbands accusers and Monica Lewinsky as pawns in a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to undermine her husband.
After the dust settled following the impeachment, Baker says there have always been "whispers and rumors and occasional suggestions in print" about other women, but nothing definitive.
Due to all of the sexual details that emerged during independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation, "many people did decide that it was a witch hunt," Baker says. He adds, "It's a conclusion certainly fueled by subsequent revelations about sexual misconduct by some of the same Republicans who pursued President Clinton, most recently former House Speaker Dennis Hastert."
"At the same time, there were serious questions involved, including whether a president was entitled to give false testimony under oath—as he eventually admitted doing—simply because the topic was about sex and the people asking the questions were out to get him," Baker says.
In terms of how it might influence Hillary Clinton's run, Donna Lent, President of the National Women's Political Caucus, told Broadly that, in the reprising of Bill Clinton's past, "Secretary Clinton is being held to a different standard than the men also seeking the nomination. Americans care about the economy, job creation, crime reduction, pay equity, and keeping America safe... Hillary Clinton is running for president, not her husband."
Still, it's difficult to imagine that Hillary and other democratic pundits would still have the same hostile to response to accusers had these allegations been made today rather than twenty years ago.