A number of notable liberals have recently decided to start taking allegations of sexual assault against former President Bill Clinton seriously. Let’s just say that discarding the Clintons when they’re no longer politically useful in order to retroactively grab the higher moral ground isn’t exactly an act of heroism. But if we’re going to relitigate history, let’s get it right.
In The New York Times, for example, Michelle Goldberg spends around 75 percent of her column titled “I Believe Juanita” rationalizing why it was OK not to believe Juanita Broaddrick, who credibly accused Bill Clinton of rape decades ago. You won’t be surprised to learn that Goldberg claims the politics and conspiracy mongering of conservatives provoked skepticism among liberals — excuses that will be awfully familiar to anyone following the justification of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s supporters.
The most notable problem with Goldberg’s contention is that the Broaddrick allegation was uncovered by NBC News, not Richard Scaife. Well, specifically, it was uncovered by NBC News after the network sat on the story throughout the president’s impeachment proceedings. According to the network, the story had to be put through an arduous fact-checking process that included figuring out where Clinton had been the day of the alleged rape — something that had been worked out in a few days’ time.
Then again, the myth that most of the media was enthusiastic about uncovering damaging stories related to Clinton’s background persists today. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, for example, both had their hands on Broaddrick’s rape allegation in 1992 but dropped the story. It’s also worth remembering that reporter Michael Isikoff was suspended after fighting with his editors at the Washington Post for having dragged their feet on the Paula Jones story in 1994. And in 1998, Isikoff’s reporting on Monica Lewinsky for Newsweek was shelved until the Drudge Report brought it to the public’s attention. Only after that point did the reporting take off.
In any event, Broaddrick’s story had a short shelf life despite the fact that five witnesses claimed she had told them about the rape right after it happened. There were other credible sexual assault allegations against Clinton that went largely ignored.
However reluctant editors might have been in moving forward with these stories, though, the fact is that most of them were ultimately brought to the public’s attention by established news organizations, not shady right-wing outlets. Still, Democrats weren’t just skeptical of these women; they often treated them with disdain and smeared them for political expediency.
Even today, there is so much throat clearing and blame shifting when it comes to talking about Clinton that it is highly unlikely the dynamics have really changed. Goldberg, for instance, links to a Brian Beutler article in which he cautions liberals to treat future accusations against Democrats in the same way liberals treated Broaddrick.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes recently tweeted, “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is, it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.” Why is it gross to point out that Democrats were celebrating Clinton only last year at the Democratic National Convention — a convention focused specifically on the ascension of women in public life — even though everyone was privy to all facts regarding his behavior?
In 1998, reporter Nina Burleigh famously wrote that not only would she “be happy” to perform fellatio on Clinton for keeping abortion legal (talk about a straw man) but also that “American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” Burleigh was an honest liberal who made the moral calculus that whatever Clinton’s sins might be, his fight against the imaginary theocracy was well worth the degradation of a few women. Attacks on Clinton, she later explained, were an “insidious use of sexual harassment laws to bring down a president for his pro-female politics.”
Although it wasn’t said aloud often, the actions of the entire Democratic Party confirmed Burleigh’s position, in spirit if not in action. The Clintons were counting on it. An unhealthy veneration for presidents and a deep disdain for the other side induces people to rationalize the worst kind of votes. It is the same calculus some partisans use when defending Moore or Sen. Bob Menendez. But it takes no “courage” to speak up later — certainly not decades later; certainly not when your purpose is transparently partisan. This isn’t a reckoning as much as it is a face-saving.