Nineteen years ago today the world was fixated upon the impeachment proceedings of American President Bill Clinton. The impeachment was the consequence of a decades long pattern of abusive behavior that featured the young President’s flagrant womanizing and leveraging the perks of public office for his own sexual appetites. That was only part of the story though. It was also the beginning of a new age of American politics where rhetoric and partisan bickering were ramped up to unprecedented levels and nothing was off limits. In the course of this political fight the American public learned intimate details of our president’s sexual patterns and even his private parts. Many would say the office was degraded as never before not only by the philandering President but also by unrestrained assaults from the conservative Republican establishment.
I was a young married man and father at that time, and also a conservative. It was difficult to not be caught up in the partisan rancor. President Clinton was proving what many had warned about him going as far back as his time as governor of Arkansas. He was irresponsible, immoral, and held no respect for the office or his oaths as president. He was setting a horrible example and standard for America. He earned the nickname “Slick Willie” and his manipulations and lackadaisical posture toward the truth would have been funny if not so sad.
The dominant liberal voices in the media countered that what the President does in his private life was none of our business. When the President ultimately outlasted the scandal many in the media worked diligently to shame the views and voices of social conservatives for what was seen at the time as a historical overstep into the personal life of the President.
Almost two decades later we stand today at a unique historical juncture. In the current light of almost daily revelations of sexual abuse scandals from Hollywood to Washington DC to Wall Street the Clinton scandals are suddenly receiving renewed, albeit retrospective, attention.
It began two weeks ago when loyal Hillary Clinton supporter and Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand stated her belief that President Clinton should have resigned when knowledge of his sex scandals became public in the 90s. This was a shocking statement from the woman filling Hillary Clinton’s former seat in the Senate. Many calculated the statement as easy talk twenty years after the fact especially in the context of the current scandals being headlined in the media. Talk is cheap when there are no real costs involved.
It didn’t stop there though. Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic has published several pieces documenting the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of the Democratic political establishment for having given President Bill Clinton a pass in the 90s but still suggesting they can arbitrate political correctness and morality in today’s scandalized environment. In a recent appearance on the NPR program On Point Ms. Flanagan went even further:
“The single most important thing to keep in mind about Juanita Broaddrick [an alleged Bill Clinton sex abuse victim] , as we think about whether or not the party needs to make a reckoning both for political reasons and if it’s possible for moral behavior to coexist with politics for moral reasons, is that what JuanitaBroaddrick has consistently reported and contemporaneously told five other people is far worse than anything Trump’s been accused of.”
Flanagan is not a Republican. She is not a Trump supporter. She is simply calling it as it is.
This new narrative on the Clinton scandals is not only targeting the Clintons but also the media and liberal establishments as a whole. The people and organizations who should have stood up to Bill Clinton in the ‘90s instead came to his defense and turned on his victims.
The notorious 1998 New York Times op-ed by Gloria Steinem must surely stand as one of the most regretted public actions of her life. It slut-shamed, victim-blamed, and age-shamed; it urged compassion for and gratitude to the man the women accused. Moreover (never write an op-ed in a hurry; you’ll accidentally say what you really believe), it characterized contemporary feminism as a weaponized auxiliary of the Democratic Party.
Called “Feminists and the Clinton Question,” it was written in March of 1998, when Paula Jones’s harassment claim was working its way through court. It was printed seven days after Kathleen Willey’s blockbuster 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley. If all the various allegations were true, wrote Steinem, Bill Clinton was “a candidate for sex addiction therapy.” To her mind, the most “credible” accusations were those of Willey, who she noted was “old enough to be Monica Lewinsky’s mother.” And then she wrote the fatal sentences that invalidated the new understanding of workplace sexual harassment as a moral and legal wrong: “Even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb, and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” Steinem said the same was true of Paula Jones. These were not crimes; they were “passes.” (Atlantic Magazine)
Today, almost twenty years later, this is the moment when conservatives, Christians, people who knew what was right and wrong 20 years ago should be getting their comeuppance. This is the moment when we get to say, “I told you so.” It is the moment when we get to point out how there is such a thing as right and wrong and it cannot be compromised for the sake of political expediency, modern moral relativism, or political power gains.
Unfortunately, most American conservatives and Christians are missing out on this moment. While they have never stopped shouting their distrust and disgust at the Clintons something else happened along the way. Today many of those Christians who knew what was right and what was wrong in the 1990s have plugged their ears and covered their eyes toward the situation in Alabama. While a conservative Republican Senatorial candidate in Alabama is facing numerous accusations of having preyed upon teenage girls when he worked as a prosecutor, too many Christians have decided to hold their tongue. While the Republican candidate for President in 2016 was caught on tape speaking obscenities and bragging about his sexual conquests, too many Christians decided to look the other way.
We cannot expect this selling of the moral high ground for the sake of political gains to not come at a cost. Today many Christian Republican conservatives are occupying the same seat of weak-kneed compromise we watched liberal Democrats waffle upon in the 1990s. To put it another and more damning way, they have gained political wins at the expense of their own soul.
What does it profit a man to gains the whole world but loses his own soul? Mark 8:36
The current state of affairs is more than merely an ironic twist of history. It is a tragedy of multiple levels. Chief among these tragedies is the part played by the victims in these scandals and revelations. From Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey to Roy Moore to Al Franken and the many others on this growing list, the victims should be a top priority.
There is a second level to these tragedies that is less obvious but I fear it will become more so in the coming weeks. Our society and culture is increasingly finding itself short of anyone with the depth of character and integrity to cast the first stone. Many of those pointing the fingers at Hollywood titans have been beneficiaries of an industry that has consistently and aggressively objectified women and hypersexualized our media to the point that few are surprised by the allegations and revelations filling the headlines. Currently it is all very sensational but I predict it will not be long before the accusations begin to ring hollow.
To this same point, is anyone really surprised that the seats of our government are occupied by so many dirty old men? Do we really believe a new ethics committee investigation in Congress will bring about change? This is the blind leading the blind.
As a Christian believer the vacuum left by the church in the place of the moral high ground is most devastating. When the stakes of right and wrong, regardless of political party, were traded for power the American church and its leaders left the victims of these scandals undefended and without a safe and secure to place to which they could retreat. We left the boundaries of social norms and definitions of right and wrong unprotected and subject to moral ambiguity whose ultimate determinant is based upon power and not the truth of God.
Recommended Reads & Listens:
Check out this interview with Caitlin Flanagan this week via the NPR talk show On Point. (Warning, you don’t want to listen to this one with children present.)
Check out our podcast episode that covered the Clinton scandals within the context of the History of the Religious Right.
Read this popular piece on Feminism from a couple years back.