Overtures to women at the Democratic Convention hit a bit of a thematic speedbump last night when former president Bill Clinton gave the keynote. You can't reference "women in the Clinton era" without inducing some kind of smirk. That's because of what women were to the Clinton era -- he turned them into a vice and villain all at once, allowing his peccadilloes to spill out and get in the way of the work he (time and again) insisted he must get back to doing for the American people. Women were either innocent bystanders (his wife and daughter, his female defenders) or occasions of sin (Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers) or antagonists (Paula Jones, Juanita Broderick). Whatever their role, when “women” and “Clinton” appeared in a headline together, it was never good.
It’s not simply that Clinton’s indiscretions are problematic for the DNC’s message, but how he addressed them during his time in power. Public discussion about relationships between men and women during this period taught us that when a woman exercises her autonomy to sleep with a man, she should be wary of a man with power. Who knows if that power will be leveled against her? Then again, if we are to follow Clinton’s statements, women will be dishonest after an affair.
Accusations against Clinton were so common, his staffers found their own misogynistic methods of attack. Betsey Wright referred to the episodes as "Bimbo Eruptions." James Carville, another Clinton employee, asserted that you could find anything if you dragged a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park. First Lady Hillary Clinton accused the women of being tools of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," at once accusing the women of being liars and also insufficiently dedicated to the liberal cause. Liberal women's groups such as the National Organization of Women defended Clinton, even at the risk of alienating women who'd made similar accusations against men in the workplace.
If these were the only affairs Clinton had as a father and husband (rather than as a young, uncontained bachelor), then we know that all of his affairs were volatile at the same time as they were transactional. After all, we only heard about them because the accusing women said they felt abused. Clinton denied it every time. Under oath, he would eventually admit it. But, he would insist, he never mistreated anyone.
If there were other, mature, validating, consensual, even affectionate affairs that speak to this strange decency, we may never know. But in order to rule out the bad ones, must we assume that there were many more of the good ones? Could such affairs exist, and would their existence really make things better?
The national discussion turned to the question of whether it "mattered." Could such a man still be effective in higher office? Never mind that shortly before Clinton's presidency, Democrats (led by then Sen. Joe Biden) applied quite a different standard to Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court nomination hearings, when they accused him of sexually harassing a woman. Whether or not such scandals can cripple a presidency (they did), they do make us wonder whether it's possible to respect women when objectifying them, or worse, when vilifying them.
The most callous metric for whether it mattered was the economy. Clinton's economy was a good one, sure, but not because of the success of his own agenda. He was willing to tack to the center and work with Republicans who took over Congress in 1994 -- the prologue to the Tea Party -- which led to major breakthroughs like welfare reform.
Otherwise, once he was impeached for perjuring himself while under investigation, his agenda (and that of his party, including its feminists) faltered. He lost his law license. His vice president, Al Gore, distanced himself from the lame duck president, and eventually lost the presidential election. Democrats wouldn’t have a congressional majority until six years later.
Even after the sexually charged falls of John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, and Anthony Weiner, Clinton became stuck in time as the perpetual punchline (link is an Onion article that's very NSFW, which is sort of the point). The world kept spinning. After spending years as a Clinton "war room" staffer preparing officials to appear on Sunday shows to defend the president against "baseless allegations," George Stephanopoulos hosts a Sunday show on ABC. The Drudge Report, which broke the news of Clinton's "other life," is the largest, most successful news site on the Internet. Even Clinton's wife, Hillary moved on to give Obama a run for his money in the primary, something the former president hurt as much as he helped.
Imagine that -- a former president who couldn’t line up his party behind his wife, a sitting senator, who would have been the first female president. His powerlessness to control himself led to powerlessness in his own party.
But then we come back to the women. The ones he neglected were the most important women in his life, his wife and daughter. The ones he paid attention to were the ones who would somehow become his enemies, which made him pay attention to them more as a professional matter.
The DNC may have been glad to have a two-term president nominate Barack Obama for re-election last night. But Clinton’s appearance was a weird reminder that while the Democrats want to appeal to women, they don’t mind misogynists either.