Long ago, I was a strong supporter of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, in part because of his early willingness -- as a Bible Belt Democrat -- to seek compromises on government policies linked to abortion. I was even more hopeful about the future of a young politico from Tennessee, Sen. Al Gore, whose pro-life voting record came in at 80-plus percent.
Yes, there was a time when both men were, in the context of the Democratic Party, clearly to the right of center on moral and cultural issues. They weren't "blue dog" Democrats, but they were close.
Now Bill Clinton is creeping back into the news during America's tsunami of headlines -- justified, methinks -- about sexual harassment and worse in Hollywood, inside the DC Beltway and elsewhere. On the cultural and political left, those who are concerned about the Harvey Weinsteins of this world, as well as accusations against one Roy Moore of Alabama, are being asked if they are rethinking their views on former President Clinton. As in this New York Times headline: " 'What About Bill?’ Sexual Misconduct Debate Revives Questions About Clinton."
This is an important story (ditto for this strong online essay at The Atlantic by the always readable Caitlin Flanagan). But as you read it, please see if you sense -- as I do -- the presence of a "religion ghost" (to use the GetReligion term).
You see, Clinton never really repented of his sins -- in legal and political terms. He outlasted his critics, on that front, and survived. Instead, as a progressive Baptist, he did his repenting in religious language that connected with Americans, but had little practical impact. I think that's a crucial element of the story of his survival.
Here is the overture of the New York Times piece:
WASHINGTON -- Another woman went on national television this week to press her case of sexual assault by a powerful figure. But the accused was not Roy S. Moore or Harvey Weinstein or Donald J. Trump. It was Bill Clinton.
“I feel like people are starting to believe and realize that I was truly sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton,” Juanita Broaddrick said on Fox News nearly two decades after first going public with her story. “All victims matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. Who cares if you’re straight or you’re gay, or if you believe in God or not. We all have a right to be believed.”
The cultural conversation about women, power and sexual misconduct that has consumed the United States in recent weeks has now raised a question that is eagerly promoted by those on the political right just as it discomfits those on the political left: What about Bill? While Fox News and other conservative outlets revive years-old charges against Mr. Clinton to accuse Mr. Moore’s critics of hypocrisy, some liberals say it may be time to rethink their defense of the 42nd president.
Matthew Yglesias, a liberal blogger who once worked at the Center for American Progress, a pillar of the Clinton political world, wrote on Vox.com on Wednesday that “I think we got it wrong” by defending Mr. Clinton in the 1990s and that he should have resigned. Chris Hayes, the liberal MSNBC host, said on Twitter that “Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”
This piece includes all kinds of language linked to morality, as well as law. But that's it.
Another of the Clinton accusers, a woman with a history of Democratic Party ties, had this to say about the new mini-wave of discussions about Bill Clinton's sins (see video at top of post) in the past:
“It’s about time,” Kathleen Willey, another woman who accused Mr. Clinton of sexual harassment, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from her home in Richmond, Va. “We’ve waited for years for vindication.”
She expressed bitterness that liberals and feminists did not believe her or the other accusers at the time. “They’re hypocrites,” she said. “They worship at the altar of all things Clinton. They’re all over Roy Moore, but they had nothing to say about Bill Clinton when he was accused of doing what he was accused of doing.”
As a rule, feminists and political progressives take it on the chin in this Times piece. However, the judgement is all basically secular, in nature. You would think that, for most Americans, the wars over Bill Clinton were essentially about political policies and nothing more.
The Times did include the following infamous anecdote about Clinton, the press and the moral-religious issue that loomed over the entire debate. It's still amazing to me that a prominent member of the elite Acela-zone press put this image on the record:
Of course, many liberals and Democrats stood by Mr. Clinton despite the allegations because they agreed with his policy stances and did not want to reward those on the other side. Nina Burleigh, a journalist, wrote a column at the time joking that she would give Mr. Clinton oral sex for protecting abortion rights.
It will be interesting, as we watch a growing parade of powerful American men face accusations about various sexual crimes and misdemeanors, to see if any of them try to play the religion card, as opposed to sticking to legal defenses. Judge Moore, for example, is a high-profile Baptist -- but there has been little or no sign of a "Come to Jesus" moment in his current rhetoric.
If Bill Clinton remains a player in this drama, major media outlets -- including the Times -- may want to dig into the past and look at the role that Baptist language and a unique priesthood-of-the-believer worldview played in Clinton's survival strategy. Who else would have the skill to play that card with similar skill?