Sunday's debate spectacle exposed the bizarre hypocrisy of sex and politics in America
The last month of any U.S. presidential campaign is often a slugfest, with no holds barred. Typically, by this point the race has narrowed to just a few percentage points and the rival candidacies are eager to exploit whatever new source of prospective advantage — however ugly — they can find.
Still, the spectacle of four women who once accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault sitting together at last Sunday’s nationally televised presidential debate may have set a new low even by American standards. Donald Trump, who had deliberately invited the women to embarrass the ex-president and his wife, hurled invective at Clinton, whose face evinced fear, shame and a sense of utter helplessness at being humiliated on camera. Hillary, meanwhile, resting in a chair between her debate interventions, with the four women shooting daggers nearby, looked completely rattled, and at times, even on the verge of tears. The split-screen TV cameras captured these moments indelibly, making voyeurs of us all.
Why would the former First Lady risk exposure of her husband’s – and her own — unseemly legacy by leveling sexual abuse charges at Trump, prompting such an unseemly counterpunch? Sheer desperation is one explanation. Hillary’s been severely under-performing with key demographics and her best chance at recouping her lead may have been to appeal to the sympathies of women, who typically lean Democratic but have been holding out on her, giving Trump, who has led overwhelmingly with men, the coveted “gender gap” advantage. Judging by the latest polls, her campaign’s efforts to depict Trump as a “misogynist pig” unfit for the presidency is swaying some previously undecided women — enough to give her a fresh 5-6 point lead, reversing Trump’s extraordinary late-September surge and sending the entire GOP establishment into a panic.
Part of Hillary’s strategy is to neatly separate herself from her husband and his history of sexual transgression, as if she were a victim, too, or perhaps just an innocent bystander, while he ravaged women for decades with seeming impunity. The problem? It’s a thoroughly disingenuous argument. Hillary, we now know, was instrumental in ruining the reputations of her husband’s accusers, and in the case of Juanita Broddrick, in trying to silence them. But even more to the point, her husband is slotted to become a virtual “co-president” in her administration should she win. Which means Bill Clinton is no mere private First Gentlemen; he’s practically running for office himself again. As such, he is fair game politically, just as much as Trump is — and indeed, so is she, for helping to “rehabilitate” a man who was impeached (and later disbarred) for lying to Congress about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Looking back, there is a long history of presidential aspirants being implicated in unseemly sexual conduct – and most of them turn out to be Democrats. John F. Kennedy cheated on Jackie repeatedly before and during his term as president, and in at least one well-documented case, suborned a young White House intern into serving as his mistress for nearly two years. Two other notorious cases were Democratic presidential candidates Gary Hart (1988) and John Edwards (2008). Neither man committed sexual assault, but Edwards, while his wife lay dying of cancer, took up with his campaign videographer, until the tabloids discovered the affair and like Hart, he promptly withdrew from the race.
There’s also been a string of lesser sex scandals in recent years, most of them involving Democrats. New York Gov Eliot Spitzer, who adored call girls, and Rep. Anthony Wiener, a chronic sex addict who compulsively texted pictures of his penis to virtual strangers, readily come to mind. Both men were considered rising Democratic stars, and some considered Spitzer presidential timber. Another egregious case was Congressional Black Caucus boss Alcee Hastings, who pressured one of his own policy advisors for sex, and threatened to ruin her political career when she refused.
But none of these cases matches that of former Democratic San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. The former Mississippi Freedom Rider groped and harassed advocates for women — including victims of military sexual assault — with impunity for nearly thirty years. Initially, Filner refused to step down — charging that he was the victim of a “witch hunt” – even after the San Diego City Council revoked his status and pay. It took nearly two years of extraordinary pressure to work out a deal to get Filner to go.
There’s no question, of course, that Republicans cross the line with sex, too, often with the same degree of impunity. Former Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who regularly visited prostitutes, but was re-elected by the voters anyway, and liberal Oregon Republican Bob Packwood, who was known to chase his would-be female prey around his conference room table, come to mind. But it’s also clear that the number, scale, and scope of these transgressions pale in comparison to those of high-level Democrats.
Two theories come to mind. First, many Democratic transgressors are heirs to the 1960s counter-culture with its libertine attitudes toward sexual experimentation and sexual fidelity. Women in that era were often accused of being “uptight” if they refused to have sex with men who wanted them. “Hooking up” was supposed to be liberating, for women and men both. Many women say they enjoyed that era’s promiscuous freedom, but others simply succumbed to pressure and sometimes regretted it. Hart, Clinton, Edwards, Hastings, and Filner, among others, all grew to manhood – or perhaps didn’t — in this era; they were deeply socialized in it while Republicans, for the most part, were not.
Second, Democratic politicians more than their GOP counterparts may have a sense of entitlement because of their support for women who are still grossly underrepresented in politics. Women’s advocates are desperate for allies in their fight for reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, and paid maternity leave, among other issues. And with so few friends in the GOP, they have proven far too willing to overlook rumors of sexual transgressions by Democratic politicians just to keep them supporting their cause. In turn, some of the men they approach appear to treat their sexual advances as a just “reward” for their efforts as well as leverage against their prospective accusers.
Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, who chaired the California delegation and knew Filner well, had more than enough evidence from women that he was a “serious problem.” But Filner was also championing legislation supporting women in California, which is why so many advocacy women went to see him to begin with. Many came away feeling shamed and compromised by his unseemly advances, which some tolerated and never reported simply to secure his support for a favored bill. And Pelosi, in the end did nothing, until a group of Democratic women finally revolted and demanded that Filner be held to account.
Hillary Clinton now says that every woman who comes forward with an allegation of rape should be believed – until the evidence suggests otherwise. That sounds promising but she’s never apologized, even privately, to Juanita Broaddrick or her husband’s other victims; and while the allegations were fresh, she stood by while her allies publicly disparaged them as “trailer trash.” And young Monica Lewisnky, just 25, and naively in love with her husband, surely deserved far better than to be dismissed by his wife as a “narcissistic loony tune” and left to the cruel mercies of the tabloid press.
In the end, neither party is immune from the temptation to exploit moral sanctimony for partisan gain. The power stakes are simply too high and American culture too schizoid and prurient about sex to develop healthy boundaries for political discourse. Clinton’s accusers may have gained some satisfaction from seeing their alleged assailant exposed before a live television audience. Or maybe they just felt degraded and humiliated all over again, caught between warring perpetrators in an unseemly public spectacle, with no more justice and peace of mind than they ever had.