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Why Bill Clinton's Sex Scandals Still Matter

The controversy over Bill Clinton's conduct wasn't just the product of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," it was the result of his habit of lying and obfuscation.

Michael Tracey

Bill Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative in September.(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

In January 1999, with the Monica Lewinsky saga nearing its climax (sorry), Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin did the unthinkable. Every single one of his Democratic colleagues had voted to dismiss the pending charges against Bill Clinton, but Feingold dissented, joining with Republicans to allow the impeachment process to move forward. Clinton loyalists were enraged; Feingold's treachery was seen as giving bipartisan credence to a GOP-led witch hunt that had taken the nation into the gutter. But he didn't relent, even going so far as to bemoan in the official Congressional record that "the President's public conduct, not his private conduct, has brought us to this day."

Though he would ultimately vote to acquit Clinton, Feingold—who's running for the Senate in Wisconsin again this year, after having been ousted in 2010—stated that Bill's many deceptions came "perilously close" to warranting conviction and removal from office. Though the impeachment affair is today sometimes remembered as being the product of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" (to quote Hillary Clinton) or a bunch of hypocritical Republican hucksters getting fake-outraged over a blowjob, Clinton wasn't impeached for sexual transgressions as such, and no one forced him to repeatedly lie in public. Perjury and obstruction of justice, the crimes Bill was accused of committing, are both serious felonies that have landed plenty of less-powerful people in prison. Nor was the ensuing furor limited to prurient Republicans: Tim Kaine, Hillary's current running mate, declared in 2002 (when he was lieutenant governor of Virginia) that he believed Bill should have resigned over the matter.

The issue then, as now, was never the sexual indiscretions themselves. Adults are free to indulge in whatever consensual activities they wish. Bill's apparently boundless lust only became a subject of legitimate political concern because he was accused—time and time again, often credibly—of harassing, abusive, and sometimes outright criminal behavior against multiple women. The political dimension became unambiguous when federal government resources were deployed to cover up the misdeeds, an endeavor spearheaded by none other than Hillary, at whose behest Bill's many accusers were regularly tarnished in the media. This sordid process led to an ever-expanding tangle of state-funded scandal, drama, and duplicity, culminating in Bill's December 1998 impeachment by the House of Representatives.

Just is the case with Bill, Hillary's culpability lies in her public actions, not any private romantic matters. As the journalist Gail Sheehy wrote in the 1999 biography Hillary's Choice: "It was Hillary who made the first call, on the morning the [Washington] Post story [reporting that Bill and others allegedly encouraged Lewinsky to lie to lawyers] broke, to establish the line the White House would use."

The "line" was disseminated by way of Sidney Blumenthal—the White House aide and longtime Clinton fixer who was in charge of disseminating talking points to the media. "The First Lady said that she was distressed that the President was being attacked, in her view, for political motives for his ministry of a troubled person," Blumenthal later relayed in sworn testimony. (According to the Starr Report, Bill told Lewinsky he'd had "hundreds" of extramarital sexual encounters—which is a whole lot of ministering.)

So that was the story: Bill was the real victim here, not the intern repeatedly slimed by executive branch employees as a "stalker" who wore her dresses a little too tight. In a letter written several years later to the late writer Christopher Hitchens, Lewinsky personally thanked him for "being the only journalist to stand up against the Clinton spin machine (mainly Blumenthal) and reveal the genesis of the stalker story." Hitchens had stated in a sworn affidavit that he was present when Blumenthal propagated the "stalker" slur at lunch one day in March 1998.

The Lewinsky imbroglio might be the most infamous of Bill's questionable trysts, but it's nowhere near the most morally objectionable. There was Paula Jones, who in another sworn affidavit said that Bill exposed himself and instructed her to "kiss" his penis, actions for which she never offered consent. Clinton ended up paying Jones $850,000 in a lawsuit settlement, a federal judge found him in contempt of court for making "intentionally false" statements, and his law license was suspended. Perhaps most egregious are the allegations of Juanita Broaddrick, who maintains that Bill raped her when he was attorney general of Arkansas and whose story was recounted last month in excruciating detail by Buzzfeed's Katie Baker.

Bill Clinton has never been charged or convicted of sexual assault. Still, there's a vast body of evidence demonstrating that he frequently pursued women in subordinate or vulnerable positions and made use of massive power disparities to obtain sex, including more than once with individuals who subsequently stated that they did not consent to his advances.

The post hoc rationalizations offered always made things worse. The way the Clintons layered half-truth upon half-truth to cover for Bill's conduct—until things spiraled out of control—eerily mirrors the way Hillary has handled her recent email woes. The initial blameworthy act (using a private email server in violation of State Department protocol) has gradually seeped into additional areas of wrongdoing—covering up questionable conduct, repeatedly misleading the public—and though no criminal charges have resulted, what could have been an easily-fixable mishap morphed into a full-fledged debacle.

For their entire political careers, Hillary and Bill have packaged themselves as a single unit: "Two for the price of one" is how a TV reporter characterized it in 1992. Just as Hillary was delegated many important governing responsibilities in the 1990s, so too would Bill under any forthcoming Clinton administration. Hillary herself said in May that she would put him "in charge" of fixing the economy. Whatever else it would mean, Hillary's election would guarantee the return of a known sleazeball to the White House.

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