Harry Truman, George H. W. Bush, and even Herbert Hoover left office in disfavor, only to see their reputations revive (to one degree or another) in retirement. Jimmy Carter, whose defeat after one term nearly 40 years ago made him variously persona non grata or a pain in the neck to his fellow Democrats, has aged into an admired elder statesman, revered around the world for his good works, still teaching Sunday school at 94.
Clinton’s trajectory has been different. He left office in January 2001 with a 65 percent approval rating, the highest of any of his predecessors in a half century. During the contentious, war-torn presidency of George W. Bush, Clinton’s comparatively fat and happy eight years in office seemed a kind of halcyon age for most Democrats. That changed with his sharp-elbowed campaigning on behalf of his wife in her run against Obama in 2008, and revelations about the sometimes sloppy conduct of his postpresidential personal and financial life (including flights on Epstein’s private plane) dimmed his luster further. His famously empathic personality—“I feel your pain”—seemed transmuted into an unbecoming crankiness and sense of grievance (qualities that, to be fair, had long marched hand in hand with more appealing traits).
By the end of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign—in which Donald Trump went so far as to bring three women who’d accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to a debate—the bloom was well off the rose. The following year’s revelations about sexual allegations against powerful men from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer cast Clinton’s history with Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and, above all, Monica Lewinsky in a stark new light. It is a perverse reality that Trump is given a ho-hum pass by the public for repeated allegations of sexual misconduct and comments that would have convulsed the country in Clinton’s day—and that indeed did so—while Clinton’s reputation has been retroactively punished further. Both men should bear responsibility for their actions.