I’ll never get tired of writing about this story because I remember it so clearly. I remember the constant, reflexive defensiveness from the professional left in a time before blogs allowed people to personally challenge the received wisdom coming from their newspapers and television. Every day there were new defenses of Bill and Hillary and new attacks on their accusers. The voices on the right who disagreed, who chose to swim against the tide, were considered retrograde primitives. Puritans. They were people who refused to accept that it was no longer the 1950s. Everyone lies about sex, get over it losers.
I remember once getting in an argument, almost 20 years ago, with an older professional woman. She was a judge who I admired and liked and she had a fondness for Bill Clinton which wasn’t diminished by the fact he was a lying creep. I found her view disappointing, to say the least. But by then it was nothing new. The entire left had brushed aside Bill Clinton’s sleazy behavior and embraced how cool he was. Any voices to the contrary were shoved roughly aside, especially the women who accused him:
In the new documentary series The Clinton Affair, during a section devoted to the story of Paula Jones, there’s footage from an episode of The Tonight Showthat aired in 1997, when Jones’s allegations of sexual harassment against Bill Clinton were an ongoing source of fascination for Americans. The sketch, prerecorded and presumably set in Little Rock, Arkansas, featured the fictionalized “Jones” emerging from a trailer. Her skirt was short. Her hair was big. Her stride was hip-first. Those gags were mere accessories, however, to the primary joke of the sketch, a visual punch line that punched decidedly down: the prosthetic nose, long and bulbous and intentionally grotesque, that the actress playing Jones wore to complete the simulation. The late-night camera zoomed in on it, menacingly, mockingly. The studio audience, as they got a closer and closer view of it, howled with laughter.
The American media, making fun of the woman who had accused the president of sexual harassment: It was a form of cruelty that would be repeated many times over, not just when it came to Jones, but also when it came to other women associated with Clintonian scandal. Gennifer Flowers, for one. Monica Lewinsky, for another. Here were accusations that the president had abused women as he had abused his power, and here was the court of public opinion offering its own verdict on the matter: It was the women who were at fault. They were treated, in many quarters, with a degree of sighing annoyance—“these women,” a Washington Post columnist wrote of Flowers and others, “crawling out from under rocks”—and greeted, in pop culture as well as in politics more narrowly, as sources of unwelcome disruption. They were dismissed on the terms that so many women who are deemed to be inconvenient are: They were belittled, in the most public of forums. For their appearances. For their accents. For their hairstyles. For their sexuality. Leno on Lewinsky: “She told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah—she didn’t want to give up her sex life.”
Again, the message at the time was that those who had a problem with Bill’s sex life needed to loosen up and take a more cosmopolitan view. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the era when Harvey Weinstein made his name as a producer and as a sexual abuser of young, vulnerable women.
Frankly, I wonder if Harvey wasn’t just listening to the messages flowing through the culture at the time and believing them. By 1998, when the full pro-Clinton backlash was washing over the landscape, Weinstein must have felt the entire culture had his back. And, in a way, it did. The message being sent to the accusers of powerful men was unmistakable: Sit down and shut up or else. There’s a reason it took 20 years for these stories to belatedly get a hearing in public.
The status quo is a sturdy thing. People will rise to defend it. Cultural apparatuses will rise to defend it. Twenty years ago, many of them defended Bill Clinton by way of belittling the women who would disrupt his otherwise popular presidency. They suggested that those women were cheap, and manipulative, and ugly, and unruly. That they would have been better off staying silent and complacent. America has its own ways of abusing its power.
No, that’s not it.
It wasn’t “America” that abused its power. It wasn’t America that ridiculed Bill’s accusers as ugly and stupid, which told them in so many words to shut up and go away. That came from roughly half of America, or more specifically, it came from people looking to tickle the ears and funny bones of roughly half of America, i.e. the progressive half that is still struggling to come to terms with its defense of Bill Clinton.