Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Clinton Playbook: Bipartisan Survival in the Sex-Scandal Age

“As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.

“Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”—President Bill Clinton, televised address to the nation, August 17, 1998

This past year has witnessed the spectacle of Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner, climbing back into the political arena after being forced from office for assorted sexual peccadilloes. At this point, Sanford has won a Congressional seat, Spitzer still has a chance for victory in his race to become New York City’s Comptroller, and Weiner might have been elected mayor of New York if he had not resumed sexting. 

(Watch John Edwards in another couple of years. Let’s see if he doesn’t try to run for something eventually. The resignation of Bob Filner following a wave of sexual harassment allegations has ended what Conan O’Brien termed the “East Coast-West Coast Perv-Off” between the San Diego Mayor and Weiner, but were it not for Filner being 70 years old, we could have expected a cooling-off period, then another try for office from him, too.)

All of them owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Clinton. Before his survival in the Monica Lewinsky scandal 15 years ago, politicians of both parties would never have even dreamed of remaining in public life after an admitted sexual offense.

It is all so different now. For years, observers abroad—and even quite a few here—wondered why Americans couldn’t get over their Puritanical mores and act more like Europeans, who have always been so civilized when one partner (normally male) steps out on the other.

But a funny thing has happened. The French, who pride themselves on love as much as cheese and wine among their indigenous products, took very seriously indeed the allegation that then-International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn had raped a hotel maid while in New York (and groped a reporter…and patronized prostitutes). The Italians rose up in disgust when then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi paid for sex with an underage prostitute, then sought to cover it up. And King Juan Carlos’ cheating is one of the items that have made the Spanish electorate receptive to ending their monarchy.

Here in the U.S., in contrast, we’re much closer to moral laissez-faire, and it’s not much better than the economic kind. The old order might have prevented the ascension of a few noteworthy talents, but it had a salutary effect: it removed or stalled the rise of politicians with a host of character issues besides simply sexual fidelity.

Client No. 9,” for instance, not only thinks that New Yorkers will greet a “f-g steamroller” as an “old friend,” but arrogantly believes he can make a mockery of campaign-finance reform by paying for his election efforts through his father’s largesse. And “Carlos Danger,” it turns out, has serious anger-management issues to go with his bizarre social-media escapades (even telling drivers, in his days on capitol Hill, that they must make every yellow light).

And then there are the incidents that got these pols into trouble in the first place, regarded alternately as hilarious and creepy. Friends of Huma Abedin from her days in the Clinton White House love her to death, but they can barely manage to get out of the car to meet her husband, Weiner, according to a New York Times account by Amy Chozick and Michael M. Grynbaum.

They ought to ponder a bit more deeply how Huma and Hubby came to this pass. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd got it right when she referred to the former Congressman as “the ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ of the Clintons.”

New York’s newspapers have unanimously derided Weiner for lack of maturity, self-discipline, and the like. But that misbehavior had ample precedent under Clinton. (Do Weiner’s tweets, creepy as they are, compare with Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress—or the antics that the President and his intern had with a cigar?)

Today’s “Quote of the Day,” spoken 15 years ago last month, was the President’s first admission of what many, including his own supporters, had surmised long before: that he had had an affair with Lewinsky. Yet it took him two more speeches over the next month even to begin to put the matter behind him. The fact that he was forced to do something so distasteful owed to the fact that he could not get it right the first time.

It became a public-relations disaster, entirely of his own doing. He had been warned by aides that a quick apology would be far better than the speech he gave. In the end, he spent so much time complaining about a “politically inspired lawsuit” and independent counsel Kenneth Starr that when he said “I deeply regret that,” most viewers correctly believed that he bemoaned the affair less than his suddenly dire political and legal predicament.

The examples I cited previously of scandal-scarred politicos aiming for comebacks may have left an erroneous impression that it was largely Democrats who followed his lead. Far from it. In the glorious tradition of American bipartisanship, Republicans, too, copied Clinton’s Silver Survival Playbook. If progressive Democrats want to know whom to blame for the survival of some of the most obnoxious Republicans, they should look to the Comeback Kid.

Start with Newt Gingrich, another onetime college prof-policy wonk-narcissist who very much wanted to be President in the Nineties. Gingrich’s checkered marital history—leaving a cancer-stricken wife for a younger woman, and engaging in the same pattern of lying and adultery that as Speaker of the House he found impeachable in Clinton’s case—did not stop him from seeking the Presidency more than a decade later. Just as Clinton had engaged in the most barefaced act of chutzpah before an entire nation—i.e., stating that “what began as a friendship came to include this conduct”—so Gingrich was moved to claim that his latest lapse from marital fidelity would “make me more normal than somebody who wanders around seeming perfect and maybe not understanding the human condition and the challenges of life for normal people." (Take that, Mitt Romney!)

And then there was Der Sperminator—excuse me, Terminator. “I was ashamed to call myself a Republican during that period,” Arnold Schwarzenegger told George Magazine in 1999 about the Clinton impeachment crisis.

“Ashamed”? Perhaps not quite the right word. “Frightened” might have been better. After all, if a President could be held accountable for creating a sexually charged environment in which he hit on one woman after another, how would a mere actor—even a box-office king—fare when faced with similar allegations?

And so, when the Los Angeles Times published a story in 2003 claiming that a dozen women claimed they had been sexually harassed by the star, he followed the relevant parts of the Clinton strategy for dealing with “bimbo eruptions”:

1) Confess only in the most general terms. Clinton allowed that he had “caused pain in my marriage"; Schwarzenegger, that he had "behaved badly sometimes...and I have done things that were not right, which I thought were playful."
2       2) Incinerate the reputation of accusers. Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathleen Willey all came under systematic assault from Clinton’s minions. All of them, it was claimed, had motives, notably pecuniary ones, for their allegations against the President. (Direct cross-examination under oath would finally force Clinton, five years after the original allegation, to admit to having relations with Flowers.) Schwarzenegger aides made similar claims about the women who came out against their candidate. A former CNN intern was accused of wanting to discredit the star because she had contributed to Arianna Huffington’s campaign. Another woman was wrongly accused of having a criminal record involving prostitution and drugs.

3    3)   Get the wife on board with your story. From the moment Clinton weighed a run for the Presidency, he needed his wife to support his denials of impropriety. This she continued to do until unmistakable evidence of Clinton’s involvement with Lewinsky emerged in the Starr investigation. Yet Hillary contributed a phrase, “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” that became the governing narrative for Democrats in the impeachment crisis. (What was conveniently forgotten was that, in the same interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show, when asked if it turned out to be true that her husband had a liaison in the White House and tried to cover it up, the First Lady answered, “If all that were proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense. That is not going to be proven true.”) Similarly, Shriver observed about her husband’s accusers: “You can listen to all the negativity, and you can listen to people who have never met Arnold, or who met him for five seconds 30 years ago. Or you can listen to me.” She said this, despite the fact that there were already many tales of her husband’s piggish behavior (including a 2001 Premiere Magazine story, “Arnold the Barbarian,” that accused him of harassing, groping and fondling various film personnel.)

Would California voters have lost much if they had been deprived of Schwarzenegger’s services by a forced entry from the gubernatorial race? Hardly. His approval ratings when he left office—in the 20s, not much higher than the empty-suited, careerist incumbent he beat in a recall election, Gray Davis—testified to voters’ view of his lack of accomplishments. Democrats’ griping in 2003 about the man labeled “Der Gropenator” by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau would have sounded more credible had they taken similar allegations about Bill Clinton with equal seriousness.

Schwarzegger’s admission that he had helped himself to the family help in the late 1990s, producing an illegitimate son, outraged many Californians who had voted for him. But their cries of outrage were misplaced: They knew enough about his behavior beforehand to realize that his ambition was exceeded only by his crudeness.

In the Age of Clinton, voters deserve what they get when they ignore allegations of crass sexual behavior. If New York Democrats elect Eliot Spitzer as Comptroller in Tuesday’s primary, they will be returning to public life a man not only unchecked, but unchastened by revelations of his compulsive misbehavior while governor. These voters will have more than a little in common with the California GOP women who held up signs at Schwarzegger campaign events that read, “Harass ME, Arnold!”—or with former Time reporter Nina Burleigh, who noted that she would be "happy to give [Bill Clinton oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal."

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