When It Comes to ‘What About the Clintons,’ Journalists Keep Playing Into Conservatives’ Hands

Award-Winning Short Doc: Care in Chaos

Commentary The Politics of Politics

When It Comes to ‘What About the Clintons,’ Journalists Keep Playing Into Conservatives’ Hands

Imani Gandy

They should be concentrating on those in power, on both sides of the aisle, who have continued to propagate a cycle of harassment and abuse.

In an obvious attempt to deflect from the fact that Alabama is about to elect a man accused of straight-up assaulting young teenagers to the U.S. Senate, conservatives have been doing what they do best: using the Clintons as a force field.

Discussions about Roy Moore’s alleged proclivities for molesting girls and women as young as 14 have devolved among conservative propagandists like Sean Hannity and the ne’er-do-wells at Breitbart News into discussions about Bill Clinton’s reportedly predatory behavior first when he was governor and then when he was president of the United States. And because the sins of the husband must be visited upon the wife, shots about about Hillary’s complicity in her husband’s alleged crimes and indiscretions have once again been fired.

One expects conservatives to turn any scandal into a reflection of the Clintons, as Dov Fischer does in this piece for the American Spectator. But some left-of-center journalists are joining in, re-litigating a matter that most of us—at least the people that I know—have already addressed. Instead of playing into conservatives’ hands, they should be concentrating on those in power, on both sides of the aisle, who have continued to propagate a cycle of harassment and abuse.

We on the left are nothing if not experts in punching ourselves in our own faces. So Republicans’ cynical game of whataboutism seems to have lit a spark among a handful of white male journalists who apparently have just now decided that Bill Clinton’s reported behavior during his governorship and presidency was inappropriate and, in some cases, predatory.

On Tuesday, Dylan Matthews published an article for Vox explaining the rape allegations against Bill Clinton. I get that Vox is known for its explainers, but it’s November 2017 and Katie J.M. Baker at BuzzFeed wrote what is, to me, the definitive piece on Broaddrick’s allegations in August of last year.

Meanwhile, Matt Yglesias published an article, also for Vox, on Wednesday proclaiming that he’d changed his mind about Clinton and that the former president’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky was about “men abusing their social and economic power over younger and less powerful women.” Yeah, no kidding.

It’s not just Vox, though. Last week, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted, “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is, it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.”

We are?

Because in the circles that I run in—and admittedly, those circles are decidedly less white and male than the circles that Hayes and Yglesias seem to run in—we’ve already closed the book on Bill Clinton.

I don’t know too many Black people who still ride for Bill Clinton the way we did in 1992. (And good for us, Black people, but really—we need to have a talk about R. Kelly. Way too many of us are still riding with him. But I digress.)

But it’s not just about the fact that mainstream male journalists are arriving to this conclusion years after everyone else and treating it like a revelation. It’s that they’re continuing to overlook another prominent example of mistreatment on the left that has been unaddressed for years. Because in the circles that I run in—again, they are decidedly more woman-y and melanin-enhanced than your average Vox party—we understand that Justice Clarence Thomas was the prelude to the symphony of scandal that would become Bill Clinton’s second term.

If the left and left-of-center want to have some great reckoning about power dynamics between men and women in the workplace, and our complicity in a culture of harassment, that reckoning needs to start with a sincere and public apology to Anita Hill and a strong condemnation of former Vice President Joe Biden.

In his “I think Bill Clinton should have resigned” mea culpa, Yglesias wrote, “The United States, and perhaps the broader English-speaking world, is currently undergoing a much-needed accountability moment in which each wave of stories emboldens more people to come forward and more institutions to rethink their practices.”

“Looking back, the 1998 revelation that the president of the United States carried on an affair with an intern could have been that moment,” he continued.

Sure, it could have been. But a more seminal one came seven years prior in 1991. That was when Anita Hill, then a 35-year-old law professor, stood before the all-white male panel of the Senate Judiciary Committee and testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. For her efforts, she was humiliated and slut-shamed. Then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), who was the head of that committee, allowed the degradation of Anita Hill to go on seemingly endlessly. He did nothing to stop the insulting and invasive inquiries to which she was subjected.

But it went further than that. By any account, Biden—and the rest of the committee—horribly botched the hearing by precluding corroborating witnesses and other women who had lodged similar complaints about Thomas from testifying.

For example, Judiciary Committee investigators were able to locate and interview one woman who had never met or worked with Anita Hill. Her name was Angela Wright and she alleged a pattern of harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas.

Apparently convinced that her testimony would be important to the proceedings, the committee subpoenaed Wright to appear and testify. Wright flew to Washington, D.C., prepared to appear before the judiciary committee and corroborate Hill’s testimony about Thomas’s harassing behavior, which included, in one instance, a question about Wright’s bra size.  This might have strengthened Hill’s case.

But, as Salon reported in 2010, “the committee never called Wright, and instead simply entered the transcript of her interview into its record on the eve of the final vote. The details of her interview were buried in press reports.”

That was the end of that. And a reported predator sits on the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States.

On Monday, apparently in connection with his plan to lose another primary in 2020 (he’s run for president three times and lost the primary three times—it’s time to pack it up, Uncle Joe), Biden “apologized” to Anita Hill on Monday at Glamour’s Women of the Year summit.

“Let’s get something straight here. I believed Anita Hill,” Biden said. “I voted against Clarence Thomas.”

“I am so sorry that she had to go through what she went through. Think of the courage it took her to come forward,” he added.

That’s not an apology, Joe. She “had to go through what she went through” because you put her through it. Critics have long said that, as the committee chair, you should have called corroborating witnesses to testify and shielded Hill from the slut-shaming and humiliation she underwent. You should have grilled Thomas about his sexual conduct, including his supposed penchant for pornography, rather than making a side deal with Republicans to keep those sorts of topics off-limits. You owed it to Hill to give her allegations proper consideration. And by all accounts, you failed to do that.

You want a reckoning, everyone? Reckon with that. Don’t let Biden sweep Hill to the side with a half-assed apology that does not admit his complicity in her public shaming.

For that matter, setting aside that a decades-late apology smacks of a cynical ploy to try to curry favor with Black women voters, it’s not too far-fetched to say that Biden helped set the stage for “Slick Willy.” Clinton might have been forced to resign if Thomas’ confirmation hearings hadn’t already demonstrated that Democrats were more than willing to roll over and let powerful men off the hook on their way to the upper echelons of power.

Yglesias is right: We are in the midst of an accountability moment. As he wrote, “we ought to recognize and admit that we had a chance to do this almost 20 years ago—potentially sparing countless young women a wide range of unpleasant and discriminatory experiences, or at a minimum reducing their frequency and severity. And we blew it.”

Well actually, Matt, we had a chance to do this more than 25 years ago. We could have prevented an alleged predator from obtaining a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court and shown that when women speak up about sexual harassment, they should be taken seriously. Unfortunately, that was not Anita Hill’s experience.

So yeah: We did blow it. But it’s not too late.

On Twitter yesterday, I was asked if I thought it was time for self-reflection on moments when Democrats failed to demonstrate the moral standards they claim to defend now. The answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” The fact that male left-of-center journalists like Hayes and Yglesias think we should reckon with our complicity in the current culture of harassment that plagues society is a good thing. We should get into that.

But we should spend the energy we otherwise would spend tilting at Clinton windmills on seeking justice for Anita Hill. Dig into the allegations that surfaced last year about Thomas sexually harassing then-Truman scholar Moira Smith at a dinner party at his house.

I get it, dudes: Dunking on the Clintons is fun. But it’s pointless now.

Neither Clinton is running for office. Neither Clinton holds political office. Neither Clinton is in power in any significant way.

But do you know who is?

Clarence Thomas. Roy Moore. Donald Trump. So instead of getting bogged down in the Clinton mire, why not concentrate on exposing the men who still have power and who are still potentially exploiting it and harming women in the process? Why not focus on urging men like Joe Biden to actually take responsibility for their actions, instead of offering empty platitudes as apologies?

Bill and Hillary Clinton are old news.

It’s time we start acting like it.