I’m excising a few hundred words, but you’re encouraged to click through and read the essay in its entirety. “Thought-provoking” may be a cliche, but it certainly describes this essay.
Bill Clinton should have resigned, by Matthew Yglesias (Vox)
What he did to Monica Lewinsky was wrong, and he should have paid the price.
Many years ago, when I was a high school student making my first visit to Washington for a two-week summer camp for weird politics dorks, the dominant news story was then-President Bill Clinton’s August 17, 1998, admission that despite earlier denials, he “did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.”
“In fact,” Clinton conceded, “it was wrong,” and it “constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”
In the days before the admission, there was considerable conviction in the chattering classes that the allegations, if true, would end up leading to Clinton’s resignation. That proved to be incorrect. Clinton was not shamed into resigning, and senior leaders of the Democratic Party did not pressure him into resigning.
At the time I, like most Americans, was glad to see Clinton prevail and regarded the whole sordid matter as primarily the fault of congressional Republicans’ excessive scandal-mongering. Now, looking back after the election of Donald Trump, the revelations of massive sexual harassment scandals at Fox News, the stories about Harvey Weinstein and others in the entertainment industry, and the stories about Roy Moore’s pursuit of sexual relationships with teenagers, I think we got it wrong. We argued about perjury and adultery and the meaning of the word “is.” Republicans prosecuted a bad case against a president they’d been investigating for years.
What we should have talked about was men abusing their social and economic power over younger and less powerful women.
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 …
Skipping to the conclusion. The author was a “sophisticated high schooler,” although I was 38 years old, and made exactly the same Euro/Mitterand argument numerous times from behind the Public House’s bar. Problem is: apples versus oranges.
We can’t change the past, but we should be clear about it
Building a firm line around that kind of activity would give any organization a stronger, healthier culture. Our expectations for the conduct of the president of the United States should be high, and we should treat men’s abuse of authority over younger female subordinates for sexual purposes as a serious, endemic social problem, not a private marital issue between the boss and his wife.
My guess is that in the years to come, most left-of-center people born in the 1980s will say that if they’d been old enough to have a view on the matter back in 1998, they would have favored pressuring Clinton to resign. I hope that is the case, at least. Most young Democrats backed Bernie Sanders over Clinton in 2016 and are accustomed as a result to the idea of an emotionally and intellectually hostile attitude toward “the Clintons.”
Unfortunately for me, I’m a little too old to get away with claiming to have had no opinion on this at the time. My version of a sophisticated high schooler’s take on the matter was that the American media should get over its bourgeois morality hang-ups and be more like the French, where François Mitterrand’s wife and his longtime mistress grieved together at his funeral.
As a married 30-something father, I’ve come around to a less “worldly” view of infidelity. As a co-founder of Vox, I’d never in a million years want us to be the kind of place where men in senior roles can get away with the kind of misconduct that we’ve seen is all too common in our industry and in so many others.
Most of all, as a citizen I’ve come to see that the scandal was never about infidelity or perjury — or at least, it shouldn’t have been. It was about power in the workplace and its use. The policy case that Democrats needed Clinton in office was weak, and the message that driving him from office would have sent would have been profound and welcome. That this view was not commonplace at the time shows that we did not, as a society, give the most important part of the story the weight it deserved.
As the current accountability moment grows, 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.