Bill Clinton's Immunity
Amidst all of the attention being given to Hillary Clinton's inevitable presidential run, there awaits a debate that must provoke intense and thoughtful commentary. The prospect of returning Bill Clinton to the White House tests our objectivity and risks widening the gap between those with and without privilege.
While president, Bill Clinton entered into a sexual relationship with an employee, showing flagrant insensitivity to the “power dynamics” underpinning their affair. He conducted liaisons in the White House which still strike notes of incredulity. When confronted by accusations, he twisted language with artful deliberateness and was able, quite remarkably, to set aside the internal strictures of conscience and personal responsibility.
These facts are not for debate but are now even more relevant. We should accept that his actions did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense, even taking into consideration his less than honest responses when questioned about them. It proved a miscalculation to have pursued that course as its failure has permitted many to imagine, mistakenly, that he has been absolved.
A prospective role for Clinton as a sitting president's Richelieu trumps any argument that what transpires in a marriage is inherently personal and private. By acting as he did while president, Bill Clinton frames a very contemporary question.
Should the most successful feel connected or untethered to our social and moral values?
For better or worse, we live in a time when probity has become fashionable. Emails are dissected, people are Googled, and decades-old accusations pursue accountability and the perception of legal or moral fairness. Concerns about inequality are not restricted to income but are reflections on the protection that wealth and power can afford.
How immune will Clinton appear to other flawed men and women when, as voluble and affable as ever, he waxes on the Sunday shows? The camera’s embrace will suggest that there is little price to pay for public mendacity and clever deception.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote presciently of “defining deviancy down”, meaning that previously unacceptable behavior tends to migrate inexorably ever closer to the public norm. Ten minutes of comparative viewing of Turner Classic Movies and HBO will validate this thesis.
Liberalization has value in opening societies and challenging stolid orthodoxy as long as the less powerful and aspiring (especially adolescents) learn social boundaries, or the lack thereof, by successful precedents and tolerated social strategies.
Young women, in particular, may find confusion in accepting a man who, only steps away from his daughter’s room, skated on the very edge of sexual abuse, lied brilliantly, and consigned another young woman to the wellspring of mockery.
And what an empowering message to the 1 or 5 % separated from ordinary working and middle class people! If you manage it right and marry another very capable Yalie, you have a pass on your own moral reckoning, since you can re hitch to another star.
The more cynical will ask "What harm, even if foul?” or "Why should anyone care?" One pragmatic reason is that in our political lexicon, missteps or even the appearance of impropriety are labeled as ‘distractions” for those in or in pursuit of office. They infer a loss of focus and predict a lowering of confidence in decisions made during times unsettled by the intrusion of personal concerns.
So I ask the following: what if a newly liberated but still compartmentalized Bill does it all again? What if the woman decides, as was not the fashion in the 90s, that she was abused by his power and emotionally damaged by his advances?
How many hours would be lost each day as the president tried to manage her office and navigate the emotions of such turmoil?
Were he just an ordinary philandering middle-aged man most would forgive with snickers or sympathy. It is his special presidential burden that both the honor and the stain remain.
Bill Clinton is stuck with it and we all have an obligation to think it through. He must speak openly on his history and act as if he was just one of us, unprotected by a political mythology and unable to sell duplicity without consequence.
If he does not, then more public cynicism will take firmer root, the celebrated and powerful will breathe a sigh of relief and future lapses in ethical behavior, as Moynihan suggested, will be made that much easier.