The mainstream media are furious that Republicans have dared to bring up the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment fifteen years ago. Not only is it old news, they say, but it is manifestly unfair to blame Hillary Clinton for the misdeeds of her husband, especially since she was the primary victim of his infidelity. Meanwhile, conservatives are tying themselves in knots over the question over whether, and how, Hillary “enabled” Bill’s peccadilloes.
All of this misses the point of the Lewinsky scandal–or at least what the point was said to be at the time. Bill Clinton was not impeached because he had oral sex in the Oval Office, or even because he lied about it to his wife and to the country. He was impeached because he lied under oath. That act was what arguably fit the definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” in the U.S. Constitution, even though much of the country (including me, a Democrat at the time) opposed the whole exercise.
To those of us who argued that the country could not allow itself to be crippled by what amounted to a lurid sex scandal, the Republican answer was: this is not about an affair, but about the rule of law. It was a very important point, which I only began to appreciate once I spent a significant amount of time in a society (South Africa) where the rule of law was weak and becoming even weaker. In retrospect, Clinton should have resigned, as Nixon had done, to spare America some anguish.
Today, somehow, conservatives seem totally uninterested in the central point of the Lewinsky scandal, but are once again focused on the sexual aspect. That is not entirely our fault: the whole issue came up in response to false charges about the Republican “war on women,” when the media misrepresented remarks by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) then pushed back with the Lewinsky affair as a way of highlighting the media’s double standards.
The debate continued when, coincidentally, Alana Goodman produced her report on the files of the late Diane Blair, a close confidante of the Clintons. The “Hillary papers” revealed the aggressive way in which Hillary had responded to Lewinsky and to others with whom her husband had been accused of having affairs. With regard to Gennifer Flowers, for example, the Clinton team prescribed painting her “completely as a fraud, liar and possible criminal to stop this story and related stories.”
Read that again: the Clinton team, presumably with the full support of Bill and Hillary, were willing to paint Flowers as a “possible criminal”–not only to stop that particular story, but also to intimidate other potential victims who might have come forward, as well as to frighten the media away from similar stories in the future. It worked, of course: Newsweek sat on the Lewinsky story, which was broken instead by Matt Drudge, who refused to be scared away by the Clintons.
Hillary Clinton cannot be held accountable for her husband’s infidelity, any more than Hillary aide Huma Abedin can be held responsible for Anthony Weiner’s bad habits on the Internet. But she can be held accountable to the extent that she participated in campaigns of retaliation and intimidation. That is what ties her role in the Lewinsky scandal directly to her record at the State Department, where she promoted lies about the Benghazi attack and allegedly bullied whistleblowers.
Bill Clinton’s perjury set a bad precedent. Today, Attorney General Eric Holder can lie to Congress under oath about targeting journalists, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper can do likewise about telephone surveillance, and nothing happens. Last year, Hillary Clinton defended her Benghazi lies: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” If Republicans think the Lewinsky scandal makes a difference–and it may–they should focus on the cover-up, not the sex.