Photo: Fred Conrad
Bill Clinton has always been surrounded by two kinds of women: the flashy ones who love the guy, and the serious ones who love what the guy stands for. The serious policy types have always had to step in to try to save him from the flashy climbers.
‘Saturday Night Bill’ would mess around with women with big-cut hair and low-cut dresses and short skirts and then, if he got in trouble, ‘Sunday Morning Bill’ would run hide behind the sedate skirts of high-toned feminists including his wife and Cabinet members.
Because Clinton married up and dated down, it was easier for his lieutenants to slander ex-peccadilloes as ‘cash-for-trash,’ ‘trailer trash’ or, every wife’s worst nightmare, office cupcake seductresses.
Hillary had her choice of siding with her truth-telling, thong-wearing, husband-stealing sisters or her dissembling, thong-seeking, wife-betraying husband. As part of their conjugal/political deal, or their ‘passionate codependence,’ as the Democratic political strategist and commentator James Carville calls it, she always chose her husband and sold out her sisters.
It was a bold hat trick: She finished off what was left of feminism, yet remained a feminist icon. She rules over ‘Hillaryland,’ a cultlike universe of Ellen Jamesians who are determined to see their warrior queen take back the White House from the hypermasculine and domestically Dickensian reign of the Bushies. That macho relentlessness may yet get her into the White House, where she can consign Bill to the East Wing to worry about matching the color of the roses to the rim of the china while she worries about China trying to buy up our oil companies.
During his political career, Bill Clinton enjoyed the services of a machine designed to do whatever was necessary to deflect stories about his erotic misadventures, including smearing women who dared to suggest that there had been trysts.
After Hillary vouched for her husband on 60 Minutes, Bill owed her his presidency. The feminist role model didn’t flinch at supervising the vivisection of her husband’s girlfriends because she felt they were instruments of a conspiracy, pawns of the Right wing. It doesn’t add lustre to the image Hillary likes to promote of herself as someone who protects women and the vulnerable in society. It means she cares about women unless they get in the way of the Clintons’ mission to help humanity, in which case they’re expendable.
The Clintons campaigned in ’92 on a slogan of ‘Two for the Price of One,’ and their marital bargain played a critical role in determining public policy and in shaping the arc of their public difficulties.
The deal was this: She would endure infidelities if he gave her power. She proceeded to pretend that the power she was given was power she had earned.
Some White House officials said that Bill did not step in to help her with a health care plan that was clearly ballooning out of control because he did not dare to challenge her after news reports that Arkansas State troopers had fetched women for him. ‘She has a hundred-pound fishing wire around his scrotum,’ one of her deputies on health care told me with a little smile.
Bill Clinton never seemed to understand that it was way too late to be a JFK swinger in the Oval Office. For decades, the rules of politics were very simple. As the Democratic strategist Ray Strother summed it up: ‘If a politician stayed on his bar stool, he wasn’t drunk. And if he didn’t get caught, he wasn’t cheating on his wife.’ But for several years before Clinton came to town, it was clear that a gallows had gone up along the Potomac. With journalists willing to report more, with women coming into power more, the old libertine rules were vitiated.
Bill Clinton knew the rules had drastically changed. He promised to be a good, good boy. But he wasn’t. It was a dangerous game.
The Supreme Court case about sexual harassment, William Jefferson Clinton v Paula Jones, crystallised the tension between the sexes: Women fear that men will have their way and then slither away. Men fear that women will come back and boil their bunnies.
Feminists agonised over Paula, never sure if they offered her so little support because she was not their sort, or because they did not find her outrage credible.
When I first met Jones in 1994, she was racing around a Manhattan hotel room, thrilled to be in the big city and thrilled with her new contract to promote No Excuses jeans. I asked why she was taking on the President. She looked at me, her blue eyes growing large. ‘He ‘sposed hisself and tha’s not right,’ she said, in her soft Arkansas twang.
Paula showed that a woman need not wreck her life by bringing sexual harassment charges. Things really picked up when she went after the President, with a free teeth-to-toe makeover, an entourage eager to depose Clinton, a publicist who instructed her on the merits of semi-matte sienna lipstick rather than fuchsia, the Paula Jones Legal Defense Fund, which paid to board her dog, Mitzie, and a new role writing breathless fund-raising letters about the President’s anatomy to the mailing list of a conservative Christian Right legal group, the Rutherford Institute.
The Clinton defense team gave feminism another body blow in June 1997, when the President’s lawyer compared Jones to a dead dog. ‘The President of the United States is not going to apologize,’ Robert Bennett said on the ABC Sunday Morning Show. ‘And if she insists on a trial, we’ll have a trial I had a dog like that who just wanted to catch cars, and he successfully caught one one day, and I have a new dog.’ (Bennett was known in Washington as ‘the president’s dick’s lawyer,’ just as the private investigator he used was known as ‘the president’s dick’s dick.’)
Hillary ended up shelling out $375,000 from her private trust to pay off Jones. Ouch.
When the story broke about Clinton’s pizza girl, Monica Lewinsky, the feminists formed a cordon around the President, and Hillary was a party to the White House debate that raged about the best way to demonise That Woman.
But Clinton didn’t throw himself on the mercy of the public. He threw himself on the mercy of his strategist Dick Morris who had been embroiled in his own sex scandal in 1996 when it came out that he was cavorting and toe nibbling with a call girl across the street from the White House at the Jefferson Hotel. (The funniest part was when Morris tried to impress the two-hundred-dollar-an-hour hooker by showing her a draft of an Al Gore speech.)
Clinton, who ran a White House where the truth was employed only to the extent it was useful, asked Morris to poll to find out if he should tell the truth or lie. So the President ended up giving such a tortured definition of his tryst that Judge Susan Webber Wright wrote: ‘It appears the President is asserting that Ms Lewinsky could be having sex with him while, at the same time, he was not having sex with her.’
The only question was whether the White House should paint Monica as a friendly fantasist or a malicious stalker. It was a tricky matter going after another young woman, one who sent mushy valentines to Bill in The Washington Post personal ads, and presents by messenger, and who paid $250 to get into a fund-raiser; a girl whose friends said she was ‘like, suicidal,’ a young woman who had already been traumatised by the creepy, sex-crazed Independent Counsel Ken Starr and his marauding gang of FBI agents.
The Clinton dust busters fretted that the public might recoil at seeing, yet again, the tactic of hacking away at Bill’s inamoratas, shifting reality to save the big guy from taking responsibility for his ‘dark side,’ as former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta called it.
But they forged ahead. p>
Hillary told senior advisor, Sidney Blumenthal, as he later testified, that ‘she was distressed that the President was being attacked, in her view, for political motives, for his ministry of a troubled person.’ Hillary’s good friend Charlie Rangel told reporters about Monica: ‘That poor child has serious emotional problems. She’s fantasising. And I haven’t heard that she played with a full deck in her other experiences.’
Hillary knew she could count on the complicity of feminists and Democratic women in Congress. They accepted the trade-off: The Clintons would give women progressive public policies as long as they didn’t mind Bill’s regressive private behavior with women.
Lewinsky, after all, was fungible. What really mattered was the fate of the Republic and the fate of the Clintons. (For them, it is the same.)
One top female Democratic lawmaker shared her fury with me privately:
Why couldn’t he just keep it in his pants for eight years so he could get something done? It’s the grossest kind of infidelity, just sheer constant physical relief and satisfaction, really using, in the crudest way, somebody who was obviously extraordinarily gullible and obviously madly in love with him, somebody who would have done anything for him, and doing this in the Oval Office. I’m having a very hard time with it. I don’t want to be an enabler.
But in public, they supported him. Carol Moseley-Braun implied on Meet the Press that the Lewinsky story could be seen as a triumph of Democratic diversity efforts: ‘Not so many years ago, a woman couldn’t be a White House intern.’
Gloria Steinem wrote a defense of Clinton in the New York Times‘s Op-Ed page, arguing that his ‘clumsy passes’ at Willey and Jones were not wrong, since the President understood that ‘no means no.’
‘Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one,’ she said, explaining that the feminists could not cut Clinton loose just because he had been boorish.
Clinton could have just fessed up, admitted he was just ministering to Monica, that he threw her across the desk and ministered to her ’til dawn, as the opinion-writer Michael Kinsley might put it. But instead he sent out his feminist spokeswoman, his wife and his female Cabinet members to vouch for his fidelity (at a time when his military was court-martialing soldiers for adultery).
By the end of their tenure, the Clintons had turned the feminists who fought so hard in 1991 against the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court [because of accusations of sexual harrassment]into hypocrites. And Bill had turned Hillary Clinton into a martyr, more popular with Americans once her husband had humiliated her and stripped her of her hauteur.
The Clintons made everyone around them succumb to Faustian deals. In the case of the feminists, they could have their feminist President named Clinton, and, perhaps in 2008, even a female President named Clinton.
The only thing they had to give up in return was the integrity of feminism.
This is an edited extract from Are Men Necessary? by Maureen Dowd (Hodder) $35.00.
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