I see that New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who wants to run for president, has walked back her assertion last week that Bill Clinton should have resigned over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Last week, The New York Times asked her if Clinton should have stepped down back in 1998. She gave a dramatic pause and then said: “Yes, I think that would have been the appropriate response.”
Sunday on MSNBC, she backed off a bit: “My point is that the tolerance that we had 25 years ago, what was allowed 25 years ago, will not be tolerated today, is not allowed today. And that we have to have the kind of oversight and accountability that society needs so that we can protect people in the workplace.”
I’m glad to see she’s pivoted, but honestly, it was an irresponsible thing to say. Some prominent liberals in the media have said it recently, too. The idea that Clinton should have resigned is insane. It’s insane from the perspective of the historical record, which in no way supports the idea that he should have quit his job. And it’s insane for political purposes today, given that it remains one of the top priorities of the right to smear and discredit both Clintons in the history books, a project that liberals should in no way, shape, or form be abetting.
Let’s start with the historical record. The Clinton-Lewinsky dalliance was distasteful and inappropriate. I wrote plenty critically of what he did, both at the time and in my book on him that came out earlier this year as an entry in the American Presidents series. It was, I wrote, “unfathomably irresponsible.” He knew what kind of enemies he had, and that prosecutor Ken Starr would do anything to get him. He knew (I wrote) that “reckless behavior on his part could imperil not just his presidency, but the presidency, as well as, potentially, Democratic and progressive politics for years.”
All that is what the affair was. But here’s something it was not: sexual assault. I know we have those two or three other more serious allegations about Clinton along those lines, but let’s leave those to the side for now because Gillibrand and the others said specifically that Clinton should have resigned over Lewinsky. It was not assault. It was a consensual affair between two legal adults. We can have a debate about the power dynamics at play, and Clinton won’t emerge from that debate looking too good (and by the way, that debate did happen in real time—it wasn’t quite as Stone Age-y then as some younger people seem to think). But it was a consensual adult relationship.
It was legal. And while he did lie about it, and that’s not one of your great moments in presidential history, there was never any proof that he suborned perjury—told others to lie. From all we know, he did not. That was a smear, planted (perhaps indirectly) by Starr’s prosecutors to whip up a Beltway frenzy against him.
But all that isn’t even the most important point. The most important point is that the Republican effort to remove Clinton from office was a constitutional coup d’etat. If you’re young—all this hatred you see today, this right-wing rage machine (which does have its much smaller counterpart on the left); it all started then. The right hated Bill Clinton pretty much because he was a liberal (a moderate-liberal, but as they saw him, a dangerous leftist) from the Woodstock generation who had the effrontery to beat a Republican incumbent at a time when conservatives thought the presidency was theirs for life. Literally from the day he won, some people were plotting how to undo the voters’ verdict. And finally, years later, he handed them some rope.
That is what liberals were confronting. The right’s aim was to nullify a presidential election. Two of them. If Clinton had acquiesced in that, having obviously committed no high crime or misdemeanor, the precedent would have been chilling. No Democratic president after him would have been safe from a similar assault. They would have gone straight after President Gore, on the slightly dodgy fund-raising stuff, and they’d have had the added talking point that Gore’s presidency was especially illegitimate because unlike Clinton he wasn’t even elected. I’m not saying they could have driven Gore from office. I am saying they’d have tried, and they’d have tried with Barack Obama or whatever Democrat came next in that timeline, too. There is no way on earth Clinton should have opened that door.
So that’s the then. Here’s the now. The current conservative effort is clearly to make the Clintons political pariahs for all time. If you’re a liberal or somewhere on the left, you may or may not like the Clintons. Whatever. But if you can’t see that the effort to wipe them out of the history books is part of a larger effort to discredit the whole project of progressive governance in this country—a project in which you have a stake—then you’re just being shallow.
Since 1920, we’ve only had seven Democratic presidents, to 10 Republicans. Of the Democrats, only Jimmy Carter was not very consequential. The other six did big things. They did some bad things. All presidents do. It was Clinton’s fate to come around at a time when liberalism was at its lowest point in more than 60 years. He couldn’t be Lyndon Johnson (or Bernie Sanders). But he did plenty to advance the cause of progressive governance. And Hillary did, too. And we may yet find out, even as conservatives caterwaul about prosecuting her, that her defeat last year happened through foul means, and that by rights she should be in the White House today, proposing a tax bill that we could with a straight face call “reform.”
The Clinton legacy may be complex, but Democrats and liberals certainly shouldn’t be participants in their historical defenestration. They should remember the history accurately, and keep in mind all that’s at stake now. I wouldn’t have thought, with the assaults on progress coming daily and even hourly, that should be so hard to do.