I’m willing to bet one of Bill Clinton’s speaking fees that he is absolutely sure there was nothing untoward about his half-hour meeting on a private jet with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. C’mon, she’s an old colleague! We talked about grandchildren! We talked about golf! We talked about travel! I’d bet almost as much—say, Chelsea’s speaking fee—that this is more or less what transpired.
And that’s the problem; not just with this incident, but with a decades-long pattern of behavior by both Bill and Hillary Clinton that goes a long way toward explaining why a hefty majority of Americans do not regard the likely next president of the United States as honest or trustworthy. It really does appear that both Clintons regard themselves as so removed from the grubby motives that tempt lesser mortals that they are to be judged by a wholly different set of standards.
Consider how just about anyone else might have thought about this latest dust-up. Hey, Loretta Lynch will be here in a few minutes. I’d love to catch up with her. But hold on—she’s the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, whose Justice Department is charged with deciding whether or not to charge my wife with a crime for her use of emails. I can’t sit down with her for a private chat; that’d be like the spouse of a litigant meeting with the judge in the case! I’ll catch up with her another time.
The most likely explanation for Bill Clinton’s behavior is his conviction that no one but a right-wing extremist could possibly see anything squicky about this chat because… he’s Bill Clinton.
Does this sound flip? I think it helps explain how both he and Hillary Clinton have justified decades of questionable words and deeds. Just to offer a few:
Hillary Clinton explained the couple’s rush to cash in on their post White House years by explaining that they were “dead broke” when Bill’s presidency ended. And in one sense, this was true; they owed millions of dollars in legal fees. They also both had multimillion dollar book deals lined up, not to mention millions more in speaking fees and, in Bill’s case, consulting gigs. So they were “dead broke” like a jobless couple holding the winning Powerball ticket.
She brushed aside concerns about the $675,000 she collected for three Goldman Sachs speeches by saying, “that’s what they offered” (well, yes, because that’s what her representatives asked for). When she told Anderson Cooper that “I wasn’t committed to running [for president]… I didn’t know whether I would or not,” this was probably true—in the sense that she might be hit by a truck, or undergo a spiritual transformation that left her uninterested in temporal power. If Secretary Clinton didn’t know she’d be running for president when she gave those speeches, she was the last person who didn’t. As for the suspicion that she might be offering words of reassurance to the one percenters,—a suspicion that could be allayed if she simply released the transcripts—that would imply there’s reason for suspicion and in Secretary Clinton’s mind, that’s unthinkable.
Or take a more troublesome example. On two occasions last fall, Clinton said: “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” It was only a matter of time before she was asked—by a member of a town hall audience—“You say that all rape victims should be believed. But would you say that about Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and/or Paula Jones? Should we believe them as well?”
“Well,” Clinton replied, “I would say that everybody should be believed at first, until they are disbelieved based on evidence.”
It would be one thing to argue that Bill Clinton is a champion of women’s rights; that he named women to all kinds of important positions; that the people accusing him of such behavior are hard-right partisans out to defeat all the good things he stands for. But to leave herself open to an obvious rejoinder with so sweeping a statement as “every survivor… deserves to be believed” seems rooted in something else: a conviction that the normal approach to judging credibility should not apply to either Clinton.
You can find evidence for this almost wherever you look: during the Lewinsky affair, Bill Clinton said at one point: “I feel like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can’t get the truth out. I feel like the character in the novel Darkness at Noon.”
He’s talking about Rubashov—the loyal Bolshevik purged by the Stalinists in Arthur Koestler’s classic novel. That comparison would have been apt—if Monica Lewinsky had been making up a phony story designed to damage his presidency. (That’s the story, by the way, the White House was preparing to tell until that blue dress turned up.) How is it possible for Bill Clinton to have thought himself such a victim unless he saw himself as a force for good, fighting against forces of evil? (In his memoir, My Life, Clinton says at one point that the forces trying to remove him from office were the enemies of civil rights and other worthy causes.)
Or consider Hillary Clinton’s “evolution” in recent years on some key political issues. She was once a stalwart advocate for traditional marriage, saying this on the Senate floor: “I believe marriage is not just a bond but a sacred bond between a man and a woman. [It is a] fundamental bedrock principle that it exists between a man and a woman, going back into the mists of history as one of the founding, foundational institutions of history and humanity and civilization.”
And when Fresh Air’s Terry Gross asked her to explain her evolution, she grew testy at the very suggestion that her evolution might be explained by political calculation.
“I think you’re trying to say I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons, and that’s just flat wrong,” she said.
At the risk of a bit of amateur psychology I think she believed that; just as she may well believe that about why she voted for the Iraq War, or why she first supported, and now opposes, Obama’s signature trade deal. The possibility that she might have changed out of political calculation—something common to, say 90 percent of office-seekers—seems to her to be an outrageous assault on her character.
Faced with an opponent like Donald Trump—actually, there is no other opponent “like” Donald Trump—a majority of voters may well decide that this pattern of behavior pales beside the potential disaster of a Trump presidency.
But when Hillary Clinton says about her “trust” problem, “I personally know I have work to do on this front,” she might begin by convincing her spouse—and herself—to stop behaving as if they are above answering the questions their conduct has raised over and over again.