Confirmed: Even after all these years, you don't have to ask the Beltway press corps twice to dwell on Bill Clinton's sex life.
Donald Trump found that out the easy way over the holiday break when he unleashed attacks on Clinton, calling him, among other things, “one of the great abusers of the world.” Far-right conservatives have embraced Trump's attack to denounce Clinton as a serial predator on par with accused rapist Bill Cosby.
Trump rang a bell that the press loves to hear rung, and journalists sprang into action. The Sunday shows this week churned with panel discussions about the political significance of Bill Clinton's distant private life. The Washington Post quickly produced a handy, “Guide to the Allegations of Bill Clinton's Womanizing,” which included some second-hand allegations from nameless sources about Clinton's private life from three decades ago in Arkansas.
Editors at the Wall Street Journal dialed up the 1990s Wayback Machine and quickly typed up an angry editorial condemning “Bill's runaway libido,” while The New York Times' Frank Bruni predicted the “Clintons' marital psychodrama” could emerge as a major political story in 2016.
As I noted two years ago while Sen. Rand Paul amassed glowing Beltway reviews after he called Bill Clinton a “sexual predator” (the move was deemed savvy by D.C. pundits anxious to re-enter the Clinton bedroom), those kinds of attacks are like sending out the Bat-Signal inside the Beltway: It's an electric transmission that the press simply cannot, and will not, ignore.
The bountiful coverage that Trump sparked with a few snide comments about Clinton highlighted the larger press phenomenon that fuels his campaign: Trump's run is essentially being paid for by the Beltway press, which has rewarded him with unprecedented amount of media attention -- free media attention. (Over the weekend, Trump bragged that he'd spent almost no money on his campaign to date.)
Some television pundits over the weekend -- while discussing Trump's attacks on Clinton, of course -- practically admitted that they're helping the Trump campaign get its message out.
“We're going to report on what Donald Trump's line of campaign direction is,” said The Hill's A.B. Stoddard on Fox News, basically summarizing the working premise of today's campaign coverage: Trump said X, therefore it's big news.
But why? Why has the campaign press abdicated its reporting responsibilities to Trump tweets and loudmouth comments he makes on cable TV?
The current kefuffle began when Trump made one of his signature sexist gestures by claiming Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” by Obama during the 2008 Democratic primaries. When Clinton noted to the Des Moines Register, “It's not the first time he's demonstrated a penchant for sexism,” Trump responded by claiming she was a hypocrite for charging sexism because her husband was guilty of "abuse of women," and because Hillary herself also "abused" women involved with her husband. (There's certainly no evidence of that.)
And the press seemed to agree. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus waved off Trump's disgusting “schlonged” attack on Clinton, suggesting the crude assault represented an “awfully mild” form of sexism. (The columnist suggested Clinton faked her anger over the “schlonged” comment.) For Marcus, the far bigger concern today is Bill Clinton's '90's sex life. Marcus is sure it's “far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said.” (On Face The Nation, Marcus said it was “smart” of Trump to attack Clinton; to call him “one of the great abusers of the world.” )
Keep in mind that over the years Trump has called Rosie O'Donnell “disgusting, I mean, both inside and out. You take a look at her, she's a slob.” He tweeted that Arianna Huffington “is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man- he made a good decision.”
He once claimed, “It doesn't really matter what [the media] write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” He retweeted a follower who asked, “If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” (Trump later deleted the tweet, claiming it was posted by a campaign staffer.)
And Trump insulted Carly Fiorina by exclaiming, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”
But according to Marcus at the Post, “Bill Clinton's conduct toward women is far worse than any of the offensive things that Trump has said.”
And how many of those ugly examples of Trump sexism were cited in recent coverage of Clinton calling out his sexist behavior? I didn't see many. Meaning, when Clinton denounced Trump's “penchant for sexism,” it wasn't really considered news and the press did little to document the Clinton truth. But when Trump responded to Clinton's use of “sexism” (and attacked Bill Clinton's sex life), the press treated that as very big news, and for many days.
As noted, the current media attention is also being driven by far-right Clinton critics trying to portray the former president as an unrepentant predator. “Right-wing journalists and operatives have been laying the groundwork for an attack on Bill Clinton's sexual history for months,” wrote Michelle Goldberg at Slate.
Even though many right-wing journalists spent 2015 openly mocking rape accusers in the news, they now insist the unproven allegations by Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick and Kathleen Willey prove Clinton's guilt in the 1970s and 1990s.
Jones' sexual harassment lawsuit, of course, represented a hyper-partisan political orchestration, paid for by deep-pocketed Clinton haters. The case was eventually settled out of court for $850,000, with Clinton making no admission of guilt.
Broaddrick has claimed that 38 years ago Clinton raped her in a hotel room. Rumors of the alleged attack had swirled around Arkansas for years during Clinton's time as governor there and his enemies tried to get Broaddrick to go public, but she refused. In 1998, Broaddrick signed an affidavit in connection to Jones' lawsuit insisting that the long-rumored rape allegation about Clinton was "untrue."
The next year she met with FBI investigators working for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, which spent $40 million breathlessly investigating Clinton's private life. Broaddrick changed her story and said the rape allegation was true. That year, Broaddrick went public with her story in an interview with the anti-Clinton Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Clinton denied the allegation.
In the end, Starr's office found Broaddrick's story inconclusive and referenced her in a footnote in the evidence it sent to Congress for impeachment.
“An allegation like this one served mostly as a reminder of the reason behind statues of limitations,” wrote Jeffery Toobin in his 1999 impeachment book, A Vast Conspiracy. “Two decades later, it was simply impossible to determine what, if anything, had occurred between these two people.”
Lastly, Willey claimed Clinton groped her in the White House in 1993. Like Broaddrick, Willey cooperated with the independent counsel's Clinton investigation, which was subsequently overseen by Robert Ray. But in the end, Ray gave up on Willey. In his formal report on the Clinton investigations, Ray concluded that Willey had lied to the FBI, therefore she couldn't be used as a witness against Clinton.
But none of that seems to matter much. Trump called Clinton a world-class woman abuser and the press knows the drill, and knows which story it wants to cover.
Wrapping up his round-table discussion on Sunday about Clinton's 1990s sex life, Fox News' Howard Kurtz announced, “It's obviously an amusing topic for the media, at least for now.”