Rethinking Bill Clinton Amid Sexual Harassment Debates

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 7:15 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to move now to one of the issues roiling our politics back here in the U.S. and that is sexual harassment. In Alabama, Republican Roy Moore is facing a tough battle in his run for the U.S. Senate. Several women have come forward to say that when Moore was a prosecutor in his 30s, he made unwanted sexual advances toward them. Several report this occurred when they were teenagers. He denies those reports. And Democratic Senator Al Franken has been under fire with accusations that he groped an entertainer on a tour to entertain overseas troops. That was before he took office. The senator has apologized.

And, of course, there have been numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against other powerful men in Hollywood, media, business and in the current White House. NPR is among the organizations that have fired or suspended male executives who have been accused of harassment. It's against that backdrop that The Atlantic contributing editor, Caitlin Flanagan, wrote a piece this week that has gotten a lot of attention. Her piece titled "Bill Clinton: A Reckoning" argues that it's time for Democrats to reassess the legacy of the former president. And Caitlin Flanagan is with us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CAITLIN FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So perhaps it would be helpful here to remind people who perhaps don't follow these issues closely what exactly it is that Bill Clinton was accused of doing.

FLANAGAN: Well, that's really actually have a really strong question to start with because I think a lot of people conflate his extramarital affairs - which, you know, that's his own business - with the very strong history of women coming forward and saying that he assaulted them in unambiguous terms. And so there were a series of women throughout the course of his presidency who came forward with accounts of things they said he did to them which really mirror the kinds of things we're looking at now in the very worst of the cases. Juanita Broaddrick, most prominently, said that he raped her very violently in a way that is quite like the Harvey Weinstein accusations in terms of the hotel room and the suddenness and the bleak horror of it all.

And for political reasons, these women weren't believed at all on the left. They were marginalized. They were ridiculed. They were absolutely - the modern term is slut shamed. And we all kind of buried it into the past thinking that it's over and done with. Maybe that was a mistake to have done that, but it's in the past. But things that are wrong in the past usually have a way of boiling back up. And lately, all of that history has been boiling back up. And people on the left are saying, did we really make a mistake there in being so cruel to those women?

MARTIN: Well, so to that end - and I want to point out that you've written two pieces here. There was the first piece that you wrote about "The Reckoning" and the second piece was called you, know, "What Hillary Knew." But to your earlier point that the Democratic Party needs to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton, the party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant big-dog president and his stunning string of progressive accomplishments that it abandoned some of its central principles. The party was on the wrong side of history. There are consequences for that - your words. What does that look like now?

FLANAGAN: Well, I think now we're seeing the reckoning. I think for there to have been an editorial in The New York Times by one of its own writers, not a guest writer, saying I believe Juanita, that's very powerful. That was a very just and right thing for them to do. So I think we are beginning to see the reckoning. And I think that'll be important for the party as it moves forward.

MARTIN: So what does this look like going forward? Do you think that an editorial in The New York Times is sufficient? What does that look like?

FLANAGAN: I think it means not sort of saying, well, that was a long time ago. Why are we talking about ancient history? We're in this terrible mess. We have Donald Trump posing the greatest existential threat to the progressive goals and agenda of half a century.

Those things are true. It's also true that these women - something very wrong was done to them by the very group of people who most often say they protect women and protect women's interests - again, the progressive left and the feminist movement. And I think that the party's sort of realizing the truth will set you free. And the truth is, for political reasons, there was an almost calculated decision that we're going to make these women's claims go away.

MARTIN: One does not want to minimize the impact on people, you know, personally. But because it takes place in the context of a political discussion, what about the politics of the moment? I mean, there is a current sitting president who's facing numerous allegations, which he dismisses, of similar conduct, of inappropriately touching people, groping people. So to that end, you can see where people might say, you know, Caitlin, you might be right as a part of an ethical construct, but as part of a political construct where these policies are hanging on a razor's edge, why is this the time to do that?

FLANAGAN: My answer to that is that Donald Trump had a fantastic teacher in how to handle these accusations of sexual assault, and his name was William Jefferson Clinton - deny, deny, deny, marginalize, slut shame. So I think that if we are going to really hold Trump to account for this hideous string of accusations - and remember, there's not one single woman accusing him of anything as grave as Juanita Broaddrick has consistently accused Bill Clinton - we as Democrats should stand up and say we were on the wrong side of history.

We made a profound error. We apologize to these women for what was done to them by our own side. And therefore, with a clean conscience, we can go forward and say, once again, we have a sexual abuser in the White House. And that is something that is profoundly wrong and should be on everyone's mind for 2020.

MARTIN: That's Caitlin Flanagan. She's a contributing editor at The Atlantic. She wrote "Bill Clinton: A Reckoning." And she was kind enough to join us from NPR West. Caitlin Flanagan, thank you for speaking with us.

FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.