Mutual Failures: The Clintons, the GOP, and Sexual Violence

Last November, Hillary Clinton declared that “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” In December, at a campaign event in New Hampshire, the former Secretary of State was asked, “You say that all rape victims should be believed, but would you say that about Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, or Paula Jones?” Jones, an Arkansas state employee, sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment (and reached a settlement out of court); Wiley, a former White House volunteer aide, alleged that Mr. Clinton had sexually assaulted her; and Broaddrick, a nursing home administrator, accused him of rape. A number of other accusations have also been made against the former president. The same month, apparently adopting a similar line of criticism, presidential candidate and current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump (whose record as a champion of women exists in his own fictions) reproached his potential general election opponent for her husband’s “terrible record of women abuse.” Broaddrick herself praised Trump’s broaching of past allegations against Bill Clinton, affirming that “it’s something that should be talked about.”

Conservative figures beside Trump have seized upon accusations against Hillary Clinton’s husband in attempts to besmirch Mrs. Clinton’s credibility. The behavior of her husband cannot be fairly labeled her fault, but the point her opponents raise, of the troubling record of the Clinton political operation silencing and ostracizing survivors, is a profoundly important one; Mrs. Clinton is at least somewhat complicit in this history. However, Republican motives in highlighting past allegations speak more to the continuing failure of political leaders to support survivors than to any quest for transparency on the part of the GOP. Ultimately, while Hillary Clinton’s connection to the crusade against her husband’s accusers undermines her claim to the mantles of feminist and supporter of survivors, the GOP exploiting the treatment of Broaddrick, Wiley, and Jones for political fodder only belies their own failures to support survivors.

Determining the degree of Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in the treatment of her husband’s accusers is difficult. As the New York Time’s Amy Chozick recently wrote, Mr. Clinton’s aides “were determined to quash any accusations against Mr. Clinton early and aggressively,” and “Mrs. Clinton had supported the effort to push back against the women’s stories.” However, “much of her involvement played out behind the scenes,” and while Mrs. Clinton was certainly part of her husband’s political team, concerns over the fairness of holding her accountable for her husband’s transgressions have been raised. Doyle McManus recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “As far as is known, Hillary Clinton didn’t throw herself in the way of her husband’s attack dogs. She didn’t speak out in defense of his accusers. She didn’t resign as first lady. She remained doggedly loyal to her faithless husband — often through gritted teeth,” but “Suggesting, in effect, that Hillary Clinton had a duty to desert her husband is a pretty tough standard to demand of any spouse.” In correlated revelations, Clinton friend Diane Blair’s records offer some evidence that Hillary Clinton called the accusers of Senator Bob Packwood, who eventually resigned over allegations of sexual harassment, “whiney women.” With respect to her husband’s transgressions, however, much of the available information suggests Mrs. Clinton’s role was one of quiet support or silence. The level of complicity inherent in these actions may not be the same as a public denunciation of her husband’s accusers or other more overt attacks against the women who came forward, but this does not justify ignoring the complicity Mrs. Clinton does bear.

More important than knowing exactly what role Hillary Clinton played in the reaction to Bill Clinton’s accusers is recognition of the treatment of the alleged survivors when they came forward. This matters not only in relation to Hillary Clinton’s ability to advocate for survivors, but also because the individuals who made the allegations deserved a fair hearing and were, at least in how Clinton loyalists denigrated their character and credibility, largely denied this. It also matters because sexual abuse and how we as a culture react to accusations continues to bear salience.

While there is some injustice in leveling against Mrs. Clinton allegations that failed to derail her husband’s political success, her actions helped publicly minimize Bill Clinton’s alleged crimes and keep his reputation as a political figure intact. Broaddrick tweeted last January that following the assault, Mrs. Clinton “tried to silence” her. Wiley, who has agreed to work for an anti-Clinton political organization, argues that Mrs. Clinton is displaying hypocrisy by doubting her husband’s accusers. Conclusive evidence against Bill Clinton was not found in the investigations of the allegations against him; even so, the manner in which the Clinton political machine responded to them cannot be overlooked. Perhaps most infamously, Democratic stalwart James Carville tapped into America’s classism when he suggested Jones’ allegations against then-Governor Bill Clinton had been bought: “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” (Carville insists that the comment was in reference to Gennifer Flowers, with whom Mr. Clinton has admitted having a sexual relationship.) The Clinton spin machinery discredited accusers as either irrational and unreliable: Bill Clinton described Wiley as having “been through a lot” (and thus, perhaps, willing to either fabricate or misunderstand an encounter) in a 1998 deposition — or as sexually aggressive and promiscuous. Though Monica Lewinsky never accused the President of assault, White House aide Sidney Blumenthal adhered to this model when he labeled her a “stalker” obsessed with Bill Clinton.

Ultimately, while Hillary Clinton’s connection to the crusade against her husband’s accusers undermines her claim to the mantles of feminist and supporter of survivors, the GOP exploiting the treatment of Broaddrick, Wiley, and Jones for political fodder only belies their own failures to support survivors.

Beyond these overt victim-blaming tactics, several aspects of the allegations thought to undermine the claims against Mr. Clinton would now — at least in more progressive circles — be viewed in a different light. That Broaddrick at one point denied the alleged assault and later explained that it had occurred, or that she attended a fundraiser for Clinton several weeks after the alleged incident, would now be understood by advocates and activists, and rightfully so, not necessarily as indications that Broaddrick was lying, but as possible results of the burden of coping with trauma. At the time of the allegations, however, such knowledge was not applied to the investigations in the court of public opinion. The tactics deployed against the accusers demonstrated an extraordinary disregard more or less permitted by the public.

The Clintons have dismissed the Republican airing of the allegations as dirty politics. Unfortunately, insofar as the GOP impetus to raise the issue is expediency, the Clinton interpretation may be accurate. This is, after all, the party of Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” in 2012 contributed to his loss to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. As of February, national media outlets have also picked up the story of Idaho’s own Akin, state legislator Pete Nielsen, who claimed that “in many cases of rape it does not involve any pregnancy because of the trauma of the incident.” The false notions propagated by these members of the GOP, though not necessarily representative of the entire party’s views, represent a scientifically unfounded position, an utter lack of respect for survivors with the ability to become pregnant, and an erasure of survivors of sexual assault who cannot become pregnant. The cries of politicians such as Rand Paul over Hillary Clinton’s hypocrisy seem rather hypocritical themselves in light of such statements, and in light of Republican efforts to restrict access to reproductive health services.

Many conservative leaders have also opposed policy proposals that might support survivors. Quite recently, GOP Congress members began to press the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on its enforcement of Title IX, claiming that the OCR exceeded its authority by issuing Dear Colleague letters to institutions receiving federal funding. These letters detail pertinent regulations by which schools must abide. The national nonprofit Know Your IX responded with a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate committee currently addressing the matter, noting that because “other agencies have issued interpretive rules and other guidance of this sort with relatively little objection, it is striking that critics have specially singled out OCR’s action on this particular issue for searching scrutiny.” Attacking the Department’s work to clarify the law meant to ensure equity in education and protect student survivors represents a troubling disregard for both those goals. In February 2014, attempting to force debate on a measure to levy harsher sanctions against Iran, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee blocked debate on two different (Democrat-sponsored) bills meant to build more protections for survivors into military policy. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) pointed out that the resulting message to survivors indicated “that the deck is stacked against them right here in the Senate.” Backlash also arose when Republican lawmakers introduced the Safe Campus Act, a bill touted as seeking justice for survivors on college campuses by requiring that they report complaints of sexual assault to police before their universities begin investigating an alleged incident or conducting an adjudication process. The bill, however, would not institute the same requirement for any other crime. It has been condemned as denying survivors agency in how they choose to come forward, if at all, and represents another illustration of GOP policy proposals that in no way support individuals who have experienced sexual assault.

Republicans seizing upon the detriments of sexual violence in relation to the Clintons does not equate to these conservatives challenging problematic histories. Rather, the GOP criticism suggests a desire to exploit events that ought to serve as disturbing reminders of how power can obstruct healing and justice for survivors. Though the allegations against Bill Clinton have not been legally confirmed and his wife does not become responsible for them simply by virtue of being his wife, in a more humane world, Hillary Clinton and the rest of the nation would feel responsibility for centering the needs of survivors. Some commentators have argued Clinton’s assertion that survivors should be believed contravenes due process and the presumption of innocence, a claim that misinterprets the notion of offering those who report sexual assault the same degree of credibility as those who report any other crime. It was this degree of credibility that was, in many ways, denied to those who accused Bill Clinton of sexual violence, and that is too often denied to survivors today by liberals and conservatives alike. The quagmire developing around the Clintons and past allegations illustrates, through both the past behavior of the Clinton political apparatus and GOP expedience, a failure by both parties.