As if by unspoken assent, we’ve adopted a name for our overdue reckoning with sexual harassment and assault: It’s the “Me Too Moment.” “Me too,” everyone knows, comes from the Twitter hashtag by which women are sharing their experiences with sexual predators of various sorts after the New York Times’s exposé of Harvey Weinstein. But the word “moment” is significant as well. It reminds us that there’s a time factor at work, a historical element. Starting now, it promises, we’re taking a harder line against these offenses than we did in the past.
Most of us take some satisfaction in seeing women emboldened to speak out where they had once been intimidated and seeing justice finally delivered to rank offenders. But for those concerned about history, there’s also a danger in some of the arguments being tossed about. If we’re not attentive to the history implicit in the “Me Too Moment” phrase—the reality that people and the press viewed aberrant sexual behavior differently in other eras—we risk misinterpreting the past. If we expect historical actors to have abided by codes of behavior we set out in 2017, we betray the historical project of understanding why people acted as they did. This concern comes to mind with the deeply confused suggestion, now touted as a form of virtue-signaling, that Bill Clinton should have been removed from office during independent counsel Ken Starr’s jihad-like investigation of his sexual behavior in 1998.
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There are lots of reasons why feminists and other liberals were in fact correct to defend Clinton during the impeachment saga. One is that the charges against him—lying about a consensual if still wildly inappropriate affair—just didn’t rise to the level of impeachment, the way Nixon’s constitutional crimes in Watergate had. To have countenanced Clinton’s impeachment or resignation would have dramatically lowered the bar for cashiering a president and legitimated the already rampant process of using scandal-mongering as a proxy for electoral politics. A second reason, newly hard to recall in this feverish moment, is that the claims of assault that a few people now regret downplaying were never established as true, and not even Starr saw fit to include them in his referral to Congress.
But perhaps the most profound if subtle reason for rejecting the retrospective support for impeachment or resignation is that it substitutes the norms of 2017 for those of another time. It’s one thing to wish that society had overall taken sexual harassment more seriously in the past (though it was hardly ignored in the 1990s, as some seem to think)—an innocuous though historically meaningless assertion. But it’s another to selectively readjudicate one specific political crisis by the standards of a different historical era—an act that risks distorting our understanding of how and why people acted as they did.
History requires reconstructing the thought processes of historical actors, which are invariably different from our own. The way people acted in the past was shaped by assumptions, conditions and norms, some of them deeply embedded in their culture. Those norms shift over time, and it can be surprising to see how differently people in other ages thought about any number of problems, including the intersection of sex and politics. The Gilded Age, for example, boasted a rowdy political culture in which the yellow press splashed tales of politicians’ philandering on its front pages, with respectable papers like the New York Times often hard on its heels. Today we remember little more from that era than the taunt that greeted presidential candidate Grover Cleveland in 1884—“Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa?”—when he copped to fathering a child with an unwed woman. (He weathered the story, prompting the riposte from his supporters, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.” Two years later, at age 49, he married a 21-year-old, Frances Folsom, in the White House.) Yet debate swirled over how much politicians’ sexual transgressions should be publicly aired and censured. In a famous 1890 law article, Louis Brandeis and his law partner, Samuel Warren called for a “right to privacy” to shield individuals from having their personal lives unduly vetted.
In other periods, though, people saw things differently. In the mid-20th century, a time of societal deference to authority, politicians’ sex lives were usually deemed private. In an article from the Journal of American History in 2000, journalist John H. Summers, then a history Ph.D. student, asked, “What Happened to Sex Scandals?” Summers noted that where Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Cleveland and other 19th-century leaders had to tend to their reputations for “sexual rectitude,” 20th-century presidents such as Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy—and, he might have added, Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson—“benefited from this more circumspect pattern in political speech.” People today sometimes say that the press “covered up” for Kennedy, or these other politicians, but that wording misconstrues how norms work. Kennedy’s womanizing wasn’t reported because it wasn’t news, according to what people thought at the time. Tales of behavior by these men that today might be called harassment, or at least lecherous, emerged only after their deaths.
But if mid-century public mores tolerated adultery (and more) by political figures, other behaviors were, confusingly, frowned upon. Many voters looked askance at Adlai Stevenson’s divorce when he ran for president in the 1950s, and when New York governor Nelson Rockefeller left his wife for a younger woman, it seemed to hurt his White House bid (in fact his support for civil rights may have hurt him more). By Ronald Reagan’s election—never mind Donald Trump’s—that concern would seem quaint, at best. And of course homosexuality in these years was not just stigmatized but persecuted—seen, according to the prevailing prejudices, as tantamount to subversion or easy grounds for blackmail. The Eisenhower administration barred gays and lesbians from government employment, leading to a purge at the State Department.
The 1960s unraveled that dominant morality. A new generation revolted against strictures on sex and the deference accorded to authority figures. The skepticism fueled a muckraking renaissance, symbolized by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting but embodied as well by innumerable cases of audacious investigative journalism. Although this new “literature of exposure” focused mainly on policy and corruption, journalists began reporting on politicians’ sex lives in ways that had been verboten just years before. In 1974 Congressman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas was caught with a stripper name Fanne Foxe, and although reelected, ended up resigning. (His public drunkenness hurt him too.) Two years later Wayne Hays of Ohio resigned after he was found to have put on his payroll a mistress who told the Washington Post, “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone.” These scandals, which might once have been kept under wraps, showed that the old regime of privacy was starting to collapse.
Sexual behavior now became highly contested. Feminist scholars developed the legal concept of sexual harassment, which gradually worked its way into the law. Debates over open marriage, pornography and even a lower age of consent—to acknowledge the sexuality of teenagers—scrambled left/right political lines and confounded easy claims about the correct liberal, enlightened or feminist position. In Decade of Nightmares, criminologist and historian Philip Jenkins showed how post-Kinsey Report views about the varieties of sexual experience led professionals in the 1960s to defend even pederasty under certain conditions; “little of the expert writing on child abuse published between about 1955 and 1976 can be read without embarrassment,” he wrote. But in the late 1970s, a newfound concern with children—anxiety about latchkey kids, teen sex and drug use, and abduction—swung the pendulum the other way.
By the 1980s, as social taboos against the open discussion of sexuality and other restraints on behavior fell away, a politician’s sex life became fair game for reporters—though, notably, it was still considered wrong to reveal a politician’s homosexuality. (That bright line, too, would grow cloudy in the 1990s, as radical gay-rights activists “outed” closeted politicians with reactionary voting records.) Journalists rationalized their feeding frenzies by invoking the ill-defined concept of “character.” They asserted, never very convincingly, that lying about sex automatically meant that a politician was thoroughly dishonest or utterly reckless and irredeemably hypocritical—and unfit for office.
The shifting standards about sexual conduct yielded new sex scandals: In 1983, the House of Representatives censured two congressmen, Democrat Gerry Studds and Republican Dan Crane, for having sex with 17-year-old pages—a boy in Studds’ case, a girl in Crane’s. Studds’ constituents reelected him; Crane’s bounced him. But the most famous case from the 1980s was surely that of Colorado senator Gary Hart, the front-runner for the upcoming Democratic presidential nomination, who was hounded out of the race in 1987 after news broke of his extramarital romp with a younger model. No one alleged anything worse than infidelity, but it added up to “bad character.”
Although sexual harassment had figured in assorted political scandals in the 1980s, in 1991 it became a household word. That year the Senate, despite having concluded its hearings on Clarence Thomas’s appointment to fill Thurgood Marshall’s old Supreme Court seat, reopened them when a former colleague of his at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Anita Hill, charged him with harassment. (So did other women, but their cases were, astonishingly, never heard.) Broadcast round the clock, the Thomas hearings proved a watershed, elevating public awareness about harassment (even if the public tended to believe Thomas over Hill). But it also encouraged the use of sexual wrongdoing as a political cudgel. The Democrats’ decision to try to keep Thomas off the bench on account of his boorish character, rather than his conservative ideology, was a mistake that opened a can of worms.
There was, to be sure, a logic to that strategy. Since the 1960s, senators had forsaken their onetime deference to the president in court appointments, challenging and at times blocking nominees under Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Reagan; but the pretense, maintained by both parties, that ideology should play no role in assessing a potential justice had led everyone to disingenuously pin their objections to various nominees on whether someone bought a house with a restrictive covenant, smoked marijuana, engaged in financial wrongdoing or committed other non-political offenses. Like those sins, sexual harassment could be used against a nominee without seeming overly political. The only problem was that the pretense was tissue-thin: Anyone could see that the weight that someone placed on any given charge correlated heavily with which side of a political fight he or she was on.
That sexual harassment charges (and other non-political allegations) had come to constitute politics by other means provides the context for the Bill Clinton sex scandals in the 1990s. Post-Weinstein, longtime Clinton-haters like Maureen Dowd and Andrew Sullivan, conservative moralists like Ross Douthat, and with a few liberals like Jeff Greenfield, have urged Democrats to reassess their support for the president during the impeachment crisis. Michael Tomasky has called that revisionism ahistorical (he actually said “insane”) because it omits this crucial context. Those who didn’t live through it or haven’t studied the history need reminding that just as Barack Obama’s election as president in 2008, despite his confession of youthful pot and cocaine use, represented a public rebuff of the policing of politicians’ past drug consumption, so Clinton’s election in 1992 amounted to a call for restraint in the feeding frenzies over candidates’ sex lives. Ever since Clinton made a veiled admission of adultery at the famous Sperling Breakfast, and he withstood the uproar after Gennifer Flowers went public during the 1992 campaign with stories of her affair with him, voters—at least those who backed him—acknowledged his flaws as a man while being impressed with his accomplishments and talents as a politician.
That verdict remained in place during his presidency, when Starr investigated first the Whitewater land deal and, when that probe foundered, Clinton’s sexual past. Though the news in January 1998 that the president had had an affair with a young former intern, Monica Lewinsky, outraged many people, most Americans soon decided it hardly warranted his resignation. (Most of his supporters, it is now forgotten, did condemn his actions.) On the contrary, as the year went on, calls mounted for Starr and the impeachment-crazed Republicans to desist, while Clinton’s popularity, remarkably, climbed.
Sexual harassment? It was never part of the impeachment case. Paula Jones’s separate lawsuit against Clinton for harassment became intertwined with Starr’s investigation only because of collusion between the two legal teams, via Ann Coulter and other conservative lawyers knows as “the elves” who served as conduits; they realized that Clinton’s January 1998 deposition in the Jones suit provided an occasion to air a series of relationships he allegedly had with other women, including Lewinsky, and maybe trap him in a lie. But in April 1998, Judge Susan Webber Wright concluded that Clinton’s behavior toward Jones, whatever the truth of her account, didn’t amount to harassment. And almost no one argued that Jones’s claims, if true, warranted Clinton’s ouster from the White House. To suggest otherwise is to impose the thinking of 2017 on that of 1998.
As for Juanita Broaddrick, her late-1970s allegation of rape, which she had previously recanted under oath, was trotted out by House Republicans at the eleventh hour only because they saw their case for impeachment crumbling. Fished out of Starr’s supplementary files after he had submitted his report to Congress, her disputed claim was officially kept secret because Starr hadn’t used it in his impeachment referral to Congress. Republicans began leaking it to the press in a desperate last-ditch effort to turn public opinion against Clinton. “Suddenly,” writes Ken Gormley, in his definitive history of the crisis, The Death of American Virtue, “a steady stream of congressmen, mostly Republican, were digging into this top-secret stash and, in the cloakrooms of Congress, whispering about ‘rape.’” Any of us today can choose to believe or disbelieve Jones and Broaddrick or a third accuser, Kathleen Willey—or, as seems wise, to remain agnostic—but those alleged incidents never formed the argument for removing the president, as some today wrongly suppose. One can assert that they should have mattered more, but that’s an empty wish. There are many aspects of past eras we might disown today and wish had been otherwise, but the political culture of a bygone era has to be considered in toto in order to understand the past.
When we do reimmerse ourselves in the political culture of the late 1990s, we see that Clinton’s acquittal in the Senate represented a necessary and widely praised rebuke to the Republicans’ scorched-earth politics and the media’s willingness to delve limitlessly into politicians’ sex lives. It affirmed a vital constitutional principle that impeachment shouldn’t be used for mere political purposes; to have supported his impeachment or resignation would have encouraged the continued politicization of the process and the further destabilization of Washington politics.
But did the acquittal also set back the cause of pursuing sexual harassment by high officials, as some argue today? The evidence suggests not. There’s no question that many cases of harassment over the years were ignored or tolerated. But the new century saw numerous cases in which charges of sexual harassment—as well as assault, sex with minors, and other forms of sexual misconduct—were aired, debated and in many instances punished. A list of the most prominent would include Gary Condit, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim McGreevey, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, John Ensign, Mark Souder, Eric Massa, Herman Cain, Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and—lest we forget—Al Gore.
In these years, we as a society hadn’t yet attained post-Weinstein levels of wokeness, but neither were we as indifferent to harassment as revisionists suppose. Most of these politicians resigned their offices or saw their election campaigns fail. Vitter, who was revealed to have frequented prostitutes, won reelection in 2010 only to have the episode damage his 2015 gubernatorial bid, pushing him toward retirement. Only Schwarzenegger, who won election as governor of California despite a barage of charges, escaped unscathed. And of course Donald Trump. But the idea that feminists who defended Clinton are responsible for a generation of indifference to sexual harassment is demonstrably false.
The testimonies of so many women in recent weeks have suddenly made it harder than ever before to ignore or excuse the gross sexual misbehavior of powerful men. But it’s also suddenly harder than before to recapture—as historians must—the frame of mind, the ways of thinking, that prevailed in other eras, even in the recent past. In our understandable eagerness to make sure that justice is served, we should take care not to misread the past in the expedient service of the moment—however satisfying, overdue and pressing it may be.