Why I Trashed My “Clinton-Women” Sex File

Time and Trump may give old allegations new legs.

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during a campaign stop for his wife, Hillary Clinton, on Monday in Nashua, New Hampshire.
AP Photo/Jim Cole
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Jan. 4, 2016, 2:53 p.m.

While re­port­ing from the Arkan­sas state­house in the 1980s and early 1990s, I chased ump­teen ru­mors and al­leg­a­tions about Gov. Bill Clin­ton’s wo­man­iz­ing. I kept my notes, tran­scripts, and news­pa­per clips in­side a three-inch folder labeled “Clin­ton-Wo­men,” which in­cluded a state­ment signed in the early 1990s by Gen­nifer Flowers. In it, she denied hav­ing sex with Clin­ton.

The “Clin­ton-Wo­men” file traveled with me to the White House, where I covered both terms of the Clin­ton pres­id­ency and the Mon­ica Lew­in­sky scan­dal. Clin­ton sur­vived im­peach­ment after ad­mit­ting to ly­ing about a sexu­al en­counter with Flowers and “an im­prop­er phys­ic­al re­la­tion­ship” with White House in­tern Lew­in­sky. (I was the first to re­port Clin­ton’s plans to tell a grand jury the truth about his White House af­fair.)

In 1999, shortly after his Sen­ate ac­quit­tal, I threw away a box of files from Arkan­sas—in­clud­ing the “Clin­ton-Wo­men” file. Like many voters, I was tired of Clin­ton scan­dals and look­ing ahead to the 2000 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Be­sides, his ap­prov­al rat­ings were strong.

I won’t be need­ing this any­more,” I told my­self. “His sex life is old news.”

Not any­more.

Don­ald Trump has de­clared open sea­son on Bill Clin­ton’s per­son­al life after be­ing labeled a sex­ist by the ex-pres­id­ent’s wife, Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial front-run­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton.

“Cer­tainly if they play the wo­man’s card with re­spect to me,” the GOP front-run­ner said last week, “that will be fair game.” A Re­pub­lic­an state law­maker in New Hamp­shire heckled Hil­lary Clin­ton on Sunday about Bill Clin­ton’s sexu­al im­pro­pri­ety. The can­did­ate called the law­maker rude. Bill Clin­ton cam­paigned for his wife on Monday, duck­ing ques­tions about Trump’s de­clar­a­tion.

I agree with Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Ruth Mar­cus, who said Hil­lary Clin­ton opened “a dan­ger­ous door” by (cor­rectly) call­ing Trump a sex­ist and (smartly) us­ing her hus­band as a cam­paign sur­rog­ate. Mar­cus wrote:

He had a suc­cess­ful pres­id­ency—with an ugly blot. “Sex­ism” isn’t the pre­cise word for his pred­at­ory be­ha­vi­or to­ward wo­men or his in­ex­cus­able re­la­tion­ship with a 22-year-old in­tern. Yet in the lar­ger scheme of things, Bill Clin­ton’s con­duct to­ward wo­men is far worse than any of the of­fens­ive things that Trump has said.

It’s not just about Bill. Trump is hold­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton ac­count­able for her be­ha­vi­or. As a New York Times ed­it­or­i­al put it: “For dec­ades Mrs. Clin­ton has helped pro­tect her hus­band’s polit­ic­al ca­reer, and hers, from the taint of his sexu­al mis­be­ha­vi­or, as evid­enced by the Clin­ton team’s at­tacks on the char­ac­ter of wo­men linked to Mr. Clin­ton.” In private con­ver­sa­tions with a close friend, Hil­lary Clin­ton once called Lew­in­sky, “a nar­ciss­ist­ic loony toon.” Now, she’s run­ning for pres­id­ent as a cham­pi­on for wo­men, par­tic­u­larly wo­men ab­used by men.

The Clin­ton team hopes that Trump drops the sub­ject. That seems un­likely.

Per­haps the cri­ti­cism will back­fire and gen­er­ate sym­pathy for Hil­lary Clin­ton, which is what happened two dec­ades ago. Nobody knows.

But seni­or Demo­crats tell me there are sev­er­al reas­ons why they worry that the old al­leg­a­tions will gain new legs.

1. Hil­lary Clin­ton threw the first punch. Voters might think that Trump has the right to de­fend him­self.

2. While voters my age baked the scan­dals in­to their opin­ions of Clin­ton years ago, mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans have not had a chance to lit­ig­ate the is­sue. As NBC’s Chuck Todd tweeted Monday: “Just a re­mind­er about how long ago the 90s really were re: Bill Clin­ton. Nobody un­der the age 38 has ever seen Bill’s name on a bal­lot.”

3. In the last two dec­ades, the pub­lic has be­come less tol­er­ant of sexu­al ab­users, in­clud­ing power­ful men who have af­fairs with young em­ploy­ees, and more crit­ic­al of people who at­tack sexu­al-ab­use vic­tims. Voters might re­coil at the memory of how bru­tally the Clin­ton team dis­missed charges that proved to be true. “If you drag a hun­dred dol­lar bill through a trail­er park,” James Carville in­fam­ously said, “you nev­er know what you’ll find.”

4. In the post-In­ter­net era, polit­ic­al cov­er­age is more fo­cused on per­son­al­it­ies and per­son­al lives. A power couple whose mar­riage has long been the source of curi­os­ity must tread care­fully in this boom mar­ket for in­tim­acy.

5. The cul­ture has coarsened in 20 years. Trump him­self gives people li­cense to say ter­rible things in pub­lic that they had long kept to them­selves. Trump and oth­er Clin­ton crit­ics must be won­der­ing how low they can go.

6. Changes in the me­dia land­scape weakened the me­dia “gate­keep­ers”—people like me who in­vest­ig­ated scores of al­leg­a­tions about Clin­ton, but only shared in­form­a­tion that could be con­firmed.

In the old days, sa­la­cious ru­mors and wild al­leg­a­tions got filed un­der “Clin­ton-Wo­men”—and dumped with oth­er garbage.

Now every­body is a pub­lish­er, nobody trusts the pro­fes­sion­al me­dia, and facts are dis­pos­able. Lord knows what stink will be aired in this en­vir­on­ment.

This story was up­dated with New York Times ed­it­or­i­al and re­lated back­ground.

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