Saturday, February 17, 2018

Atlantic--post Bill Clinton it's like we all stopped pretending we cared about the fidelity of politicians compared to their results

Right up until 2016 or so, there was a clean narrative about political infidelity. Back in the day, the story went, politicians had affairs with abandon—John Kennedy, of course, but also Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and plenty others. (It’s a curiosity that Richard Nixon, the most famously unethical president, is one of the few without serious allegations of infidelity.)

Here we can pause a moment to consider that Richard Nixon's scruples could be questioned without questioning his fidelity to his wife, and by extension, looking back on the controversies that surrounded a former local megachurch leader, it was possible to regard him as having had a number of ethical shortcomings and misuses of power and influence despite having never cheated on his wife.  Suggesting that Mark Driscoll could be thought of as a Richard Nixon of megachurch pastors is unflattering but, since a journalist mentioned that Nixon was never credibly charged with cheating on his wife, it's an instructive moment evangelicals and conservative Protestants could benefit from considering--you can be a very, very bad leader even if you're a faithful husband and family man.

Moving along:

“If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else,” Matt Bai argued in a 2014 book on Hart. “By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods.”

Or so the story went.

But this narrative looks dubious these days. Friday morning, The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow published a long, detailed account of how Trump’s friend David Pecker, the head of the tabloid empire that includes The National Enquirer, killed the story of Trump’s affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal by buying the rights. The Wall Street Journal previously reported on the Pecker’s move to suppress the story, but Farrow adds a great deal of detail, and obtained a contemporary written account by McDougal of her relationship with Trump, who was early in his marriage to his third wife, Melania.

And Farrow’s story comes the same week that Michael Cohen, Trump’s attorney, admitted he “facilitat[ed]” a payment to Stormy Daniels, a porn star who also alleged an affair with Trump, in exchange for her silence. Cohen had previously denied this; his vague statement did not really rule out Trump having been the source of the $130,000 payout, though it was clearly intended to give that impression. Friends of Daniels promptly told a celebrity news site that she felt this disclosure sprung her from her agreement to be silent.

There’s simply no plausible deniability that Trump is a serial philanderer—each of these stories has contemporaneous evidence and hush-money agreements, to say nothing of Trump’s history of infidelities. There’s also no reason to believe that the latest story will change much. In the old era, voters didn’t know about infidelity and what they didn’t know didn’t hurt them. In the interim, they knew, and it drove lots of politicians from office. And in the new era, voters know and they just don’t care.
If this is true, however, it didn’t start with Trump—he simply represents the apotheosis. Instead, it began with Clinton, who previously appeared to be the high-water mark of the middle period. Clinton was caught with his pants down (not quite literally, but close) having an affair with a White House intern. He lied about it, including to his closest friends and cabinet, but most consequentially to a grand jury. That led to Clinton’s impeachment in the House.

But a strange thing happened. Clinton wasn’t convicted by the Senate, and he didn’t resign. He didn’t show much shame at all. Oh sure, he apologized for lying, he bit his lower lip, the whole nine yards, but he more or less forged ahead. It worked. Voters knew—and it turned out they didn’t care. The highest approval rating of his presidency came around the time of his impeachment, and it stayed high, around 60 percent, for the rest of his term.


But even if Bill Clinton has, by 2018, been deemed too toxic to be thought of as an asset, his legacy is inseparable from her legacy.   If in the wake of Bill Clinton's impeachment infidelity and even deceit were not deal breakers then what might be left by which to assess a political figure's success?  Perhaps something like blunt policy implementation.  If Trump were to keep even a third of the things he said he'd do, let alone half, then anyone who had concluded that the post World War II status quo was not working for the working class or for middle class whites might just throw in with Trump not so much because he was considered a person of good character or even as someone who might necessarily fulfill campaign promises but because if the last twenty years of political dynasties such as Bush or Gore or Kennedy or Clinton or whomever got things to where they were in 2016 then to vote for Trump was to vote for someone and something different. 

Democrats could hardly show Al Franken the door and still keep Clinton around as if he wasn't a liability in a #MeToo moment.  But twenty years later presents its own difficulties on the Clinton legacy and, more pointedly for me, what is not in question is whether or not the Clintonian legacy is being shifted to the side while making no fundamental reassessments of policy.  If Trump has had no observable shame about not being a faithful husband the precedent for this not sinking a public figure began decades ago with Bill Clinton, who managed to go through an impeachment process and come out the other side still popular. 

Take this ...

“Bill Clinton’s a former president of the United States, and in his administration, we took an economy that was in the tank and built an economic engine that had been unparalleled. Did he make significant mistakes? Of course he did,” Perez said. “People will make judgments race by race about who are the best surrogates to come down and advocate.”

So maybe Clinton did some bad stuff.  Maybe he wasn't a faithful husband.  Maybe during his watch aerial bombing in the former Yugoslavia kept happening when anyone with any passing knowledge of military history could suggest that bombing the daylights out of a nation never does anything in strategic terms (it's one of a few things about Clinton's legacy I considered ghastly and evil at the time even while I still considered myself both a Republican and even a hawk on national defense, bombing the former Yugoslavia was an idiotic and immoral policy but I digress a bit).  But for the people who felt like Bill Clinton's years fixed the economy it was all good.  Sure, maybe we could look back on a decade of the internet boom and perma-temp and contract work with no medical coverage and weird hours in the Puget Sound but, hey, those years were awesome for some people, I have to assume.  Just not me.  For those people who just want to throw on a graphic about how under the Clinton years more jobs were created and we didn't have any officially announced military actions, if that's your thing I won't be able to change your minds. 

John Halle had a blog post not o long ago where he discussed how Democrats reacted to the Paula Jones allegations twenty years ago and how that sinks the foundation for moral outrage on the part of Democrats who might have backed Hillary Clinton with respect to the character of Trump.  Not everyone thinks that how Clinton or Trump handled married life is worthy of emulation but within the confines of the big two parties it seems clearer and clearer that in spite of some observable differences about implementation of certain goals relevant to a pax Americana, the modes of operating, the basic ends in mind are shared.  And, to that end, it seems we may be at a point where the two parties have shown what levels of pragmatism they have been willing to endorse in the last thirty years (and further back, obviously) to get their goals achieved.  Even an attempt by the DNC to distance itself from Bill might be as much pragmatism as principle. 

Not feeling particularly trusting of either of the two parties at this point, though. 


Eric Love said...

It's an interesting month in Australian politics. A senior politician on the conservative side had an affair with a staff member, now he's left his wife and kids for the younger woman who is now pregnant. He's in lots of trouble but criticism is coming largely muted from both sides. The progressives don't want to be too moralistic but are happy to point out his hypocrisy (esp for his support of traditional family values). Those who would most want to denounce poor sexual ethics don't want to knock someone on their own side.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

"Those who would most want to denounce poor sexual ethics don't want to knock someone on their own side."

That seems to be the long and short of it there.