In April, the historical drama Chappaquiddick will arrive in theaters. Variety declared the film “a tense, scrupulous, absorbingly precise and authentic piece of history — a tabloid scandal attached to a smoke-filled-room travesty.”
The reviewer, Owen Gleiberman, suggested that the film could spur a dramatic reevaluation of the Liberal Lion of the Senate:
Ted Kennedy should, by all rights, have stood trial for involuntary manslaughter, which would likely have ended his political career. The fact that the Kennedy family — the original postwar dynasty of the one percent — possessed, and exerted, the influence to squash the case is the essence of what Chappaquiddick means. The Kennedys lived outside the law . . . those are the facts, and they are facts that liberals, too often, have been willing to shove under the carpet.
If you’re a Kennedy critic, or just fume at a famous senator enjoying the sort of legal unaccountability usually reserved for Heisman Trophy–winning USC running backs, this film will constitute a form of justice, correcting the record and tearing down the mythical façade. But it’s a rather convenient one for Ted Kennedy, as he died in 2009. Considering the ongoing reverence for the Kennedy family in so many powerful circles in this country, Chappaquiddick is a brave film. But it would have been much braver — perhaps impossible to make — a decade ago.
If the spring brings a reevaluation of Ted Kennedy, it will probably come on the heels of a sudden and dramatic reevaluation of Bill Clinton as a consequence of the explosion of sexual-harassment and assault allegations in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote Tuesday:
Of the Clinton accusers, the one who haunts me is [Juanita] Broaddrick. The story she tells about Clinton recalls those we’ve heard about Weinstein. She claimed they had plans to meet in a hotel coffee shop, but at the last minute he asked to come up to her hotel room instead, where he raped her. Five witnesses said she confided in them about the assault right after it happened. It’s true that she denied the rape in an affidavit to Paula Jones’s lawyers, before changing her story when talking to federal investigators. But her explanation, that she didn’t want to go public but couldn’t lie to the F.B.I., makes sense. Put simply, I believe her.
A New York Times columnist declaring in print that she believes the 42nd president of the United States is a rapist ought to make people stop and think. But since we’re seeing a tide of slime from predatory men gradually oozing out of Hollywood studios, television networks, and state capitals, it seems fair to ask whether Clinton’s experience left many powerful and abusive men convinced that they could escape serious consequence.
It seems fair to ask whether Bill Clinton’s experience left many powerful and abusive men convinced that they could escape serious consequence.
Another New York Times columnist, David Brooks, asked a question on Charlie Rose a week ago that should leave Democrats awake at night: “How much did tolerance of Bill Clinton create the environment in which the rest of this was given permission?”
The United States had seen infamous and widely covered allegations of sexual harassment before, most notably in the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and the forced resignation of Oregon GOP senator Bob Packwood. But in January 1998, the Monica Lewinsky scandal set off a year-long national discussion, one that occasionally noted the mounting pile of accusations of sexual misconduct: Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones. The Clinton machine smeared the women viciously, with James Carville nastily declaring, “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park and you never know what you’ll find.”
It’s worth remembering the infamous Clinton-finger-wagging moment, when he addressed a skeptical nation and vehemently denied the nature of his encounters with Lewinsky: “I did not . . . have . . . sexual . . . relations with that woman . . . Miss Lewinsky, and I never told anybody to lie.” He did so because in January 1998, admitting to even a consensual relationship with 22-year-old White House intern would have spurred bipartisan demands for his resignation. There was a time when there was a broad cultural consensus that a man in a powerful position is not supposed to look upon his female subordinates as a potential harem. And if Clinton saw Lewinsky as a sexual plaything in the workplace, it’s plausible he could have been less concerned about consent from other women in earlier years.
A few days ago, Matt Yglesias of Vox articulated what was heresy on the Left during those years: “I wonder how much healthier a place we’d be in as a society today if Bill Clinton had resigned in shame back in 1998.”
(One of the great ironies is that if Clinton had resigned and Al Gore had become president, Gore probably would’ve had a greater advantage in the 2000 election. Gore reportedly confronted Clinton forcefully after the 2000 recount and blamed Clinton for his defeat.)
Was Bill Clinton a role model for how men can indulge their worst impulses and get away with it? Since the 1990s, how many men in powerful positions have seen Bill Clinton in that light? After all, all sorts of powerful people — from prominent feminists to powerful lawyers to the leaders of Clinton’s party — came to the consensus that the whole Lewinsky mess was a “private matter.” Perhaps the affair with her was — although Americans are right to expect better from a president — but the claims of Jones, Willey, and Broaddrick were not private matters in the slightest.
After the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, Lee Smith, writing in The Weekly Standard, asked a difficult question that few Democrats will really want to confront. Would the enormously consequential New York Times article detailing the accusations about the Hollywood producer have been published if the 2016 election had ended differently and Weinstein had the president of the United States on speed-dial?
The court over which Bill Clinton once presided, a court in which Weinstein was one part jester, one part exchequer, and one part executioner, no longer exists. . . . If the story was published during the course of a Hillary Clinton presidency, it wouldn’t have really been about Harvey Weinstein. Harvey would have been seen as a proxy for the president’s husband and it would have embarrassed the president, the first female president.
We’ll never know how events would have played out in that alternative reality. Considering Weinstein’s far-reaching and ferocious efforts to discourage reporting about his abuses, it’s easy to believe that he would seek out assistance from the Clintons as the Times reporters closed in.
Right now, we are indeed having a reckoning about a longtime blind eye to powerful men abusing women, but it’s occurring on the most convenient terms for the Democratic party — when Kennedy is dead, Bill Clinton is retired and fading into memory, Hillary’s prospects are done, and her closest network of supporters now largely live on the ash heap of American political history. Funny how all of this worked out so conveniently for the party.