The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Death of Compartmentalization

If there is one silver lining to the now-infamous Trump “grab” video, it should be the final death of the idea of “compartmentalization.”

If you remember the (first) Clinton years, this was one of the buzzwords used by defenders of Bill Clinton’s various sexual depravities and depradations – marital infidelity (Gennifer Flowers), sexual harassment of workplace subordinates (Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky, the latter a star-struck intern barely out of college), unwanted groping (Kathleen Willey), possibly even rape (Juanita Broaddrick). The idea, promoted uniformly by Clinton flacks on cable TV and apologists in print, was that Clinton’s sexual misconduct and mistreatment of women – even while sitting at his desk in the Oval Office – was wholly separate from his public character and fitness for office, and that only bluenosed prudes could care what a man did to women outside the public eye. As the Baltimore Sun summarized in 1999:

Since Jan. 21, when the Washington Post first reported charges of Clinton’s affair with an intern, “compartmentalize” began to appear more frequently in the written record of this national scandal. Throughout 1998, scores of newspapers used the concept to attempt to make human sense of the rise and fall and rise and fall of William Jefferson Clinton….

In all its psycho-syllables, compartmentalization became a clean, clinical explanation for Clinton’s choices regarding White House intern Monica Lewinsky. And his prowess in this regard has been duly noted:

*“Americans have discovered in Bill Clinton an awesome capacity to compartmentalize and carry on.” – Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, January 1998.

* “The president’s ability to ‘compartmentalise’ his life could be called legendary were it not so real.” – Manchester Guardian Weekly (England), Oct. 18, 1998.

Clinton defenders fanned out across the media to offer context for why it was OK for their man to treat women like disposable sex objects. The Washington Post looked for the psychological roots of this tendency in Clinton’s biography. Journalist Nina Burleigh famously said of Clinton that she’d be “happy to give him [oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.” The New York Observer’s Alexandra Jacobs celebrated Clinton’s chronic mistreatment of women as an icon of a sort of progress:

[C]haracter is an inhibiting constraint in this era; it keeps you from doing everything you want. Like our President, we don’t want to deny ourselves anything, we don’t want to be pinned down, we don’t want to do the hard work of integration. We all want to wriggle free. We want to present many versions of ourselves to everybody.  

Well, 18 years later, the voices that urged us to compartmentalize Clinton’s sexual character from the rest of his character – including the bulk of Hillary Clinton’s senior staff, to say nothing of Mrs. Clinton’s own role in downplaying the scandals and attacking the women her husband had mistreated – now affect to be horrified that her opponent has been caught on tape treating women like disposable sex objects. This is who Trump is, they tell us; this says something about what kind of president he will be and what we’d have to tell our children if he was in the White House.

Well, welcome to the club. Better late than never?

As we’ve seen for years now, Democrats only ever learn the downside of their arguments after they have been turned against them. I suppose it won’t surprise me when these same voices turn around and resurrect the same old pro-Clinton arguments the instant it’s in their partisan advantage again to do so, but the rest of us should stand up and declare now: we were right, they were wrong, compartmentalization is nonsense, and it should be thrown permanently on the ash heap of history.

That doesn’t mean every American political leader needs to be a sexual saint, or even necessarily that we should never under any circumstances elect another President who has a track record of treating women badly in his personal life. It does mean that we should dispense with the idea that a man treating women badly is somehow separable from the man’s public character. Character matters, especially in the chief executive, and always has, as Jonah Goldberg and Jay Nordlinger have noted in the aftermath of GrabGate. It matters not least because of the myriad ways in which a public figure’s sexual misbehavior can lead to legal troubles, cover-ups, or even changes in public policy driven by fear of being called a hypocrite.

Part of the reason why people try to build rhetorical moats around sins of character is that our political discourse is locked into the binary mindset that every flaw in a political leader must be either completely disqualifying or completely irrelevant. Some are one or the other; but every political leader is flawed, in different ways; and the right answer is to consider the character of the whole man (or woman), not to draw arbitrary lines around some flaws while accentuating others.

I like to use John McCain as an example of this: McCain treated his first wife very badly (when he returned from Vietnam after years of separation he found her physically changed by a car accident during his imprisonment, and ran around on her and ultimately divorced her). He has, so far as one can tell, been a faithful husband and father in his lengthy second marriage. He showed heroism few living men can match while suffering torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. He showed some terrible ethical judgment in the Keating Five scandal. These and other events in McCain’s life can’t be separated: when he ran for president in 2000 and 2008, the right way for voters to evaluate him was to see these aspects of his character, together with his long record in the Senate, as a whole and judge him accordingly. We had a firm idea, as a result, of the ways in which one could expect McCain to behave in crisis or under conditions of strain or temptation, what he valued to the point of matchless sacrifice, and what he didn’t value enough. That assessment requires more perspective than a single soundbite, so we have a hard time digesting it in today’s yes/no media environment.

The “moralizers” were right about Bill Clinton (and McCain, and Ted Kennedy, and John Edwards, and Gary Hart, and Newt Gingrich, and John Kerry, and Rudy Giuliani, and Mark Sanford, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Mark Foley, and Barney Frank, and Eliot Spitzer, and Anthony Weiner, and David Vitter, and Herman Cain, and Chris Dodd, and all the rest); the “compartmentalizers” were wrong. Donald Trump’s mistreatment of women matters, just as Bill Clinton’s did, and Bill’s defenders (from Hillary on down) were always wrong to tell us otherwise. Perhaps neither man’s words or deeds should automatically disqualify them from higher office, but the days when anyone could argue with a straight face that they were not relevant at all or not anybody’s business should be over and should never return.

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