Magazine | October 15, 2018, Issue

Kirsten Gillibrand’s Calculated Convictions

Kirsten Gillibrand (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Friend of Bill yesterday, ‘Me Too’ stalwart today

In the Senate, you’re either a work­horse or a show horse. Kirsten Gillibrand, despite the dynamism with which she pushed into law such blockbuster legislation as the Merchant Marine Academy Improvement Act of 2017 and her noble fight for the Quiet Communities Act of 2018 (which stands a 5 percent chance of passing, according to Skopos Labs), doesn’t seem much like a workhorse. It used to be said among New York newspaper reporters that the most dangerous place to be was between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera. Now Schumer is the shy one in the New York senatorial delegation.

Gillibrand’s publicity-seeking engine is forever running, and the sound it makes is Notice me notice me notice me. She even voted against James Mattis as secretary of defense: Leave the Pentagon rudderless to own Trump? Sure, whatever. She cast the only vote in opposition to Mattis. As of early this year, she’d voted against Trump more than twice as often as Schumer had. Though she denied (this was a year and a half ago) that she is running for president in 2020, a Washington Post headline on a piece tracking her behavior this year read, “It sure looks as if Kirsten Gillibrand is running for president.”

At least that’s the way it looks to you and me. The way it looks to Mr. and Mrs. U.S. Voter is: Who the heck is Kirsten Gillibrand? An August Politico poll found that should she be the Democratic nominee against Donald Trump, he would win only 29 percent of the vote. Um . . . yay? Except Gillibrand received 24 percent in the same poll. Forty-seven percent were undecided. Michael Avenatti managed to get 20 percent, and no one had even heard of him until about six months ago. Hence Gillibrand’s nonstop effort to get in front of the cameras: Notice me notice me notice me.

Gillibrand is always up for a quote, no matter how half-thought or appalling. When lawyers for Christine Blasey Ford spent two days arguing that their client couldn’t possibly come and testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee until a nice leisurely FBI investigation had concluded — before dumping that excuse and moving on to others — Gillibrand made a beeline for the news crews. Though Ford did not allege a federal crime, which made the demand for FBI involvement look like an obvious slow­down tactic, Gillibrand said the dispute obviously indicated that Ford was telling the truth and Judge Kavanaugh was lying. “Someone who is lying does not ask the FBI to investigate their claims,” she said. “Who is not asking the FBI to investigate these claims? The White House. Judge Kavanaugh has not asked to have the FBI review these claims. Is that the reaction of an innocent person? It is not.”

Even if such an FBI investigation were warranted, where could it possibly begin except with . . . obtaining a sworn statement from the accuser? Yet Kavanaugh was the one who provided sworn statements to the Senate in which he denied the allegations that Ford had made via the media; at the time of publication, Ford had said exactly nothing under penalty of perjury. This was Gillibrand going well beyond “Let’s hear her story.” It was a claim that Kavanaugh’s reluctance to join the Democratic party’s effort to sabotage his nomination was tantamount to an admission of guilt. In the same appearance, Gillibrand also said, “I believe her, because she’s telling the truth.” Gillibrand is certainly entitled to believe Ford. But she couldn’t possibly know whether Ford is telling the truth.

The best possible spin on Gillibrand’s attempts to make herself the Senate’s scourge of sexual assault is that she isn’t a shameless opportunist but she has a difficult time thinking clearly when it comes to such cases. Even after the notorious Rolling Stone story about a supposed gang rape at the University of Virginia was exposed as the product of the febrile imagination of a single lovestruck accuser named Jackie, Gillibrand said, “Victim-blaming or shining the spotlight on her for coming forward is not the right approach.” Victim-blaming! The undergrad, identified much later as Jackie Coakley, falsely portrayed members of a fraternity as rapists and the fraternity itself as the eager incubator of a culture of rape. She participated in a vicious attack. It was the fraternity brothers who were the victims.

Another effort to borrow some sexual-assault-victim glamour, Gillibrand’s notorious decision to bring then–Columbia student Emma “Mattress Girl” Sulkowicz to President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, was even more unconscionable. The young woman’s claim of rape by a fellow undergraduate, which was dismissed by a campus investigation, looked suspiciously like revenge for being romantically rejected by him after consensual sex. The young man later reached a settlement with the university after he sued it over the debacle in which his accuser, thanks to the efforts of Gillibrand and others, became a national celebrity while his name was repeatedly linked to unproven and almost certainly false claims.

The rise of “Me Too” and the fall of Hillary Clinton have provided Gillibrand with what she likely sees as an opening to shoulder her way into the front row of Democrats as the referee prepares to fire the starter pistol for 2020. With her blond hair and her lawnmower drone, her studied humorlessness and her pond-water charisma, Gillibrand sees herself as the Hillary substitute the Democrats have been yearning for, even filling the same seat once held by the Censorious HRC. If you’re a bit myopic and leave your glasses off, you might even confuse the two. Certainly it’s easy to confuse their hypocrisy about sexual predators. Like Hillary Clinton, Gillibrand was happy to deploy Bill Clinton to her advantage when the old lecher was still presented by the Democrats and their media allies as the unjustly targeted victim of prudes and puritans. But now that Bill’s campaign-trail charisma has faded, what remains is the memory of what a disgusting serial abuser of women he was. Gillibrand can no more escape him than Hillary can.

As PolitiFact notes in a piece written in defense of Gillibrand:

She has been a political ally to the Clintons for almost two decades. Bill Clinton campaigned for Gillibrand during her first run for an upstate Congressional seat in 2006. Three years later, he headlined a fundraiser for Gillibrand after she was appointed to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. Gillibrand accepted his endorsement for her re-election the following year. . . . Gillibrand appeared publicly with Bill Clinton several times since her first election.

That last bit is a euphemistic way of describing Gillibrand’s multiple, en­thusiastic barnstorming appearances with Bill during Hillary’s 2016 campaign.

It wasn’t until 2017 — two decades after Clinton settled a lawsuit with Paula Jones for $850,000, two decades after Juanita Broaddrick went public with her rape allegation, two decades after Kathleen Willey said Clinton groped her in the Oval Office while she was grieving on the day her husband committed suicide, two decades after the Lewinsky scandal — that it occurred to Gillibrand that “champion of women” isn’t a mantle you’re entitled to if you’re buddy-buddy with Bill Clinton. Yet even then Gillibrand (in a New York Times interview) offered no hint of apology for having so closely associated herself with a chronic abuser of women, but merely the dispassionate and non-outraged observation that Clinton’s resignation from the presidency “would have been the appropriate re­sponse.” Then she moved on to a Harvey Weinstein–like explanation that those were very different times (as if Clinton’s actions were considered normal way back in the Nineties), and she finally pivoted to Donald Trump’s misdeeds. So far, the media have been reluctant to press Gillibrand for a more vigorous denunciation of Bill Clinton, content to leave things as they are, with Gillibrand supposedly both stalwart in the campaign to cast sexual predators out of public life and expressing no remorse whatsoever about her many ties to the Clintons.

If Gillibrand intends to go marching into 2020 under the banner #TimesUp for Sexual Predators, she is going to encounter some healthy skepticism and maybe even a rude remark or two from her ostensible allies. After she suggested that Bill Clinton should have resigned, Clinton-family henchman Philippe Reines tweeted, “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite. Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.” Given her history of flip-flopping on gun rights and immigration, she’d be more honest trying this one: Gillibrand 2020: I’ll Be Whoever You Want Me to Be.

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