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Hillary Clinton’s decision to bring up former Miss Universe Alicia Machado during the closing minutes of the presidential debate has the establishment press in a tizzy. The supposedly thoughtful people are devoting a lot of bandwidth to exploring not just whether this creates an opening for her opponent to bring up former President Bill Clinton’s history of marital infidelity but whether it would be legitimate for him to do so.
It’s an interesting question and the wrong question. The invocation of the Machado story, which the establishment press had ready to roll – surprise, surprise – as soon as Clinton brought it up has little to do with Bill Clinton’s various infidelities, as far as the qualifications to be president go. It has everything to do, however, with legitimizing the discussion of how the former first lady treats women, especially those women whom she saw as a threat to her husband’s reputation and, in turn, a danger to her political future.
Back when he was in the White House and his active extramarital goings-on were all over the news channels, people knew who Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp and Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones were. More importantly, they knew why they knew.
That was nearly 20 years ago. To the voters who may well decide the outcome of the election in 2016, it is ancient history. It seems a little strange therefore that so many of the pundits seemingly on Clinton’s side seem ready to relitigate the whole business.
They’re not fools. They believe, first and foremost, the country didn’t care back in the 90s and won’t care now, so it won’t cost Clinton any votes. Second, it gives them an excuse to start talking about Donald Trump’s marital record while making it look like he started it. The New York Times and other publications are already trying to get a court to unseal the records from his divorces, probably because they figure they contain enough dirt to bury him. A public fight over who is the better husband – Trump or Bill Clinton – would increase the credibility of the argument that the public has a right to know what’s in court documents that are frankly none of their business.
All that aside, it’s also a diversion from the real issue: what Clinton did, what she knew and what she authorized be done as part of a campaign directed from inside the White House to destroy the reputations of anyone connected in a sexual context to her husband.
Did she know beforehand a senior presidential adviser would dismiss Paula Jones’ complaint that Clinton, while governor of Arkansas, asked her to perform a sex act on him (and remember, she later won an out of court settlement against him) as what happens when you drag hundred dollars bills through a trailer park?
When a mid-level aide in her husband’s White House went around town telling people Monica Lewinsky was a “stalker,” did she know ahead of time he was going to do it? And did she approve or did she discourage him from engaging in shaming activities that blamed the victim in order to protect her meal ticket?
It’s absolutely relevant to ask questions about the role she played in the damage control operation. What did she know about the work of Jack Palladino, a San Francisco-based private investigator who became notorious for his work putting out the so-called “bimbo eruptions” that plagued the Clintons from the 1992 New Hampshire primary through their eight years in the Oval Office? She needs to be asked if she played any part in hiring him, what she might have known about what he was doing, whether she gave or caused him to be given names of women who were of particular concern because of the problems they might cause. Did she know she was lying when she told the country she believed her husband and not the White House intern who figured at the center of the worst presidential scandal since Watergate? A clear understanding of what she did in the past might help us all understand better what she will do in the future.
These are not incidental points. They are central to questions about her temperament, her judgment, her problem-solving abilities, and if certain rumors are to be believed, her commitment to staying inside the law during moments of crisis. These are aspects of private character that matter very much in a president, as we learned to are everlasting disappointment from men like Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. The people and the press are already asking these kinds of questions about Trump, so it’s not as if the ground isn’t already broken. They just need to be asked of Clinton too – and they will be. If not now, then later, when we may have to live with whatever answers we get no matter how unpleasant they might be.
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