Suddenly it has become fashionable again in liberal circles to flay Bill Clinton for his sexual misconduct, whether real, alleged or imagined.
Amid the national frenzy swirling around the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore, prominent journalists and politicians are competing to display their dudgeon over the former president and things he is said to have done long ago.
On The New York Times op-ed page, new columnist Michelle Goldberg writes that the former president ought to be expelled from “decent society” because of Juanita Broaddrick’s allegation that he raped her in 1978, under the headline “I Believe Juanita.”
In Politico, former ABC correspondent Jeff Greenfield pillories Democrats who supported Clinton for supposedly “brushing aside the serious questions … of predatory sexual behavior” toward Broaddrick, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey.
And in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan demands “a reckoning” of the way that “the Democratic Party protected Bill Clinton.”
All these commentators, and a few more, seem to recollect a moment when Clinton blithely escaped accountability for awful sex offenses because the feckless liberals let him skip. But that is precisely the opposite of what happened.
Unlike Weinstein, Moore or any of the dozens of powerful men whose misdeeds have provoked a wave of justified fury, Clinton endured a series of official investigations of his alleged sexual misdeeds, litigated publicly all the way to the Supreme Court and the U.S. Senate.
A zealous federal inquisitor with a team of relentless and experienced prosecutors, as well as the forensic services of the FBI, ran a wide-ranging sex probe that went back decades. The special prosecutor’s name was Kenneth W. Starr.
The Starr investigation of Clinton’s personal life unfolded rapidly after the independent counsel and his staff abandoned “Whitewater,” a small-time land swindle whose principal victims turned out to be the Clintons themselves.
Approached with a tip by lawyers for Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state employee who claimed then-Governor Clinton had exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room, Starr opened a new case to ensnare President Clinton in a perjury trap over his illicit consensual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
The Lewinsky opening provided Starr with a license to intensify his scrutiny of Clinton’s personal life.
During the months leading up to impeachment in 1999, the Office of Independent Counsel deployed its full forensic authority to investigate every salacious claim or rumor about him. Included in that expansion of Starr’s probe were the cases of Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick.
Keen as Starr was to compile a thoroughly damning impeachment dossier against Clinton, both of those cases presented factual and legal problems that proved impossible for him to overcome. Under oath, two of Willey’s closest friends directly contradicted her version of how Clinton aggressively “groped” her in the Oval Office despite her protestations.
During his investigation, Starr learned that Willey had lied to FBI agents after receiving a grant of transactional immunity from his office. He immunized her again, but by then Willey was bereft of believability.
Starr also confronted vexing problems with Broaddrick’s charge that Clinton had assaulted her in a hotel room in 1978. Before the independent counsel brought her in, she had sworn an affidavit in the Paula Jones case denying any sexual contact with Clinton, and then repeated that denial in a deposition under oath.
The FBI found five witnesses who insisted that Broaddrick had told them about the rape at the time. Two of those witnesses were sisters and close friends of Broaddrick who hated Clinton for commuting the death sentence of their father’s convicted killer.
A third was Broaddrick’s husband, David, with whom she had been conducting an illicit affair when the alleged incident occurred. Republican operatives who had pursued the rape rumors when Clinton first ran for president also cast doubt on her story and her motives.
Whether Clinton assaulted Broaddrick was impossible to know — or to prove — from the available evidence. That was why, in a footnote to his report, Starr described his findings about the woman called “Jane Doe #5” as “inconclusive.”
As for Paula Jones, various contradictions marred her testimony, notably the mythical “distinguishing characteristic” of Clinton’s male equipment, which she evidently invented. Still, he agreed to pay her a settlement of $850,000, without any admission, to end the litigation.
That payment was the least of the indignities and injuries that befell Clinton. The investigations cost him tens of millions of dollars, a five-year suspension of his license to practice law, a searing scar upon his family, and a future obituary that will feature his status as the only president ever impeached over a sex lie.
Yet those who still feel an urge to flog Clinton, for whatever motive, should pursue that stern impulse with all the seriousness it deserves.
This case isn’t a current legal proceeding. It’s history — and the facts, not fitting any easy storyline or moral fable, are available to those willing to deal with them.
— Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JoeConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.