Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
As powerful men in entertainment, politics and business face credible accusations of sexual harassment and assault, the Democratic Party has finally begun to reassess its response to similarly egregious claims against former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Yet allegations of sexual misconduct have hit lawmakers from both parties, and that has prompted some Republicans to ask whether the GOP’s own ethical standards are collapsing.
Last week Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, concluded that “Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency during the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” during a New York Times podcast.
The comments by Gillibrand, the rising party leader who won Hillary Clinton’s seat in the Senate and has made sexual harassment in the workplace a major issue for women, suggested that a long-delayed day of “reckoning” was finally at hand.
In a hard-hitting column for The Atlantic that preceded Gillibrand’s comment—“Bill Clinton: A Reckoning”—Caitlin Flanagan outlined the allegations against the former president that were issued by a number of accusers.
“It was a pattern of behavior; it included an alleged violent assault; the women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks,” said Flanagan.
But Clinton “was rescued by a surprising force: machine feminism. The movement had by then ossified into a partisan operation, and it was willing—eager—to let this friend of the sisterhood enjoy a little droit de seigneur.”
Flanagan singled out Gloria Steinem’s March 1998 column, “Feminists and the Clinton Question”, which urged her audience to respond with “compassion for and gratitude to the man the women accused. Moreover … it characterized contemporary feminism as a weaponized auxiliary of the Democratic Party.”
And even as Steinem acknowledged the credibility of at least one accusation, she insisted the president was not “guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb, and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.”
Two decades later, Flanagan concluded, the “widespread liberal response to the sex-crime accusations against Bill Clinton found their natural consequence … in the behavior of Harvey Weinstein: Stay loudly and publicly and extravagantly on the side of signal leftist causes and you can do what you want in the privacy of your offices and hotel rooms.”
Flanagan called on the Democratic Party “to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton. The party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant, Big Dog president and his stunning string of progressive accomplishments that it abandoned some of its central principles.”
In National Review, columnist Mona Charen looks back to the 1980s and suggests that Republicans and social conservatives have long prided themselves on setting a higher bar when their own political leaders as accused of sexual misconduct.
“In 1983, two congressmen, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, were censured by the House,” recalled Charen in Mona Charen, in “The Uses of Disgrace.”
“Both had admitted to having affairs with 17-year-old pages. The Republican, Daniel Crane, represented a conservative Illinois district. His constituents sent him packing the following year, despite his apology and request for forgiveness.
“The Democrat was Gerry Studds, who represented a liberal Massachusetts district.”
Studds kept his seat until he voluntarily retired in 1997.
“At the time, conservatives saw the congressmen's differing fates as symbolic of a difference between the parties,” she said.
Yes, there are “bad apples” in both parties, “but the way they are received tells you something about their constituents. Do they bend the rules when one of their own is caught in a transgression? And how do you define what a transgression really is?”
“Republicans,” she said, “have come a long way since Daniel Crane.”
Reflecting to the saga of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, she predicted there would be equally serious consequences it the GOP deflected credible accusations against members of its own party:
If [Clinton] had done the right thing and resigned, he would have taken the disgrace on his own back, where it belonged.
By brazening it out, he made all of us complicit in it. His refusal to resign said, ‘I'm an abusive pig, and you are a country of abusive pigs if you permit me to remain in office.’
Strikingly, Peggy Noonan, another social conservative and a Catholic, made the same point in her latest column for The Wall Street Journal.
Noonan took aim at Roy Moore, the GOP’s candidate for the Senate in Alabama, who faces accusations from a number of women who allege that he had pursued a relationship with them while he was in his thirties and they were still teenagers, one as young as 14.
Moore has denied these accusations. Liberal critics have called on Alabama’s Republican establishment to pull Moore from the ballot, and they have downplayed the differences between Moore and his Democratic opponent.
Noonan did not deny that critical political issues were at stake:
Alabama Republicans are accused of mere tribalism in sticking with Mr. Moore, who has been accused of repeated sexual predation on teenage girl. But serious policy issues are at play in the December election, including ones that have to do with our character as a nation. Alabama is one of the most pro-life states in the nation. ...
Roy Moore is against partial-birth abortion. His Democratic challenger, Doug Jones, was asked his position by Chuck Todd, in an interview in September on MSNBC. … (and said) ‘I am a firm believer that a woman should have the freedom to choose what happens to her own body.’
Noonan made this initial point because she understood that Alabamans were deeply frustrated by the media’s skewed characterization of their support for Moore.
But then Noonan went on to say that the state’s Republicans should not support Moore.
“The charges against Mr. Moore are not only serious; they are completely credible,” she said.
Noonan acknowledged that the “legalities of the Alabama race may be at an impasse.” Nevertheless, she said that “it would be good to see Republican women in the state lead a charge and insist on someone else. Find another conservative. There are plenty in Alabama.”
George Weigel, for his part, took aim at Evangelical leaders, like Franklin Graham, who have rushed to Moore’s defense.
“There are those Evangelical leaders who, having given Donald Trump a moral get-out-of-jail-free card during the 2016 campaign, have been vocally supportive of Judge Moore in recent weeks,” said Weigel in a column for National Review.
“Which does make one wonder how Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. read Matthew 18:6 on the abuse of the young, and what Jesus says about the fate of those who cause scandal to the innocent.”
“For over 20 years, I have been working with Evangelical Protestant scholars in an ecumenical project aimed at deepening theological understanding between Catholics and their Evangelical brethren, and facilitating our common witness to the moral truths we believe should guide public life,” he continued.
“I suspect that many of my Evangelical colleagues are profoundly embarrassed, not only by Roy Moore but by those of his Evangelical defenders who somehow manage to check their biblical convictions at the polling-place door — and who, by failing to take effective action against Moore, both before his nomination and after he became a national embarrassment, have put themselves in a position perilously similar to that of the secularist defenders of Bill Clinton in 1998–99.”
The party of life, the party of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, the party of religious freedom, and the party of the little guy once prided itself on sticking to its principles: It demanded the resignation of party leaders who crossed a bright red line.
For people of faith, this standard, however imperfectly articulated and defended, matters a great deal. It sets a reasonable bar for ethical conduct, and it underscores an important truth: politics is not ultimate.
Amid the blizzard of Twitter storms and the explosion of disturbing allegations, it is easy to become distracted from core concerns. That’s why Noonan and other social conservatives are asking us to pay attention.
The bright red line is slowly being erased and the standard for acceptable conduct is being lowered in both parties. Is that what we want?