Hillary Clinton's Turn As The "Good Wife" In The 1990s May Cost Her Everything In 2016
It's a poignant time for the good wife — and I don't just mean the CBS series starring Julianna Margulies which ended its run Sunday night. One of the real life women who inspired the creation of The Good Wife's protagonist, Alicia Florrick, is facing a new wave of criticism for standing by her man that may hinder her political rise. At a rally in Oregon on Friday, Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton an "enabler" of Bill's infidelities and treatment of women. On Monday in an interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo, Trump proceeded to defended this line of attack on the Democratic frontrunner because "Hey, look, he [Bill Clinton] was the biggest abuser of women, as a politician in the history of our country. He was impeached."
It goes without saying that there is something so infuriatingly hypocritical about Trump using Bill Clinton's sexual behavior to attack the former Secretary of State. For one, there's not only evidence of Trump's own extramarital relations, but his first wife, Ivana, accused him of raping her, a claim that Trump denied and which Ivana has since refuted ("As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a 'rape,' but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense," she told The Daily Beast in 2015).
Then, there's the fact Trump has compared women, like Arianna Huffington, to dogs and allegedly described a woman's request for a break to pump breast milk as "disgusting." There's no shortage of evidence that Trump has not treated women with basic decency on a number of occasions. Trump's attempt to become some champion of sexual mores and female respect is nothing short of galling and ludicrous, a matter of the unintelligible misogynistic pot calling the kettle black.
Still, nearly two decades after Clinton's husband's alleged sexual behavior stole national headlines, it is clear to many that the women were often the ones who got the raw deal. They were shamed and ridiculed while President Clinton endured some late-night jokes but emerged relatively unscathed. That Clinton stood by her husband, rather than these women, to help his career (or, for that matter, their family) makes complete and utter sense. But that doesn't mean it sits well with voters in 2016, regardless of their party affiliation.
As ridiculous as it is that Trump is the one slamming Clinton as an "enabler," the argument itself may leave a mark. At the rally on Friday, Trump attacked Clinton's treatment of the women who accused her husband of having an affair — and, in the case of Paula Jones, sexually harassing her (her complaint was dismissed and then Bill settled with her when she appealed it). "She [Clinton] would go after these women and destroy their lives," Trump said, adding, "She was an unbelievably nasty, mean enabler, and what she did to a lot of those women is disgraceful."
Unsurprisingly, like so much of what Trump says, there's exaggeration in his statement. The claim that Clinton sought to "destroy their lives" seems extreme. There is evidence in notes from a Clinton confidante, Diana Blair, that she called Monica Lewinsky, perhaps the most infamous women among the extramarital scandals, a "narcissistic loony toon." When asked about this remark about Lewinsky in a 2014 interview with ABC News, Clinton said, "I am not going to comment on what I did or did not say back in the late '90s."
Moreover, The New York Times published a report earlier this year examining Clinton's role in discrediting women's sexual allegations against her husband. Among other evidence, the report noted that Carl Bernstein wrote in his biography of Clinton, A Woman In Charge, that she took on an "aggressive, explicit direction of the campaign to discredit" Gennifer Flowers, one of the women Bill allegedly had an affair (he denied a long-term affair but admitted under oath there had been a sexual encounter, as CNN noted earlier this year). Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told The New York Times, "These are attempts to draw Hillary Clinton into decades-old allegations through recent fabrications that are unsubstantiated."
No doubt, as the First Lady, Clinton was stuck between a rock and a hard place when women came forward with sexual allegations against her husband. But the reaction to some of these women in the 1990s, even from proud feminists, are jarring in 2016, especially to some younger voters who are just learning of these alleged affairs. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compared Lewinsky to "the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction," describing her as a "ditsy, predatory White House intern" (and winning a Pulitzer for doing so). Erica Jong publicly joked about Lewinsky having "third-stage gum disease."
In a 2014 article for TIME, Jessica Bennett wrote, "Long before slut-shaming was a term, Monica Lewinsky was its original target." Bennett herself lamented her teenage chastisement and mocking of Lewinsky in 1998 and noted how Lewinsky, not Clinton, bore the brunt of the scandal. Bennett concluded that in light of (among other developments) the new understanding of slut-shaming and more robust feminist blogging world, "the Lewinsky scandal would play out differently today." As the 2016 election proves, it actually is playing out differently today.
Trump's not the only person nor the first to raise concerns about Clinton's role in helping her husband, then-president, rebound from the sexual accusations. In fact, some left-leaning women have done so, as well, including Melissa Harris-Perry and Rosario Dawson. Rebecca Traister noted in her book Big Girls Don't Cry that Harris-Perry criticized Clinton, not only because "she stayed with her husband, but that she did not speak out in defense of a barely-older-than-teenage girl who was harassed by her husband."
What was politically expedient in 1998 — or at least politically expedient for her husband — may hinder Clinton's credibility with voters in 2016. When Lewinsky is seen not as some hussy tarnishing the Oval Office, but as a victim of slut-shaming and the embodiment of when power differences are exploited for sexual gain, standing by your man no longer wins you the points it once did.
Herein lies the rub: Making the almost certainly gut-wrenching choice to stick with her husband and help him salvage his political career may now hurt, even cost Hillary hers. It's the ironic modern saga of the good wife. And while Julianna Margulies' turn as the good wife may have just ended, I predict Clinton will be forced to keep grappling with the good wife dilemma in the public eye, at least until November.