As the 2016 presidential election comes down to the wire, the rancor and mudslinging that passes as high-minded campaigning is reaching a new low. The recent revelations about Donald Trumps’ misogynistic boastings with Billy Bush on a “Access Hollywood” bus trip were a major issue of the second presidential debate of October 9th and will likely take center stage at the final debate of October 19th.
Trump dismissed his lewd 2005 comments as mere “locker room talk” and switched the conversation to an attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton, insisting they were guilty of treating women more shamefully. “If you look at Bill Clinton, far worse,” Trump ranted. “Mine are words, and his was action. His was what he’s done to women. There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women. So you can say any way you want to say it, but Bill Clinton was abusive to women.”
To add spice to his rants, Trump invited four women to participated in a pre-debate press conference and attend the debate as special guests with front-row seats for media attention. Three of the women — Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones – have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault; the fourth woman, Kathy Shelton, was a victim in a rape case in which Hillary Clinton, as a pro-bono attorney with the University of Arkansas legal aid clinic, defended Shelton’s attacker.
What sexual misdeeds has Bill Clinton been accused of and how does his conduct compare to that of other presidents?
Bill Clinton, not unlike other president who preceded him, was a reputed philanderer before and during his stay at the White House. The person remarkably absent from Trump’s pre-debate press conference and debate performance was Monica Lewinsky. She became sexually involved with Clinton in 1995 as a 22-year-old White House intern; in 1996, while working at the Pentagon, she revealed her sordid tale to a co-worker, Linda Tripp, who secretly recorded the conversations and gave the tapes to Kenneth Starr, the Independent Counsel investigating Clinton regarding unrelated matters. Pressed on his relation with Lewinsky, Clinton infamously claimed, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
One of Clinton’s earliest reported incidents of sexual abuse involved Juanita Broaddrick who claimed that, in 1978 while manager of an Arkansas nursing home, he raped her in a hotel room. However, she later signed a sworn affidavit that read in part:
During the 1992 Presidential campaign there were unfounded rumors and stories circulated that Mr. Clinton had made unwelcome sexual advances toward me in the late seventies. Newspaper and tabloid reporters hounded me and my family, seeking corroboration of these tales. I repeatedly denied the allegations and requested that my family’s privacy be respected. These allegations are untrue and I had hoped that they would no longer haunt me, or cause further disruption to my family.
In 1992, as Clinton was running for president, Jennifer Flowers, an Arkansas state employee and cabaret singer, publicly stated that she had had a 12-year relationship with him. Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared on 60 Minutes following the Super Bowl to rebut Flowers’ claims only to be undercut by Flowers who played a secretly-recorded tapes of incriminating phone calls she had with Clinton. According to The Washington Post, Clinton “reportedly acknowledged” the affair with Flowers in a 1998 deposition regarding a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones.
In 1994, Jones, an Arkansas state worker, accused Clinton of making an unwanted sexual advance. Clinton ultimately made an out-of-court payment of $850,000 to settle with Jones without admitting guilt.
In 1998, Kathleen Willey appeared on 60 Minutes and said that in 1993 she was a Clinton supporter and a volunteer at the White House. She claimed that when she met the president to ask for a paid position, he made unwanted sexual advances on her, including kissing her, groping her breast and placing her hand on his genitals; Clinton denied her allegations in a deposition relating to the Jones case.
Three other and — less know — incidents of Clinton’s reputed misogynistic encounters with women have come to light. Eileen Wellstone, a 19-year old Oxford student, filed a sexual assault complaint against Clinton in 1969; in 1991, Connie Hamzy claimed that Clinton, the then-Arkansas governor, had propositioned her in 1984; and Cristy Zercher, a flight attendant on Clinton’s campaign plane during his 1992 presidential run, claims that he groped her on the jet.
Sadly, the claims long raised regarding Bill Clinton’s sexual conduct seem not so dissimilar to the charges by women coming out almost daily about Trump’s sexual mistreatment.
How does the sexual misconduct of Clinton and Trump compare to that of other presidents? Once upon a time, the extra-marital sexual relations of former presidents were discreetly hidden, understood to be outside the bounds of acceptable journalism. This was most evident with John Kennedy’s notorious affairs
with Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson; Inga Arvad, a Danish journalist; the stripper, Blaze Starr; Judith Exner Campbell, mistress to mob boss Sam Giancana; White House secretaries Priscilla Weir and Jill Cowan; and still other women. His affairs have moved from scandal to presidential lore.
Like Franklin Roosevelt’s polio, presidential liaisons were once carefully hidden.
Such values applied to Dwight Eisenhower who, during the WW-II, had an affair with Kay Summersby, his English driver. Then there was Roosevelt’s “friendships” with Lucy Page Mercer, Eleanor’s secretary. Eleanor apparently discovered love letters between the two and, in a painful showdown, threatened to divorce FDR if he didn’t end his relations with Mercer. FDR is rumored to also have had affairs with Marguerite Alice (Missy) LeHand, his secretary, and Crown Princess Marta of Norway, who lived at the White House during World War II.
Sex scandals are no longer hidden; they are now aggressively exposed as entertaining public secrets. The fictitious media bubble was broken with Ted Kennedy’s fateful car ride with Mary Jo Kopechne in Chappaquiddick, MA, on the night of July 18, 1969. Over the following half-century, the sexual infidelities of elected officials became the media’s meat-and-potatoes story. The scandals involved a host of public figures, ranging Gary Hart to Nelson Rockefeller to Eliot Spitzer.
Often forgotten, during the 2008 presidential electoral contest unproven sex scandals were raised about both major party candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, but they quickly disappeared under careful scrutiny. A scurrilous rumor floated by the Drudge Report and other right-wing sources claimed that, in 1999, Illinois state-representative Obama had sex and took drugs with Larry Sinclair. In a video posted on YouTube, “Obama’s Limo Sex and Drug Party,” Sinclair claimed that they met twice, once in a limo and the other at a hotel. However, WhiteHouse.com paid Sinclair $10,000 to take a polygraph test which, it claims, he failed and the story died. Sex scandals are no longer merely moral judgments, but have become political acts.
In the good-old-days, the alleged homosexuality of James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln represented a form of 19th century same-sex intimacy. Then, it was not uncommon for same-sex strangers to share a bed for a night when staying at a small-town inn and “bundling” (people sharing a bed at a rural household) was common among strangers traveling in the wilderness or to isolated settlements. Buchanan, nicknamed “Old Buck,” was America’s 15th and most “out” president. He lived in Washington, DC, for many years with William Rufus King, an Alabama senator. The two men were considered inseparable and were the object of much mockery.
Questions about Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality have been raised at various times. Carl Sandburg in his famous 1926 biography used code words of the day for homosexuality, suggested something more about Lincoln, “a streak of lavender and soft spots as May violets.” There are numerous stories of Lincoln as a circuit lawyer sleeping in a shared bed at small inns as he made his way around Illinois. Questions have been raised about his relations with an early acquaintance, A.Y. Ellis, his law partner, Henry C. Whitney, and Capt. David V. Derickson, a soldier attached to the Pennsylvania regiment guarding Mary Lincoln.
The sex scandals that took place in the decades between the Revolution and Civil War involved many of the sins that obsessed the Colonial era — and still concern many today. Premarital liaisons, adultery, illegitimate children, interracial encounters, obscenity and sodomy challenged deeply-felt Christian moral beliefs. Warren Harding reportedly had affairs with Carrie Fulton Phillips and Nan Britton. Andrew Jackson, known to all as “Old Hickory” and celebrated for his victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, fell in love with Rachel Robards, a married woman separated from her husband. Described as a pipe-smoking, gun-toting frontier woman, Robards married Jackson before her divorce was finalized, thus making her technically a bigamist — and the subject of much back-biting from proper society ladies.
Unlike subsequent scandals involving presidents, the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is controversial because it was not simply interracial, but involved a master and a slave, a slave who bore her master six offspring and a slave never freed by her master. While still denied by some of Jefferson’s decedents, most now accept that Jefferson and Hemings bore six children together and had a deep and long-lasting relationship. While Martha was Jefferson’s true wife, Sally may have been the love of his life.
Jefferson had a contradictory attitude toward African-Americans, whether free or slave. His public writings and private correspondence are filled with disparaging comments and dubious “scientific” claims about black inferiority. Yet, there are innumerable stories of how he treated both slave and free African-Americans with respect and dignity. Nevertheless, among the plantation gentry of the period, a slave master was understood to have certain “property rights” that legitimized sexual access to female slaves, and Jefferson took full advantage of this “privilege” in his relationship with Hemings.
Hemings was born in 1773, the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings and a nondocumented father. Apparently her father was John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, making Sally Martha’s half-sister. According to one of Jefferson and Hemings’ three sons, Madison, Elizabeth was Wayles’ “concubine.” Four of Hemings children with Jefferson, three males and one female, survived to adulthood and all appeared white in complexion. Jefferson, fulfilling his promise to Hemings, set them free. Beverly and Harriet married white spouses, while Eston and Madison married “colored women”; Madison’s wife was a freed slave. Ironically, Hemings was not freed by Jefferson but given “her time” (a form of unofficial freedom so she could live in Virginia) by his daughter, Martha Randolph.
U.S. presidents, like corporate titans, wield enormous power – and part of this power is expressed in sexual prowess. The sex scandals they’ve been involved in are morality tales designed to punish and/or shame the perpetrator – and sell media coverage. These scandals, like the ones involving Bill Clinton and Trump, are rituals setting the boundaries of acceptable sexual practice.
During the colonial period, especially among Puritans, the “outing” of someone who committed an unacceptable sexual act often led to a religious-civil hearing and severe punishment. Punishment often included a public admission in a church or town square, corporal punishment such as branding, whipping or hanging and social humiliation like that made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter.
Centuries later, the nature of shaming rituals associated with sex scandals has changed. Corporal punishment has been replaced by the spectacle of nonstop media hounding. Shaming has become a form of entertainment, meant to distract or fascinate the public — a 21st century gladiator sport with the camera replacing the lion. Nevertheless, public shaming, especially directed toward political and cultural figures, has been a powerful force used to impose and maintain moral order. In the past, nearly all powerful public figures caught in a sex scandal bowed to public shame and quickly retreated from the media spotlight.
The experiences of Bill Clinton and Trump suggest a new era in the pubic ritual of shaming. Both men have international standing; one a former president and leader of a prestigious foundation, the other a reputed billionaire and possible next president. And the scandals associated with how they’ve treated women? As Trump said on the bus: “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything … grab them by the pussy.” Shame is something of America’s past.