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A tale of two scandals: Why Trump is different from Clinton



It was exactly 30 years ago that a gossip named Linda Tripp, who had worked in the George H.W. Bush White House, began secretly taping conversations she had with her young friend, Monica Lewinsky. That quickly led to a situation in which Democrats were caught in much the same bind as Republicans today.

Back then, Democrats were standing by their man, Bill Clinton. Caught red-handed in adulterous affairs, including the notorious Oval Office incident involving Lewinsky’s little blue dress, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives and widely ridiculed across the country for what the political columnist Walter Shapiro called “his…unforgivable…solipsistic sins” and “ethical bankruptcy.”

Shapiro, in a New Republic article (Feb. 1, 1999) headlined “Why liberals stick with Clinton,” pointed out the dilemma Democrats faced: A “confusion of personal fealty with political principle.” On the one hand, Clinton clearly engaged in questionable personal behavior. On the other hand, he was fortunate in his enemies: Richard Mellon Scaife (the “Dark Money” conservative billionaire who financed the early investigations into Clinton’s personal life), the Christian Coalition, Newt Gingrich (brought down in part by his own adultery), and the loathsome Republican congressman Bob Barr (whose adultery and numerous divorces were conveniently forgotten and forgiven by the GOP, even as he denounced Clinton on moral grounds). Democrats could well flock to Clinton’s side in the face of such deranged, right-wing oppressors. Although he might not have been a real liberal—Shapiro called him “an old-style, moderate Republican”—at least Clinton was a Democratic president, the most successful in modern American times. The result, as Shapiro writes, was that “Liberals, enthralled by Clinton’s popularity, never criticized the president…”.

Sound familiar? We now have a president, similarly mired in scandal, whom liberals believe the Republican Party should be abandoning in droves for his amoral, mendacious behavior. And yet, except for a few outliers, the GOP refuses to even timidly criticize Trump, because he is at least giving them (or trying to give them) the reactionary policies they crave.

So is there moral equivalence between the timorous Democrats of the 1990s and the craven Republicans of today? I would argue that the answer is no. However much somebody like Walter Shapiro wanted to rail against Clinton’s “mendacity,” the fact is that what Clinton lied about was sex. No one was hurt by his actions (not even the hapless Lewinsky ever claimed to be a victim). It’s true that some of the earlier women accusers, notably Paula Jones, later wore the mantle of “the woman wronged,” but there was no evidence they did not willingly enter into their relationships with Clinton, and the public (not just Democrats, but everyone) largely dismissed them. Clinton did lie, and probably committed perjury, but he was entrapped by the blue-nosed Ken Starr, as vengeful and biased a prosecutor as ever investigated a president, and, once again, the public concluded that the real victim in the whole affair was Bill Clinton. The Senate never dared to convict him.

And what of Donald J. Trump’s lies? These are not the evasions of an embarrassed man, anxious to keep his peccadillos from public scrutiny. These are lies of a colossal nature, threatening our country’s institutions, international reputation, domestic tranquillity and national security. Nobody ever was afraid that Bill Clinton was out to subvert the Constitution, or become an authoritarian president; Republicans may have hated him (and his wife) but they did not fear for America’s future under his leadership. So while it is true that Bill Clinton and Donald Trump both lied, and both showed errors in judgment, Clinton’s didn’t amount to a hill of beans. Trump is shredding the Constitution before our very eyes, leading America into dark, dangerous and frankly un-American corners. He will, I believe, be impeached by the end of this year, because eventually the weight of evidence against him (and his family and enablers) will become so oppressive that not even the most diehard tea party evangelical will be able to continue to carry his water.

A list of Republican Speakers of the House who were caught in sex scandals and resigned

Newt Gingrich (resigned 1998, an early Trump supporter)

Bob Livingston (resigned 1999, now a Washington lobbyist)

Denny Hastert (resigned 2007, currently in prison)

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