PHILADELPHIA ― Former President Bill Clinton told most of the story of his marriage in a speech at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night. He skipped a key bit: his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old White House intern.
It’s no surprise that, on the night Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for president, her husband chose not to revisit a deeply painful moment when he did something she later wrote was “morally wrong.”
But make no mistake: Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky is a central part of his legacy. After lying to his wife and the nation about it, even he eventually acknowledged that it was “inappropriate.” When he left office, 68 percent of respondents to a CNN poll said he’d be more remembered for his “involvement in personal scandal” than for his presidential accomplishments.
As the scandal broke and Republicans pushed to impeach Clinton, the vast majority of Democrats stood behind him. But that was nearly 20 years ago. In the years since Clinton left office, another young Democratic leader, Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York (whose wife, Huma Abedin, is a top aide to Hillary Clinton), saw his career crash and burn over sending sexual text messages to much younger women who were not his wife.
That suggests today’s Democratic Party might not be as forgiving of a Clinton-like figure. Federal politicians in the midst of sex scandals have been much less likely to remain in office since Clinton left office, a 2014 analysis by The Washington Post found. “In 15 scandals since 2000, just three officeholders (or 20 percent) facing personal scandals have won reelection. Several resigned in short order, including Reps. Anthony Weiner (lewd twitter messages), David Wu (untoward sexual advances plus a tiger costume) and Chris Lee (sharing a topless photo with a Craigslist contact),” the Post’s Scott Clement wrote.
Even delegates at the Democratic National Convention ― the quintessential gathering of party loyalists ― said they weren’t sure how Clinton-like sexual misconduct allegations would be treated today.
Richard Komi, a delegate from New Hampshire supporting Hillary Clinton, said he would most likely stand behind the former president if the scandal were to go down today because it has no effect on his job as commander in chief.
“There is a clear [difference] between your responsibilities as president and your personal life,” Komi said. “Now, I also understand that the president took an oath, before God and man, to be faithful to his wife in good times and in bad times,” Komi said. “But I do not think that he should have been impeached for that scandal. As far as I’m concerned, I feel like it was overblown and it was done along partisan lines.”
Other delegates said they thought the scandal might land differently today.
“Social media has changed things,” Samantha Harrieg, a Hillary Clinton-supporting delegate from Florida, told HuffPost. “Things are so different. It probably would have a different effect today. That is one issue that doesn’t sit well with me. It’s sort of like, you completed your presidency successfully, and those discussions are gone, but now those are being rekindled. It’s bringing life to old scars.”
Levon Bracy, another delegate from Florida, also said Clinton’s transgressions would be perceived differently today. But she maintained that one dark chapter in the former president’s presidency shouldn’t define his entire legacy.
“We got a mean society right now, and we’re not as forgiving as we once was,” Bracy said. “It would be real different, to be honest. We would have to institute love and forgiveness again. But as bad as that was, he made terrific contributions in stabilizing the whole world.”
Clinton did much to humanize his wife in his keynote address Tuesday evening, affirming her character and life story fighting for women’s rights, gay rights, children’s health and climate change. The speech was laced with personal anecdotes of their meeting and falling in love, the birth of daughter Chelsea, and their path to the White House. It was well received in the arena.
“I think [Hillary Clinton] loved Bill Clinton. They loved each other,” Texas delegate Linda Chavez-Thompson said of the Lewinsky episode. “It happens in marriages all across this country. And many, many people are still together, having passed through some very traumatic times in their lives and their marriages. For them to have this life together, for her to be so supportive of him, and him to be so supportive of her, I think it’s a love story that I feel very good about.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has also been accused of sexual harassment ― and worse ― has happily resurfaced the Lewinsky scandal and other sexual misconduct allegations against Bill Clinton. Earlier this year, Trump’s campaign released a video accusing Hillary Clinton of being an “enabler,” using the allegations against her husband to undermine her fight for women’s rights.
But Bill Clinton on Tuesday sought to dispel those and other GOP characterizations by dismissing what he called the “cartoon” portrayal of his wife.
“One is real, the other is made up,” he said of Hillary Clinton. “Earlier today, you nominated the real one.”