Do voters care about Trump's sexual history? Ask Bill Clinton
BY MONICA CROWLEY,
“The president is a womanizer? So what?”
Former President Richard Nixon posed that somewhat sarcastic rhetorical question to me shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992.
Twenty-six years later, with similar questions raised over the past private behavior of the current president, the country once again shrugs: “So what?”
Appearing on “60 Minutes”, former adult-film actress Stormy Daniels detailed an alleged one-time sexual encounter with Donald Trump over a decade ago, when he was a newly remarried husband and father. On three previous occasions, she signed documents denying any relationship but now claims she lied out of fear. She says she accepted a cash payout for her silence from Trump’s personal attorney shortly before the 2016 election and was threatened in 2011 over her desire to talk but has yet to offer evidence or proof.
The TV interview drew a big audience, attracted like moths to the flame of anticipated salaciousness, predictable voyeurism and red-hot Trump-driven polarization. Other media outlets, similarly driven by the hunger for ratings and anything damaging to the president, also descended into a Stormy obsession, hoping for a Trump stag film and a violation of campaign finance law.
Despite their relentless attempts to legitimize the story, it has not gained meaningful political traction beyond fizzy gossip. Long-ago relationships between consenting adults earn an eyeroll, not the widespread condemnation provoked by abusive behavior now universally regarded as intolerable in the "Me Too" era.
In early 1994, Nixon offered another assessment, which I reported in my book "Nixon in Winter": “The country is far more accepting of things it wasn’t just a few years ago. Gary Hart was destroyed by the womanizing crap, and Clinton survives. … This kind of behavior isn’t just morally wrong; it’s stupid for a man in power. But do you see what I mean about the changing views of the country?”
Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 marked a turning point: The fact that a candidate seemed like a good person mattered less in terms of his or her potential as a good leader. A complicated personal life was no longer treated as a disqualifier for public life. Personal character was no longer considered a meaningful indicator of political character. Voters were more likely to disregard personal indiscretions if they believed they were getting a leader who would deliver for them.
Clinton had flipped the script. Taking a page from his hero John F. Kennedy’s playbook, Clinton wielded personal charisma and charm as a buffer against personal weaknesses, recognizing that people could more easily relate to private flaws than to political ones. Trump uses this to great effect as well.
By compartmentalizing the infidelity matter as a personal issue, Clinton diffused it as a political one — at least until the current "Me Too" movement cast his behavior, which included grave and credible allegations of rape, sexual assault, harassment and other misconduct, in a far different light, sparking broad censure and the end of his once-towering political influence.
Clinton was an early pathbreaker in changing social views on such matters. Trump survives the Stormy storm because he wasn’t a “man in political power” but a business and television celebrity at the time of the alleged consensual transgressions; the voting public knew his personal track record and deemed it largely irrelevant; leaders tend to enjoy a protective buffer zone, at least for a while; and the sweepingly blasé view of such things in modern life.
The cultural conversation is now about consent vs. non-consent, appropriate conduct vs. misconduct and abuses of power, respect and professionalism vs. disrespect, intimidation and retaliation. Trump has denied all previous claims of unwelcome behavior. And consensual extramarital affairs between adults no longer pack the same political punch, particularly when they involve a guy who never posed as a saint and a porn star with hush money, an NDA and a lawsuit.
This is why, despite the unrelenting ferociousness of his opponents and regardless of what transpires legally in the Daniels case, Trump is weathering the squall, even in the zero-tolerance "Me Too" environment.
As he considered candidate Clinton and his colorful personal activities in 1992, Nixon wondered: “Maybe it doesn’t even matter anymore, you know?”
For better or for worse, it doesn’t really matter — and it hasn’t in a while. So while some media lavish Daniels and other alleged Trump playmates with attention, many voters disregard it as background noise. They know the country has serious problems, and they want their chosen president to do what he was elected to do.
A quarter of a century after it elected Clinton, the country again knowingly elected a political peacock with a Technicolor past whom they believed was the best choice to lead. And they want him to get on with it.