Will scandals simply overwhelm Hillary Clinton?

Suzanne Garment

As the 2016 presidential campaign got underway, it looked as if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the clear, scandal-wise. Whatever accusations had chomped at her heels and her husband’s, former President Bill Clinton, over the years, she had outrun them.

For one thing, some of the scandals weren’t even hers: She wasn’t the perpetrator but the wronged party. In other cases, she wasn’t officially involved. Even where the scandals were indeed hers, the accusations didn’t get far enough to support an indictment, let alone a conviction.

Still, she seemed to be a part of that web of private law firms, private fees, private investments and private connections that gives politics-as-usual a bad name. Yet, Hillary Clinton had survived, in good part because she just plain barreled through the scandals with stunning resolve. She did not hide, panic or act like anything except the self-confident figure we see before us today — most of the time.

It puts me in mind of David Begelman. Now, stay with me here. In the late 1970s, Begelman, then head of Columbia Pictures and a major Hollywood mogul, was accused of embezzling $10,000 from the studio. On the day the story broke, it was a bombshell. But the next day, as all Hollywood sat eating lunch at its favorite restaurant, Begelman walked through the door — tailored, barbered, buffed, shined and looking like a million bucks.

That performance helped keep Begelman afloat, in the short-to-medium run. He was eventually fired from the studio, but for some years he did return to a career producing movies. Begelman’s reaction to the accusations became a part of our family lore. When my daughter was embarrassed by something and didn’t want to show up, I would tell her that she had to “do a Begelman.”

There hasn’t been anything like Begelman’s proven misdeeds in Clinton’s story, though some of the accusations against her have been worse. Yet, in the face of them all, she has done a magnificent Begelman.

But can she keep doing it? Keep toughing it out, sticking to her script, answering uncomfortable questions with her tight smile, and moving on? Can Clinton build herself a second act that transcends the past scandals and the question of trust that they raise?

We all remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are “no second acts in American lives.” Maybe he was talking about the country’s propensity to see a life as a single arc of success or failure. Once you’re tarnished by public scandal, Fitzgerald seemed to be asserting, you are permanently damaged goods.

That principle has been challenged and even discredited in recent years. It has become conventional wisdom that there are many second acts. People fall. They confess error and claim redemption or pay what we think is a big enough price. Then, they rise again.

Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, for example, topped the scandal charts when his walk along the Appalachian Trail led to a very public declaration of an extramarital affair. He seemed politically disgraced, but he now represents South Carolina in the House of Representatives. Martha Stewart, after being sent to the slammer, is back on TV. Perhaps the harbinger of all this was Charles Colson, an architect of President Richard M. Nixon’s Watergate break-in, who found religion and became a force for reform in the U.S. prison system.

But Colson had to go to prison before he could assume his role as a prison reformer. Sanford had to suffer public humiliation. Stewart did her time in jail. Without such an event, can someone who has been called a liar again and again, rightly or wrongly, drive this kind of accusation far enough from public consciousness to gain the presidency — one of whose chief qualifications, we are told, is trustworthiness?

It may be that people have second acts when they have somehow undergone a break with the person who was the protagonist in the first act.

Once in a while, they are clever enough to engineer their own successful mea culpas. The prototype is New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was once ripping into a local judge when LaGuardia was reminded that he himself had appointed the judge. Missing hardly a beat, LaGuardia answered, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.”

I once had a colleague at the Wall Street Journal who wrote an editorial that turned out to be totally and irrefutably wrong. I wondered how he would try to squirrel out of it. He didn’t. The next day, he produced a piece titled, “We Eat Crow.” It was genius. The controversy was over.

Sometimes, for people who have transgressed, a third party does the job — with prisons or fines or just major embarrassment. These people may never openly accept blame, but the consensus is that they have paid. New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady may have escaped the worst consequences of Deflategate, for example, but many believe that he was definitively caught out. It may be too much to say that these people emerge chastened and transformed, but they benefit from the sense that there has at least been some kind of public accounting.

If there is no such break, however — if someone has surmounted scandals by just barreling through them — Fitzgerald may be right: The past will make itself felt. People will not forget.

Bill Clinton recently took to the campaign trail on his wife’s behalf. He appeared in New Hampshire and talked with his sincerely furrowed brow about how her longstanding pursuit of social justice makes her the best-qualified candidate he ever saw to “restore prosperity” to the country.

Enter Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton had attacked Trump as sexist, a plausible enough accusation. Trump answered that his behavior was nothing compared to the sexism of Hillary’s husband. He also declared that Hillary Clinton herself did not exactly embody the progress of women in politics – because she was her husband’s enabler-in-chief during his presidency when he was accused of exploitative sexual conduct toward a number of women.

You’ve got to hand it to Trump: He has a gift. The news coverage of Bill Clinton’s New Hampshire appearance focused on the women who, not so accidently, stood behind him as he spoke. As one headline put it, the women “scowl, grimace and look like they’d rather be anywhere else.” A few were interviewed. They said they knew about Clinton’s reputation as a womanizer, and worse. But private life was separate from public life, one of them said. It was not an enthusiastic defense.

Trump knows that the passage of years has not diminished the power of his accusations. His new video on the issue is a collection of hammer blows. The voice-over is Hillary Clinton’s: “Women’s rights are human rights”; “We must keep fighting for opportunity and dignity.” Her words punctuate a succession of images: Bill Clinton leering at a plump and glowing Monica Lewinsky in her cute little beret. A Daily News front-page headline of the time: “Liar, Liar.” A photo of Hillary Clinton attended by Anthony Weiner, who is married to one of her key aides. A New York Post front-page headline on “Weiner’s Rise and Fall” — about, in case you miss the import, Weiner’s sexting scandal. Hillary on a podium with Bill Cosby, who looks as grotesque in the photo as he seems today.

The whole Trump video takes maybe 10 seconds. But it indelibly calls to mind the memory of the country’s embarrassment at Bill Clinton’s behavior, at the same time when the U.S. public was largely supporting him through the political struggle that accompanied the scandal.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s “good wife” response — she declared that she wasn’t some Tammy Wynette “little woman standing by her man,” but that was exactly what she was — still sticks in the collective craw of precisely those women who most deeply want to support what Clinton represents in American politics. The cloud of these scandals may still have the power to commandeer the campaign narrative.

The same may be said for the other Clinton scandals that have re-emerged. First came Benghazi, intimating that Clinton, as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, participated in lying about American deaths. Then the House Benghazi committee uncovered her private email server, raising questions about her handling of classified information. There were accusations of conflicts of interest involving top Clinton aides Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills. Even the name of her famously partisan adviser Sidney Blumenthal reappeared to cast a pall of further scandal over the campaign.

There were the persisting questions about the Clinton Foundation, which has taken lots of money from people with axes to grind, spent it on a diffuse set of projects and paid hefty salaries and fees to Clinton associates. These questions called up still-older memories. We’re hearing again about the Whitewater scandal, which occupied most of the Clinton presidential years, until it merged with the more salacious Lewinsky story.

For those of us old enough to remember, it all comes back. Those years were marked by relative (relative) peace and prosperity, by some notable policy initiatives — and by the ever-present smell of scandal that always seemed to portend some criminal prosecution or other.

Will the smell of old, unexhumed scandal catch up with Hillary Clinton?

This election may not turn out to be a real test case. The Republicans may nominate a candidate so implausible that the question of Clinton’s trustworthiness will seem trivial. But if the Republican candidate does turn out to be plausible, we will see how deep a layer of mistrust has been left on the shore after a generation of accusations against Clinton has receded.


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