Bill Clinton is a problem. And he’s a problem that Hillary should finally, and for the record, stop trying to ignore.
Since the release of an on-camera conversation between presidential candidate Donald Trump and TV personality Billy Bush showed Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy,” a national discussion of sexual harassment and assault has heated up. Throughout news coverage and social media, there seems to be no end of outrage for the Republican frontrunner’s comments on women and his history of allegations for sexual assault, rape, and even pedophilia. But, on the other side of the aisle, little attention seems to be paid to another predator waiting his turn to re-enter the White House and his new position as Chief of the East Wing.
Though Hillary is the candidate, her husband Bill has been a chief advisor, campaign surrogate, political ally, and will function as her administration chief on economic policy when she (likely) becomes president. It’s clear that he’ll have significant power and influence over whatever staff Hillary brings into her presidency. More troubling than Bill’s return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is what seems to be the general unwillingness of Clinton supporters to admit that the prospect of putting a sexual predator in the White House lay on both sides of the aisle. So I’m going to say it: Bill Clinton is a problem. And he’s a problem that Hillary should finally, and for the record, stop trying to ignore.
During the second presidential debate, Trump brought up Bill Clinton’s past and Hillary Clinton quickly dismissed it. Hillary, who recently used Trump’s fat-shaming of a beauty contestant 20 years ago to criticize him during a previous debate and in campaign ads, seemingly had lost her taste for discussing past misdeeds. “When they go low, you go high,” Clinton said, quoting Michelle Obama in an effort to sidestep the topic.
But the truth is, Bill Clinton doesn’t have much high ground here at all. Instead, he has a lengthy history of his own rape allegations, professional sexual misconduct, and abuse of power. In his wake are a number of women who have become punchlines or simply been disregarded over the years—Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and Paula Jones, whom Clinton paid off in a settlement. And, most infamously, Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old intern swept into a sexual relationship with one of the most powerful men in the world. When I see Bill Clinton, an affable, charming former president with a genteel southern accent who nearly ruined a young woman’s life, I can’t help but think back on my own experiences as a young professional starting out in the world and the man who changed my path.
I was 22 when I got my first real job out of college as a public school teacher in Brooklyn, part of a selective alternative teaching fellowship. As I became used to running my own classroom, I made fast friends with several of my colleagues at the school, including the very friendly dean of students, Mr. Jacobs.
The middle-aged man seemed to take me under his wing. I grew to appreciate his checking on me to make sure I was doing OK as a new teacher, giving me the inside scoop on the school’s politics, providing help obtaining school resources for my students, or offering me rides home so I could avoid my long bus commute.
Then one day he told me that he was interested in me as more than a friend. He had been thinking about me a lot, he said, and hoped I wanted more. I did not. After that, I started to limit our interactions, keeping them polite, but brief. In response, he started to escalate his behavior. One day, he called me to his office on official business (the only way he could get me alone), telling me that he just wanted to see if I would come. He soon began walking into my classroom while I was teaching, staring intently at my body while I struggled to keep my focus on the students. He rearranged the furniture in my classroom when I was not around and punished my students during school activities. After he screamed loudly at me for leaning on a table in front of an entire lunchroom full of students and teachers, I finally decided to make a formal complaint.
My principal, however, seemed to doubt my experiences. If I really wanted to pursue this, she said, I needed to write up every incident of harassment I had endured. I filled up 28 pages, turning the complaint into her. “You just need to figure out how to get along better,” she said. Her solution? Moving me out of the building and into an entirely different grade, essentially starting my teaching from scratch and far away from the colleagues who had helped support me during my first year. I was shocked. I decided to leave the school and elementary school teaching. I still think of my students often—their notes, art projects, and photos continue to be displayed in my house. But I had decided to change my entire career because of a single man. The only one punished for his behavior had been me.
I’m not arguing here that Mr. Jacobs and Bill Clinton are the same person. But they each represent a culture of tolerance toward men who abuse their positions of power, especially when that man is someone people like or admire. Predators tend to target the most vulnerable people they can, using their status and influence as a shield for their actions. When Bill Clinton called Monica Lewinsky a liar in 1998 before a blue dress turned up, he had been betting—like he had bet before—that people would believe him more than her. He was betting that he could get away with it, because he had gotten away with this behavior before. And, ultimately, he was right.
Clinton’s abuse of office and targeting of a young woman staffer is entirely relevant to his likely return to the White House as a First Spouse, director of East Wing staff (and interns), and West Wing policy chief. In certain ways, Bill’s less offensive demeanor and more attractive appearance makes people more tolerant of his brand of sexual misconduct than Trump’s, which is obvious, brutish, and explicit. But both are part of rape culture, a set of social codes and practices that downplay, marginalize, and trivialize the sexual degradation and abuse of victims (who are often women).
Bill might be an easier pill to swallow, but he’s still poison all the same. And it’s never been made clear that his professional conduct has changed in anyway.
There’s no expectation for Hillary to divorce or disown Bill Clinton at this stage of her career or life. But the Clintons, no matter what, have showed themselves to be a powerful duo and political partnership. And while that means that Hillary gets to claim some of the success of her husband’s administration, it also means that she has to confront the failures as well. While not responsible for his past behavior, she is choosing to return him to authority in a space where he abused his power to sexually engage at least one young woman who nearly killed herself in the fallout. And Clinton’s supporters who seem so avidly concerned about the women and girls that Trump may have harmed should show that their moral indignation is not limited by political affiliation.
As a little girl whose earliest political memories involved the haranguing of Anita Hill and the downfall of Monica Lewinsky, watching the first woman president and self-claimed feminist sidestep an opportunity to address her husband’s past and a flawed professional culture that harms women is disappointing. Hillary should admit that Bill’s actions are an issue that she’s considered deeply, that she will take efforts to prevent anything like this happening under her leadership, and that she was wrong supporting her husband in his efforts to malign a former intern—these would all reflect a growth and maturity that Clinton demands of her opponent. Not just for the women her husband has hurt, but for all of us who have seen our experiences of sexual harassment and assault downplayed or trivialized because they were too inconvenient or hard to take seriously.
If Hillary is calling for a president who respects women, treats them with respect and equality, and is willing to confront personal missteps, then she should be that person now.
Khadijah White is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University. She is currently writing a book on the rise of the Tea Party brand in news.