The long essay-cover story of Newsweek’s September 15 issue by journalist David Friend looked intriguing: “Before Trump Was President, Online Sex Videos, Bill Clinton and the Naughty '90s Changed America.”
Yet Friend's real targets weren't the Clintons themselves, but the Clintons’ awful right-wing enemies, the embarrassing people who dared accuse him of sexual harassment, and of course, Donald Trump. Anita Hill’s bizarre, unsubstantiated allegations against Clarence Thomas were passed over briefly. Other villains of the piece included Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge.
Friend opened with a detailed account of the Clintons' famous 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft, in response to Gennifer Flowers’ allegations about having an affair with Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas. The story ended with a touching vignette showing the Clintons’ true love for one another, after the overhead interview lights come crashing down, almost hitting Hillary.
A tragedy averted, Bill Clinton took his wife in his arms, clutched her close, and kept telling her, softly, that he loved her -- that everything would be OK. The couple would be fine, but the interview -- and Clinton’s presidency -- marked the beginning of a seismic shift in American culture, which led to much of what we abhor about the present day.
Friend mocked Flowers.
The night after the interview, Flowers showed up at a packed press conference at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria. The media free-for-all -- 350 people by one Clinton campaign estimate, with CNN covering the proceedings live -- represented a nadir in real-time television news. Flowers wore a bright honeysuckle suit with black lapels and some majorly ’80s shoulder pads. Her lips were full and red and almost cartoonishly solemn. Her pyrotechnic blondeness, with its cascade of dark roots, wreathed her face like a spray of goldenrod. “The truth is I loved him,” she said. “Now he tells me to deny it. Well, I’m sick of all the deceit, and I’m sick of all the lies.”
Friend used the silly questions from a Howard Stern sidekick:
His one-liners underscored why the press pack was there in the first place. This was the dawn of the sex-scandal lynch mob. They had come to listen in on what they normally wouldn’t hear. They had come to see for themselves what Bill Clinton might have seen in Flowers. And they had come, cheeky devils, to be in the same room with a woman lusty enough to charm a governor -- and crafty enough to switch on a tape player.
Flowers had merely whetted their appetite. They would soon be salivating for more.
Before any of this, of course, there was the 1991 showdown between Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and former colleague Anita Hill, which the liberal press eagerly pounced upon. Yet Friend only castigated the media for its coverage of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals (coverage of which was far more forgiving than the obloquy heaped upon conservative Judge Thomas).
Some time in the mid-’90s, American decorum disappeared. The media began to pay far more attention to the disgrace of others. And if there was a tipping point, it may well have been May 6, 1994, the day Paula Jones filed a civil lawsuit against Bill Clinton, alleging that he had made an insulting sexual proposition to her while he was the governor of Arkansas -- and later defamed her. (Clinton would deny the charges.)
Actually, the media severely downplayed Jones’ press conference and her allegations against President Clinton, compared to the intensity of the coverage Anita Hill’s accusations against Thomas received, as documented by the Media Research Center.
Whether out of genuine concern or cynical electoral politics, Republicans tried to capitalize on that view, using increasingly harsh rhetoric and aggressive tactics against the Clintons, beginning with the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. The gathering was supposed to propel President George H.W. Bush, a moderate Republican, to a second term. But inside and outside the antiquated Astrodome, a far more radical, trash-the-bastards theme had taken hold....
Newt Gingrich came in for hostility.
Gingrich would prevail, helping Republicans making massive gains in Congress. And though he’d eventually overreach, leaving an opening for Clinton to win re-election, the insane, hyperpartisan environment he helped create presaged the Tea Party, the rabid Republican response to Obama and the rise of birtherism and other bloviating buffoonery.
Under the headline, “A Brief History of Right-Wing Slime,” Friend furthered his look back in anger at “forces on the right.”
Gingrich, Buchanan and other forces on the right received a major boost from a newly resurgent right-wing press -- from talk radio’s angry high priest of the right, Rush Limbaugh, to the GOP’s fair-haired hatchet man, David Brock -- a journalist who slimed the likes of Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. (He would deny all charges.)
The fourth horseman in this posse was Matt Drudge....by June 1997, once AOL started co-hosting his site, Drudge was a webwide phenomenon and a fedora-wearing favorite of American conservatives.
With his web links and gossip droppings, Drudge was a national nemesis and a guilty pleasure. He linked to far-right columns and home pages, some of them borderline batshit -- and gave their rants and rumors equal weight with wire-service items. He reported on other reporters’ reporting-in-progress -- and got the biggest political news break of the decade - Bill Clinton’s extramarital relationship with Lewinsky, which in turn, would lead to the president’s impeachment.
According to Friend, recognition of liberal bias makes one “far right.”
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Over the course of a generation, as the web and social media gained currency, these new-media, ultraright conspirators were complicit in disseminating rumor, agenda-bent screeds and the long and gnarly anti-Bill-and-Hillary thread -- from the slur that they had somehow set up the “murder” of confidant Vince Foster to the loony concoction of the Pizzagate child-sex ring. That blurring of fact and fiction, and the far right’s accusations of a “liberal bias” by a supposedly monolithic mainstream media, led many to see the press, not the politicians, as the problem, despite the bevy of reporters still unearthing legitimate corruption and scandal.
But the damage was done. The definition of truth and facts had become malleable.
Even when Friend seems to be criticizing politicians left and right, he’s far more direct when accusing Republicans of “lying” (while Clinton is merely “considered by many to be an unconscionable obfuscator.”
In a similar vein, both Hillary Clinton and Trump, perhaps the two most distrusted opponents in a modern presidential contest, perpetuated the post-fact syndrome during their 2016 race for the White House. Clinton, from her tenures as first lady (Travelgate) up through her time as secretary of state (Emailgate), was considered by many to be an unconscionable obfuscator. Trump, for his part, elevated lying to a dark art. “On the PolitiFact website,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof would report, “53 percent of Trump’s [public statements were rated as demonstrably] ‘false’ or ‘pants on fire’ -- a number that would climb to “71 percent… ‘mostly false’” on the eve of the election. This endemic fabrication was tactically deceptive in a manner reminiscent of totalitarian leaders -- a pattern made all the more ominous, as Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter has pointed out, since Trump would routinely crib his “talking points from the dark corners at the bottom of the Internet.”
While Bill Clinton’s own responsibility was limited, Trump remained a dark angel incarnate:
His victory augured a new and chilling reality in America. And there was an unmistakably ’90s tenor to it all. Trump’s journey to the White House would have been inconceivable without the coarseness of the Clinton years, a coarseness equally attributable to popular culture and the newfound web, the president’s scandals and the prurience of his critics.