That ’90s Show

by Jonah Goldberg
The real problem with the new liberal awakening about Bill Clinton isn’t the hypocrisy, it’s the historical revisionism.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Unless you’re in trigonometry class, in which case I don’t want to bother you),

What a marvelously stupid time to be alive.

My scorecard is now completely illegible. Right-wingers tell me that Al Franken must resign for behavior far less offensive than what Roy Moore has been accused of, but also that, even if the allegations against Moore are true, he shouldn’t drop out of his Senate race because it was 40 years ago. Even the governor of Alabama says she believes Moore’s accusers but will vote for him.

Meanwhile, left-wingers are saying . . . well, they’re saying a lot of things, which I’ll get to in a second.

But first, there’s this:

Nailed it. This is how the Elites (note the ominous capitalization) operate, don’t you know? Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey couldn’t stop the Elites from pulling their careers apart like wolves fighting over a carcass. But, they could still implement Emergency Distraction Protocol No. 219. That’s the thing about the Elites: Even when they lose, they win.

Still, I can’t quite figure out the argument. Is Moore some kind of sleeper agent who cruised the high schools for jailbait in the 1970s, just in case the Elites would one day need a distraction from their own scandals 40 years down the road? Or are the female accusers the real sleepers? In this scenario, Ben Affleck calls these women on their cell phones while they’re at Cracker Barrel or Home Depot and says, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, but I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep. Remember. Miles to go before I sleep.” Then, suddenly, they make their accusations against Moore?

It’s probably unfair of me to single out this guy on Twitter, but he speaks for a mindset that is all over the place these days: “They” are screwing “Us.”

“How?” you ask.

“Don’t be so naïve,” they respond.

Explanations of how “they” dupe you miss the point. What matters is the paranoid certainty that “they” are winning by cheating, somehow.

William F. Buckley once explained that his objection to Robert Welch and the Birchers was their practice of ascribing “subjective intention from objective consequences.” Communists scored a “win” on Eisenhower’s watch, so that must mean that Ike is a Communist!

This is a natural human tendency. It probably gave humans an evolutionary advantage (as I discuss in my forthcoming book). Concepts such as luck and superstition, which exist in every society in every age, are based on an irrational belief that there is some extra-rational connection between objective consequences and subjective intent that can be discovered through intuition and even manipulated. I bang my drums. No vampires appear. Vampires must hate these drums! Reason connects dots using facts, logic, and evidence, but not all the dots we connect are connected rationally. Reason doesn’t define how we see the world.

Similarly, tribes are held together by internal solidarity and external suspicion that only occasionally has anything to do with rational design. They are always looking to get us. We have to stick together. As I wrote last winter (when another Bannon favorite was in the news for matters relating to underage sex):

Evolutionary psychologist John Tooby recently wrote that if he could explain one scientific concept to the public, it would be the “coalitional instinct.” In our natural habitat, to be alone was to be vulnerable. If “you had no coalition, you were nakedly at the mercy of everyone else, so the instinct to belong to a coalition has urgency, pre-existing and superseding any policy-driven basis for membership,” Tooby wrote on Edge.org. “This is why group beliefs are free to be so weird.” We overlook the hypocrisies and shortcomings within our coalition out of a desire to protect ourselves from our enemies.

The relevant point here is that paranoid populism and tribalism derive their power from the instinct for ascribing every misfortune to human will and planning. Again, “they” are out to get “us,” and the proof can be found in our anger or bad luck. So everything we do to stop “them” is self-justifying.

One problem: The world isn’t nearly so bleak and zero-sum. Take it from someone who gets called an “elitist” ten times a day and who has met and talked to more bona fide elites — senators, scientists, billionaires, etc. — than I could possibly list: No one is “running” the show (Yuval Levin and I talked about this at some length towards the end of this episode of The Remnant podcast). In reality, there’s no Oz behind the curtain, no cabal successfully pulling the strings or pulling the wool over our eyes. American politics is a big, sprawling, buzzing confusion of competing interests, agendas, and arguments. You think everything is going according to Mitch McConnell’s plan? Donald Trump’s? Nancy Pelosi’s? The Koch brothers’? George Soros’s?

Please.

And that’s a good thing — because it means we still live in a free country. In places such as China, Russia, and, most obviously, North Korea, it’s much more plausible to claim that They are ruining our lives, depriving us of our freedoms, or otherwise manipulating us — because “they” are. I’m not saying elites in America haven’t done bad things. All I’m saying is that the elites are not monolithic and that every elite I’ve ever met thinks things aren’t going the way they want them to.

That ’90s Show

As Bill Clinton must be screaming at the TV these days, let’s change the subject.

Lots of people, here at NRO and elsewhere, have written many fine articles on what they believe to be the hypocrisy and bravery-on-the-cheap of liberal writers and politicians suddenly discovering that Bill Clinton’s predatory sexual behavior was double-plus ungood. And they have a good case: Some of these tardy conversions do have the air of Frenchmen declaring in late 1945 that they were in the resistance all along.

Upon examination, many of the cynical interpretations do have weight. For starters, it’s just super inconvenient to denounce sexual harassment and sexual assault while lugging around that giant iron asterisk that says, “Except for Bill Clinton.” If the Clintons were not all used-up politically, I very much doubt that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would be lamenting the fact that Bill Clinton hadn’t resigned when he played “The Traveling Salesman and the Farmer’s Daughter” with an intern.

But as I discuss on the latest Remnant podcast, there’s a downside to all the gloating on the right. When people change their minds and accept your position, pelting them with rotten cabbage is not necessarily the best response. As a general proposition, it’s a good thing when people in the wrong “flip-flop” to the right position. If my kid starts cleaning up her room without being asked, I’m not going shout, “Hypocrite!” at her. I understand that the political climate makes that more difficult, given that there really is more than a little cynicism at play. But I think it’s worth keeping in mind.

Get Me a Rewrite!

Anyway, my real problem with the new liberal awakening today isn’t the hypocrisy; it’s the historical revisionism. This morning, I heard an MSNBC reporter talking about how “we” didn’t really think through the consequences of Bill Clinton’s actions in the 1990s. Michelle Goldberg (no relation) spends the bulk of her New York Times column blaming conservatives for making it hard to believe the truth about Bill Clinton.

None of this is true. In the 1990s, liberals knew about Bill Clinton’s cheating ways. Bill and Hillary basically conceded the truth of it in a 60 Minutes interview in the wake of the Gennifer Flowers story. Oh, they denied her specific allegation in Clintonian fashion. Bill was a genius at sounding like he was telling the whole truth when he was really telling a mincing, legalistic lie. (Bill later admitted, under oath in 1998, that he had been knocking boots with Flowers). Regardless, Bill and Hillary spoke in obvious code that their marriage was . . . flawed. And all of the commentary at the time was, “We get it. That’s good enough.”

Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, a thinly veiled novel about Clinton, was a sensation with liberals, none of whom objected to, or questioned, the premise that the Bill Clinton character had an affair.

After the Lewinsky scandal broke, very few liberals not in the employ of the Clintons — or otherwise dependent on, or fearful of, them — acted as if they didn’t believe the allegation. They celebrated it! There were exceptions; I remember Cokie Roberts and David Broder being horrified. But among cultural liberals — writers, Hollywood types (particularly the Weinstein crowd), etc. — the motivating passion was celebration, not denial. Jack Nicholson cheered Clinton: “What would be the alternative leadership — should it be somebody who doesn’t want to f**k?” Nicholson added, “Bill, you’re great. Keep on!”

After the Lewinsky scandal broke, very few liberals not in the employ of the Clintons — or otherwise dependent on, or fearful of, them — acted as if they didn’t believe the allegation.

Read this article from the New York Observer — if you can stomach it — titled,New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez.” They covered all the weighty issues, e.g., is oral sex cheating? And would you do him? “The consensus, as [Erica] Jong expressed it, was that a Presidential ‘f*ckabout’ was far better than a ‘fascist pig’ like Kenneth Starr.” The “only person who minds that Bill Clinton’s having sex without being in love,” said Elizabeth Benedict, “is Ken Starr.” Susan Shellogg, a former dominatrix, offered the only substantive criticism: “I think the President is reckless for not practicing safe sex if she has stains on her dress. She was not using a condom. That’s a big story.”

In an even more embarrassing Rolling Stone symposium, rapper DMX said,

All [Clinton] did was get some p***y, you know what I’m saying? . . . He’s a dog, man. Men are dogs. The fronting ones are the ones who don’t act like dogs. Those are the ones you watch. He’s doing his job. Whether he gets impeached should be determined by that, not where his (manhood) is at.

Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, a man of famously Caligulan sexual appetites, summed up the attitude well:

What we have is a Republican majority in the House, held hostage by hate-drunk zealots and McCarthy-esque character assassins arguing the proposition that the president’s personal life must be absolutely flawless, [and] that should he have less than such moral purity, he has no right as a sworn officer of the Constitution to personal privacy.

In the same issue, Nicholson called the investigation a “coup d’état” and compared Bill Clinton to abolitionist zealot John Brown.

It was amidst all of this talk that the idea of Bill Clinton being “the first black president” was born, because, you see, he was being persecuted for not following bourgeois morality, or something. Jane Smiley, writing in The New Yorker, argued that Bill Clinton was so much more preferable to George H. W. Bush, because Bush was a warmonger who liked launching missiles more than having sex:

Maybe what Clinton did in the Oval Office was love, or infatuation, or just sex. At the very least, it was a desire to make a connection with another person, a habitual desire for which Clinton is well known, and sometimes ridiculed. But this desire to connect is something I trust, because it seems to be the one thing that he can’t get rid of. If we as a nation choose to put ourselves through the national pain of impeachment rather than the national healing of forgiveness, we will have only ourselves to blame when the next fellow comes along who would rather launch an air strike than a pass.

Now, not all of these people excused, say, Juanita Broaddrick’s utterly plausible claim that Bill Clinton raped her. But one reason they didn’t was that NBC News kept that allegation secret throughout the impeachment hearings because they believed it was true.

Condemning the Wrong Hypocrisy

I could go on about this for quite a while, but I’ll cut to the chase and say a word about the hypocrisy. During the latter half of the 1980s and the tail end of the Bush presidency, feminists and their liberal allies had worked tireless — and sometimes fanatically — to fight sexual harassment, very broadly defined. They pelted — rightly — Senator Bob Packwood from the public stage. They derailed Senator John Tower’s nomination to be secretary of defense on the grounds that he was a “womanizer.” Even entirely consensual sexual relationships between powerful male superiors and subordinates were inherently exploitative, they argued. Hence, Clarence Thomas’s alleged overtures were out-frick’n-rageous according to liberals.

And then they threw it all away to defend Bill Clinton. His “affair” with Lewinsky — hardly his only extramarital affair, according to 8 katrillion rumors spread off-camera by liberal journalists — was suddenly just an attempt to “connect” with another person. Never mind that he couldn’t remember her name and led on a naïve intern. The Big He was a lovable dog, and anyone who had a problem with that was the problem. Ronald Reagan wouldn’t take off his jacket in the Oval Office. Bill Clinton literally took off his pants in it.

As John Podhoretz notes on the Commentary podcast, Maureen Dowd raked the Clintons over the coals for their shabby dealings and scandals for years. But when the issue turned to Bill’s “sex life,” suddenly she mounted the parapets to defend him against the Comstock Ken Starr.

Why? Well, part of it was simply the corrupting nature of power. Donald Trump is not the first president to benefit from a standard-bending cult of personality. In fact, they all have benefitted from this dynamic to one extent or another.

But there’s another factor that hasn’t gotten any attention these days as far as I can tell. American liberalism in the 1990s was shot through with a kind of anti-Christian panic. They didn’t put it in those terms, of course, but it poured out between the lines even when phrased differently. All of the tedious op-eds about Salem and The Crucible, the snide references to Ken Starr’s faith, the lazy dot-connecting between the Christian Right and the “persecution” of Bill Clinton: It was everywhere.

The rising obsession with sexual liberation married to hatred of “scolds” and judgmental traditionalists simply swamped everything else. Gloria Steinem set fire to her integrity and minted the “one free grope rule” in the New York Times. Katie Roiphe, also in the Times, celebrated Monica as a go-getter who used her sexuality to her advantage.

Anyone who objected to this garbage was a “sexual McCarthyite,” as Alan Dershowitz put it in his book Sexual McCarthyism. Indeed, as I noted at the time, the corruption didn’t just rot the present, it poisoned the past. Suddenly, anti-Communism was now really about homophobia and not, you know, opposition to Communism.

The corruption didn’t just rot the present, it poisoned the past.

So, now we’re in this very weird place. Liberals are rediscovering an old position and claiming either through denial or ignorance that it is a new one. Meanwhile, many conservatives are responding to the left-wing flip with a right-wing flop. In 2011, only 30 percent of white Evangelicals said that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” In 2016, that number more than doubled to 72 percent. White Evangelicals used to be the religious group that was least tolerant of immoral acts by public officials. In the wake of Trump, they are now the demographic most tolerant of immoral acts in politicians. I’ve spent the last week arguing with people on Twitter who claim I’m naïve, puritanical, weak, liberal, or dumb for arguing that, if true, Roy Moore’s behavior is disqualifying.

We are in big trouble when the tribal response of our enemies picking up our positions causes us to take up theirs.

Various & Sundry

As I mentioned, the latest Remnant podcast is up. I covered some of the same material above in a bit of a rantier-than-usual stream of consciousness. But I also made room for calling out John Podhoretz, Sonny Bunch, Rich Lowry, and all of these people determined to take me down a notch. Also, as promised, we finally got around to a reading of some (PG-rated) Bigfoot Erotica. The podcast is doing well, and I’m grateful to everyone who’s given it a shot. I do have one request: We’re doing great in terms of downloads. But it seems like a disproportionate share of people are listening through the podcast’s NRO page. It would be great for me in all sorts of ways if you could actually subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or the like so that a) you never miss an episode and b) we get our subscription numbers more in line with downloads.

Canine Update: The beasts are still loving fall. The only problem is that our SUV, a.k.a. “the dog car,” has been out getting detailed (we’re thinking of selling it to get a more practical canine conveyance). This means poor Zoë has to do a leash walk every morning, while Pippa still gets to chase tennis balls as we walk around my neighborhood. I can’t let Zoë run around the neighborhood off-leash because she might chase something into traffic, disappear in someone’s backyard, or get into a squabble with someone else’s dog. She clearly resents the double standard. So, every now and then, she just tackles Pippa and demands that she wrestle instead. But the thing is that once Tennis Ball Protocol Alpha Omega 1 has been triggered, Pippa has no desire to play any other games. Meanwhile, I discovered last night that Zoë doesn’t want any further part of my vendetta against John Podhoretz, even though he has cast so many aspersions on my dogs. He’s just bitter that they helped me crush him in his poll about who has the better Twitter feed.

Last week’s G-File

Hillary and Uranium One

Roy Moore and sexual conspiracies

The latest Ricochet GLoP Culture podcast

Hillary and Uranium One, continued

My latest appearance on Special Report

The latest Remnant podcast, with bonus Bigfoot erotica

Russia’s national interest is not our national interest.

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Remorseful thieves return stolen puppy to little girl

The U.S. government’s zombie apocalypse plan

Why doesn’t the U.S. have to worry about coups?

The chicken that lived headless for two years

Why fish don’t swim upside-down

Surfer escapes shark encounter by punching it in the nose

A lakebed containing half the elements known to mankind

Is 63 the answer to life, the universe, and everything?

Real dog jealous of toy dog

The man with auto-brewery syndrome

Detroit police officers fight each other in undercover operation gone wrong

How dogs teach us to stop worrying and be happy

Christian Bale’s weight transformations over the years

The dog that can’t catch

Weird things picked up on weather radar

A corgi race

Antarctica in photos

Why Nazis loved decaf

You’ve heard of pizza rat. Now get ready for . . . 

American Heart Association president has heart attack at AHA’s annual conference

Navy admits to drawing phallic graffiti in the sky

(Stanley Kubrick would be proud)

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg