It’s been the longest relationship of my life as a voter, and as a writer on culture and politics. But after last week, and the revelation that she failed to take her campaign manager’s advice and fire an aide accused of sexual harassment in 2008, Hillary Clinton and I are done. And to be honest, it’s probably overdue.
Rooting for Clinton has never been purely about her, of course. Breaking that “highest, hardest glass ceiling” would have been a rebuke to the idea that taking time to support her husband’s career is necessarily the end of a woman’s dreams and ambitions. Seeing Clinton, the leading hate figure of the past three decades of conservative politics, earn a respected role in public life often felt like evidence that women don’t need to let themselves be defined by their most venomous public detractors. And when I defended Clinton from the charges that she should have done something more to prevent her husband’s transgressions, I did so out of a belief that women have the right to complicated reactions in private as long as they behave with integrity in public.
I am absolutely convinced that wives shouldn’t be assigned to govern their husbands’ behavior. That’s a kind of buck-passing that excuses their spouses from having functional consciences and limited self-control. And marriage is a special kind of relationship, one where we make unusual commitments to love and support the other person that we might not extend to others. That devotion inevitably interferes with objectivity. If Hillary Clinton, or any other woman, is privately angry at or blinkered about another woman who comes forward to say that she had an affair with Bill Clinton, or that Bill Clinton sexually harassed her, I’m willing to allow Hillary Clinton that private fallibility and cruelty, that momentary lack of solidarity. We should all hope we find such forgiveness in moments when we’re faced with astonishing personal pain and respond in ways that demonstrate the limits of our strength.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I also trusted that Clinton’s marriage was a separate zone for her. I believed that when confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct in her capacity as a senator, secretary of state or candidate for president that she would handle those accusations decisively and in a way that made clear that she was on the side of other women. After all, she spoke eloquently about guaranteeing women equal access to the workplace and keeping us free from violence in her landmark speech in Beijing in 1995, and connected the subjugation of women and the instability of nations during her tenure as secretary of state. I’ve long followed the career of one sexual assault survivor who went to work on Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and I took her presence there as a vote of confidence that this was a workplace where she felt comfortable.
Maggie Haberman and Amy Chozick’s reporting for the New York Times about how Clinton handled sexual harassment allegations against Burns Strider, her faith adviser, during her 2008 presidential campaign makes it impossible for me to maintain that trust.
To be clear: Clinton is not responsible for Strider’s conduct. He alone is the person who is alleged to have rubbed his office-mate’s shoulders, kissed her forehead and “sent her a string of suggestive emails.” Clinton is also not responsible for the subsequent alleged sexual misconduct that got Strider fired from an outside group supporting Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
But Clinton is responsible for ignoring recommendations from Jess O’Connell, her campaign’s national director of operations and the person tapped to investigate the 2008 allegations against Strider, that Strider be fired from the campaign. She made the choice to ignore the advice of her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, who took that recommendation to Clinton. Clinton is the person who made the call to withhold some of Strider’s pay and to assign him to go to counseling sessions he never attended. And it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether, in taking these actions rather than terminating him from the campaign, Clinton made it easier for Strider to find another job where he was accused of sexually harassing another young woman.
I respect Clinton’s personal religious faith and the depth of her belief in forgiveness. What I can’t accept is the idea that forgiving Strider means minimizing the consequences he faced for his behavior, especially when doing so put him in a position to offend again. Other women bore the cost when Clinton tried to focus on redeeming a man who worked for her rather than protecting the woman who did.
It’s true that during her decades in public life, Clinton has been unfairly saddled with the weight of a lot of terrible decision-making by men. But it does not balance the scales to say that Clinton shouldn’t be held accountable for the choices she made and the advice she shrugged off as the chief executive of her own presidential campaign. Trying to protect her even from the consequences of her own actions is condescension, not fairness.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.
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