Since Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, has there been an entire month, and in some months even a single day, in which the words “Clinton” and “ethics” have not appeared in the same news story? After a while, we grew accustomed to those stories. So we should be well-prepared for the campaign ahead.
Remember the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan Association? No reason why you should. It was famous for 15 minutes 20 years ago.
When Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton represented Madison, a local bank, before a state regulator he appointed. Once the Clintons were in the White House, and as Kenneth Starr’s investigation of the Whitewater land deal began to heat up, Hillary’s work for Madison was cited with other examples as proof of the first couple’s ethical lapses. At a press conference on March 24, 1994, the president was asked: “Do you not see any conflicts of interest in your action or your wife—wife’s actions which would appear to contradict what you just said about her not doing any work before the state, that would cause people to question your actions?”
I had been asked the same question earlier that day in an NPR interview—so I was eager to hear the reply. Clinton said: “Today, in an interview Professor Stephen Gillers of New York University, who is a widely respected national expert on legal ethics, once again said there was nothing at all unethical in doing this. These kinds of things happen when you have married couples who have professions. And the most important thing there is disclosure. There was no sneaking around about this; this was full disclosure. Professor Gillers—I brought the quote here—said, ‘I think this is a bum rap on Mrs. Clinton, and I’m amazed that it keeps getting recirculated.’”
So I also had my 15 minutes.
Twenty years later, the questions are the same. Only the names have changed. Madison, Whitewater, Travelgate—they’re history. Today the stories are about foreign government contributions to the Clinton Foundation and Bill’s $250,000 speeches that took place while Hillary was running the State Department. And they are about Hillary’s private e-mail server and her destruction of nearly 32,000 e-mails.
The Clintons generate enough case studies to support a Kennedy School seminar—or a full-time reporter on a Clinton ethics beat. They do have an uncanny knack for inviting suspicion. Just as 20 years ago, however, much of it is still a bum rap. But not all of it.
This story has two themes—reality and public perception.
Reality first: Increasingly women hold powerful jobs (secretary of state, head of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Supreme Court justice, attorney general) that could enable them to help their spouses. Increasingly, too, women are professionals while their spouses are in powerful jobs, as was true back in Little Rock. This was not a problem a half-century ago, when men had power and wives stayed home, even if they did not bake cookies.