Most likely, the people who got the idea to make a big thing of the 25th anniversary of the Clintons’ 1992 win of the presidency had a different sort of a party in mind — perhaps a triumphant tableau of a new kind of first couple: The first gentleman, along with the first female president, lit with the glow of their his-and-hers power, just as they always had planned.
Instead, they had Hillary looking embittered, gnawing the bone of her loss last November, and Bill looking perplexed as he pondered the fact that a number of Democrats — Democrats! — were expressing regrets that they hadn’t forced him from office during the madness of 1998. But it was Republicans who expressed most displeasure, saying it was too little too late, that it cost nothing, that it changed nothing, and should have come sooner. But none of these things may be true.
It might not be cost-free, as the Clintons still have lots of money and followers. Some Democrats of today were too young in the 1990s to have had any power. And while it’s too late to change the Clintons’ past fortunes, it isn’t too late to alter their image in history and the way that they and their allies are seen. It matters if history sees Bill as a predator who escaped his comeuppance, Hillary as an enabler of his depredations, and Gloria Steinem, the feminist seer, as the author of the risible "one free grope" treatise, which was embarrassing enough when it was published and now seems even worse.
And this reassessment could not have come earlier: It took Trump’s election to shine a bright light on the straight lines between the excuses made on behalf of Bill Clinton and the fact that Trump survived the attacks made upon him, which could not be seen until now.
Clinton, like Trump, was an abnormal president — not just licentious, but coarse and gross, without the redeeming achievements of other adulterers. However, he was succeeded by two normal people (or people who were normal by the standards of those who are president) and it was easy to imagine through their normality that not much had altered. It was only when Trump was elected, a man who seemed in some ways like Clinton drawn bigger, that one was able to see what had changed.
Why didn’t the "Access Hollywood" tapes have more of an impact? Because the Starr Report had come first, and made it seem normal. If gentlemen lied about sex, as Arthur Schlesinger told us, why should we care when Trump lied about it, among other matters? If only prudes minded this, as Bill Styron told us, why should we be prudish? If sex was "just sex" and "everyone did it," then why shouldn’t Trump do it too?
Since both parties tried to make each previous sinner the product of what each said was wrong with the other — conservative sinners proved that the Right hated women; liberals proved that the Left had no morals — perhaps we had to wait until each side had its own embarrassing president (and contrasting examples of quite good behavior) and had to admit that the groping and pawing were caused by bad private traits, bad genes, and bad manners, given headwinds by the culture in general and not by the parties at all.
Some of the senators seem to sense this and are acting accordingly. Some of the Democrats seem to have realized the excuses they made to save their own president had long-lasting effects that they hadn’t imagined, and that turned out to cause them real pain.
Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."