Kathy Sheridan: Hillary Clinton email debacle is a far cry from Watergate
Recent distortions recall the way an earlier female US presidential candidate was treated
It’s election week in the US, so it seems fitting to give a shout-out to Victoria Woodhull of the Equal Rights Party, the first female US presidential candidate. Her efforts to highlight a screaming national double standard included publicising an adulterous affair a famous preacher was conducting with a parishioner. For her trouble, she spent election day in jail and eventually left the US, worn out. The preacher had his salary raised to $100,000 by his parishioners and – praise the Lord! – landed an endorsement deal with Pears Soap. QED. That was nearly 150 years ago.
Woodhull came to mind this week amid the reports and social media commentary about Hillary Clinton and the FBI’s latest cache of emails, a discovery deemed “bigger than Watergate” by the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. Watergate, for those not up to speed with events of the early 1970s, began with a bungled burglary by men working out of President Nixon’s re-election committee and ended with his resignation from the presidency, soon followed by the conviction of nearly 50 of his aides and associates, including John Dean, a Nixon White House counsel.
This week, Dean summarised Watergate as follows : “Taken together, these investigations revealed astounding abuses of presidential power by Nixon, which included other illegal break-ins and burglaries; illegal electronic surveillance; misuses of agencies of government like the IRS, CIA and FBI; the practice of making political opponents into enemies and using the instruments of government to attack them; and then employing perjury and obstruction of justice to cover it all up.”
Contrast that, he wrote in the Washington Post, “with Mrs Clinton, whose ‘scandal’ is the result of her desire – like that of many, including President Obama – not to give up her Blackberry email account when she entered the executive branch. Only slowly did she come to appreciate the security risk of not using the antiquated State Department system. She was aware that a few classified items – some of which were classified after the fact – were in her private email system. Unlike Nixon, she has apologised. The FBI record also shows that – again, unlike Nixon – she had no criminal intent in any of her actions.”
In fact, the FBI director, James Comey, went further. He wrote to his staff to emphasise that the decision not to recommend charging Clinton was “not a cliffhanger” and that people “chest-beating” and second-guessing the FBI didn’t know what they were talking about.
To suggest that her “scandal” is “bigger than Watergate”, wrote Dean, goes further than just campaign hyperbole. In fact, it “distorts our understanding of what actually constitutes an abuse of power, and raises the risks that we will some day install another leader who is all too happy to misuse historical memory to indulge a dark and nasty nature”.
That dark creature is currently criss-crossing the US, leading fanatical chants of “lock her up”. The corrosive effect of the lies, created and relentlessly repeated to define an imperfect Hillary, is real and dangerous, given the high number of wavering voters. Which of us hasn’t wondered if there is something in the “Crooked Hillary” epithets? The intimation that the FBI must have found something meaty in the latest batch of emails – although they hadn’t even been read at that stage – arrived at a critical moment.
On Monday, when voters were asked if the emails were indeed worse than Watergate, a staggering 48 per cent agreed. To stupefy vast swathes of the electorate is not a crime, nor is it a crime to allow yourself to be stupefied. But it is too easy. Trump supporters, we know, are not just angry, uneducated, disenchanted white men. They also include the comfortable and the rich. So what unites them? A visceral hatred of the first female nominee for president, who happens to be up against the most misogynistic presidential nominee in US history.
The loathing goes back a long way, to the Clintons’ arrival in the White House. More than 20 years ago, Spy magazine ran a cover image modelled on the famous Marilyn Monroe photo with the billowing skirt, with a grinning Hillary in bulging male briefs and the headline across her legs: “Hillary’s Big Secret.”
“Make America Great Again” is more than a slogan about trade or immigrants; it is about winding the clock back 25 years for all the men, and some women, who despise her for her overt ambition, for being a feminist, a liberal and a woman.
Have a look again at the T-shirt slogans: “Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one”; “Trump the bitch”; “Trump versus tramp”; “KFC Hillary Special: two fat thighs, two small breasts . . . left wing”; “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica”. At one rally, a boy of about 10 screamed repeatedly, “Take the bitch down”.
The c**t word is a regular, with multiple variations of abuse about menopausal nut-jobs. Obscene comments about her relationship with Huma Abedin, her senior aide, are 10 a penny.
“We thought all that was ancient history, didn’t we?” said Michelle Obama in her powerful New Hampshire speech. But, as poor Virginia Woodhull discovered 150 years ago, the battle for fairness and human decency is without end. Next Tuesday is only the start.