Definitely Not Tammy Wynette
I just don't believe any of that.
--Hillary Clinton on Gennifer Flowers's allegations of an affair with Bill Clinton, January 1992
I thought the whole thing was disingenuous, because at the time I found it impossible to believe that Hillary didn't know anything about it. Just like I don't believe for a moment she didn't know about Monica Lewinsky.
--Rush Limbaugh on the Clintons' handling of the 1992 Gennifer Flowers scandal, in an interview with the authors
For years, the worst-kept secret in Washington was that Hillary Rodham Clinton would run for president. Her candidacy was such a foregone conclusion for so long that it's hard to remember a time when her designs on the Oval Office weren't being closely analyzed. But it's worth recalling the unlikely path Mrs. Clinton has taken to becoming a presidential front-runner. Before she ran for the Senate in 2000, for example, she had never even held elective office. And when did the buzz about her possible Senate run begin? Right in the midst of her husband's impeachment trial--only the second presidential impeachment in U.S. history.
Just how did this happen?
To answer that question requires going back to the time when Hillary Clinton emerged upon the national scene, in January 1992. As a close examination of the record reveals, Mrs. Clinton had a vast army of supporters building up her credentials from the very beginning. Those supporters were found in the media.
Indeed, from the moment Hillary walked onto the national stage, the media hailed her as a woman on the verge of history, a feminist trailblazer, a pioneer of women's liberation, like a female Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in Guccis. If her husband was elected president, she would be the first First Lady to have an "independent" career of her own. The many liberals and feminists now in the press corps could visualize one of their own as a White House spouse, chafing at the demand to glue on a plastic smile and pretend she lived for the annual Easter Egg Roll, choosing instead to use her honorary office to strike blows for "social justice." Empathy for Hillary's pioneer plight oozed between every sentence of many Woodstock generation media accounts.
It's a pattern we have seen repeated again and again in the fifteen-plus years since.
"I Don't Think It's Worthy of Comment"
Hillary Clinton entered the national picture in a less-than-traditional way, in the middle of a political crisis for her husband. A scandal threatened to bury her husband's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination just as he had pulled ahead in polls. A tabloid newspaper had paid a six-figure sum to Gennifer Flowers, a blond former TV reporter from Little Rock who claimed that Bill Clinton had cheated with her for twelve years behind Hillary's back, and had rewarded her services with a state job while he served as governor of Arkansas. Most people were introduced to Hillary on 60 Minutes as she sat in a turquoise turtleneck and jacket and a girlish black headband, her husband's political career teetering on a precipice, and defended him with a clenched fist as he mumbled vague admissions about inflicting "pain" in their marriage.
The world would one day recognize the Gennifer Flowers incident as not a marital slip but just another episode in Bill's serial adultery. Ultimately we would also learn that her husband's constant philandering was well known to Hillary. The marriage as a loving relationship was a farce. So why did Hillary so stoutly stand by her man? Why endure the tortured embarrassment of a national spectacle?
From a political standpoint, the answer seems obvious: A public termination of the marriage would destroy Bill Clinton's national political aspirations--and hers.
But beyond that long-term benefit, Hillary also reaped an immediate public relations bonanza. She evoked an outpouring of sympathy, a feeling so strong that even Flowers wrote in her book Passion and Betrayal about how Hillary passed right in front of her face without looking at her at the Governor's Mansion. "She could have slapped me right off the sidewalk and I would have deserved it. I actually sympathized with her."
Rumors about Bill Clinton's infidelities had been circulating for months, but there were no specifics. On September 17, 1991, about two weeks before the Clinton campaign officially took off in Little Rock, the Clintons went to Washington, D.C., for the Godfrey Sperling press breakfast. There they employed what would be their strategy on adultery allegations: to muddle through them with vague spin in order to convince the news media to take Bill's past sins off the table. Robert Novak was at the press breakfast that morning, and he remembered that the Clintons "seemed uneasy waiting" to get to their marital message. When finally a question was raised, Bill Clinton's answer, as reported by Novak, was typically Clintonian, a clever parsing of words ultimately signifying nothing: "Like nearly anybody that's been together twenty years, our relationship has not been perfect or free of difficulties. But we feel good about where we are. We believe in our obligations. And we intend to be together thirty or forty years from now, regardless of whether I run for president or not." For his part, Sperling, of The Christian Science Monitor, remembered Hillary "nodding emphatically."
This breakfast was a smashing success. The nonanswer was good enough for reporters, perhaps because the Clintons already had them at "Hello." Time political writer Michael Kramer ratified the vague-answers-are-enough consensus of the press, writing that the amorphous admission of "pain" was "received as a welcome exercise in truth telling." Sperling expressed the media's conventional wisdom when he wrote that if the two of them had reconciled, there was no political problem. In short, only Hillary would have the moral authority to decide if adultery mattered--a victim's veto. If she'd decided his straying was okay, then the matter was settled.
On January 16, 1992, the national tabloid The Star printed recycled allegations of adultery from a 1990 lawsuit by Clinton adversary Larry Nichols, but even then the Clinton campaign barely broke a sweat. Reporters viewed this story as little more than shaky gossip coming from embittered Clinton foes. At this point Hillary was still telling Time's Margaret Carlson, "My marriage is solid, full of love and friendship, but it's too profound to talk about glibly."
But a week later The Star was back, and this time promised evidence. Gennifer Flowers stepped forward to say that she'd enjoyed a long-standing affair with Clinton and had tapes of phone conversations with him to prove it. Samples of the taped conversations were released, and now the Clinton machine knew it had a potential disaster on its hands. Former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos recalled in his memoir All Too Human, "I couldn't bear the thought that an old dalliance dredged up by a tabloid would curtail the professional experience of my life." If that "experience of my life" was in month number three of his professional affiliation with Clinton, one can just imagine how Mrs. Clinton felt after more than two decades molding her husband's chance at national office.
To put out the fire, the Clintons sent trusted adviser Mandy Grunwald to do their bidding on ABC's Nightline. Bill and Hillary must have enjoyed watching her beat Ted Koppel senseless even though he was taking a relatively soft approach to the adultery issue. "You haven't been talking about the middle class!" Grunwald charged. "You haven't talked about why Bill Clinton has captured people's imagination." Koppel was left to applaud her aggression: "So far you've done a very effective job of putting me on the defensive and asking me questions, which is perfectly appropriate."
Nightline reporter Jeff Greenfield, who delivered the setup piece for the interview, had no aggressive journalism to offer, either. His report featured a sound bite of Bill Clinton saying, "I read the story. It isn't true. And I told her [Flowers] over and over, I said, 'Just tell the truth. Tell the truth.'" Then Greenfield added this Hillary quote: "I just don't believe any of that and I don't think it's worthy of comment."
The media were focusing on Hillary's final point--the story wasn't worthy of comment--but ignoring the factual particulars. Greenfield ran a portion of the transcript discussing the affair. Judge for yourself whether Clinton and Flowers had an affair and were discussing a cover-up:
CLINTON: I thought they'd look into it. But, you know, I just think a crazy person like Larry Nichols is not enough to get a story on the television with names in it.
FLOWERS: Right. Well, he better not get on there and start naming names.
CLINTON: Well, that's what I mean. You know, if all the people who are named . . . deny it . . . That's all, I mean, I expected them to come look into it and interview you and everything, uh, but I just think that if everybody's on record denying it, you've got no problem.
FLOWERS: Well, I don't think . . . I don't think . . . I don't . . . Well, why would they waste their money and time coming down here unless someone showed 'em some interest? See, they weren't here tonight and they're not going to be there.
CLINTON: No, no. See, that's it. I mean, they're gonna run this Larry Nichols thing down, they're gonna try to goad people up, you know, but if everybody kinda hangs tough, they're just not going to do anything. They can't.
FLOWERS: No, they can't.
CLINTON: They can't run a story like this unless somebody said, "Yeah, I did it with him."
What about the charge that Clinton used his power to award Flowers a job on the state payroll?
FLOWERS: The only thing that concerns me, where I'm...