Missteps in Clinton’s past leave her muted in furor over Trump

New York Times News Service

In the past week, as a swirl of sexual assault accusations against Donald Trump has prompted a loud national discussion about male power and women’s rights, the first woman to be a major party’s presidential nominee was barely heard from.

Though Hillary Clinton has stood at the center of feminist debates for more than two decades, she has at times been an imperfect messenger for the cause. That has never been more apparent than now, as her old missteps and her husband’s history have effectively paralyzed her during a moment of widespread outrage.

The most impassioned speeches on the topic have come not from her, but from the first lady, Michelle Obama, who said Trump’s words had “shaken me to my core,” and from President Barack Obama and others. When Clinton herself spoke, she quickly changed the subject to other groups of people Trump had insulted, and she tried to lighten the mood with a joke about watching cat videos.

“It makes you want to turn off the news. It makes you want to unplug the internet or just look at cat GIFs,” Clinton told donors in San Francisco on Thursday, making her first remarks on Trump’s treatment of women since several came forward to accuse him.

“I’ve watched a lot of cats do a lot of weird and interesting things,” she said, drawing a few laughs. “But we have a job to do. And it’ll be good for people and for cats.”

Complicated: The virtual silence from Clinton speaks volumes about the complicated place she has occupied as a 1960s Wellesley feminist who stayed as a devoted wife to her husband through infidelities and humiliation.

Forcefully denouncing sexual assault would most certainly provoke ugly attacks on Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton’s role in countering the women who accused him of sexual misconduct. That painful past haunted Clinton Oct. 9 when Trump invited some of her husband’s accusers to the second presidential debate.

In the days since, Clinton has had to once again navigate the messy crosscurrents of politics, symbolism and her ambition to shatter “that highest, hardest glass ceiling” of being elected the first female president.

Michelle Obama: Now, when the collective voice of American women and victims of sexual assault seems to be letting out a cathartic scream, Clinton has deferred to another first lady to speak for her. At the San Francisco fundraiser on Thursday, she pointed to Michelle Obama’s speech earlier that afternoon when the first lady placed her hand on her heart and spoke out for those who were outraged.

FILE — Hillary Clinton speaks during a fundraiser and concert in San Francisco, Oct. 12, 2016. Amid the sexual assault accusations against Donald Trump, Clinton has been virtually silent, scarred by old missteps and paralyzed by her husband’s history of facing accusations of sexual misconduct. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Speaking to college students in New Hampshire, Michelle Obama called Trump’s lewd remarks about how he had forced himself on women “disgraceful” and “intolerable.”

“I can’t believe I’m saying that a candidate for president of the United States has bragged about sexually assaulting women,” Michelle Obama said as a crowd of young women watched with silent and somber expressions. “I can’t stop thinking about this — it has shaken me to my core.”

Clinton has every political reason to avoid wading into the discussion of sexual assault that has riled a nation and thrown her Republican rival’s candidacy into chaos. Not known as a naturally emotive public speaker, Clinton risks stumbling if she embraces the issue at a time when polls show that she is in her strongest position yet to defeat Trump on Nov. 8. She has played it safe, all but disappearing from the campaign trail until the next debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

Clinton's words: But then again, two decades ago, it was Clinton, who, as a 47-year-old first lady in a powder pink suit, defied her husband’s West Wing advisers and captured the attention of women worldwide by declaring, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”

Last summer, Clinton began her campaign by declaring that she wanted to create “an America where a father can tell his daughter: ‘Yes, you can be anything you want to be. Even president of the United States.'”

Since then, allegations of sexual harassment have led to the ouster of Roger Ailes as chairman of Fox News; college campuses have been shaken by the six-month jail sentence given to Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student found guilty of sexual assault; and women continue to come forward with allegations against Trump.

At the same time, Clinton, so close to potentially becoming the first woman to win the White House amid national outrage over reports of her rival’s male lechery, has all but abandoned gender as an issue.

On Thursday, Clinton appeared to get choked up on the set of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” when, during a taping, DeGeneres played a portion of Michelle Obama’s speech.

But Clinton quickly composed herself and, in a remarkable post-gender punt, pivoted to a laundry list of other constituencies whom she said Trump had offended.

“It’s not just what Trump has said about women, as terrible as that has been,” Clinton told DeGeneres. It’s “what he has said about immigrants and African-Americans and Latinos and people with disabilities and POWs and our military and Muslims and everybody.”

On Friday, without mentioning the accusations against Trump, Clinton told volunteers in Seattle: “This election is incredibly painful. I take absolutely no satisfaction in what is happening on the other side with my opponent.”

Asked if Clinton would be speaking more directly about the issue, Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign’s communications director, noted that Clinton had confronted Trump at the last debate about the recently released 2005 video in which he bragged about groping women. “You should expect that she’ll continue to do that,” Palmieri said.

Clinton has battle wounds from wading into gender in the past.In 1992, she seemed an affront to stay-at-home mothers when she defended her legal career, saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.”

As a working mother in the White House, Clinton redefined the role of first lady when she tried, and subsequently failed, to overhaul health care, but she also played the role of a traditional wife when she stayed with Bill Clinton despite his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Transcript: In hacked emails released by WikiLeaks last week, Clinton was shown in an interview transcript pondering, at length, the many complexities of running to be the first female president.

FILE Ñ Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, Oct. 14, 2016. Amid the sexual assault accusations against Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has been virtually silent, scarred by old missteps and paralyzed by her husbandÕs history of facing accusations of sexual misconduct. (Ty Wright/The New York Times)

“When I ran the last time, the research was pretty clear that there was a resistance to a woman president, not just among Republicans and independents, but among Democrats,” she said in one of the thousands of emails obtained by hackers who illegally breached a top aide’s account.

“They didn’t think a woman was qualified, could do the job, didn’t see a woman as commander in chief,” Clinton continued.

So, in 2008, she played up her fortitude and tried essentially to run as if she were a man.

Eight years later, Clinton talks regularly about being a mother and a grandmother, and she doesn’t shy away from embracing her potential to make history. She has also promised that as president she would advance policies that would help women, including doubling the child care tax credit, increasing the minimum wage and pushing for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.

And yet Clinton has found in her second presidential campaign that young women aren’t particularly moved by her promise to make history. Many of them voted instead for Clinton’s primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Thinking about her current campaign, Clinton said in the transcript, “You know, I mean, I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t.”