Sex scandals and suicide: The campaign lurches back to the '90s

Suddenly, we’re wallowing in the fever swamps of Vince Foster and Ken Starr.

It was hard enough to live through the days of the blue dress, the cigar and a congressman trying to reenact a crime by shooting at a watermelon. Now history is repeating itself somewhere between tragedy and farce, but with potentially lethal consequences for the current presidential campaign.

What’s sometimes forgotten about the Clinton scandals of the ’90s, now that they’re starting to be relitigated in 2016, is that there was a huge legal and media war between the Clinton machine and those investigating the president. The Clinton team tried to discredit Starr, the onetime federal judge who was named special prosecutor for the Whitewater land deal and expanded his probe to include Monica Lewinsky.

The same went for those investigating what happened to Foster, a White House aide and confidante of Hillary Clinton whose death was found in multiple probes to be a suicide—and yet spawned lots of conspiracy theories that persist to this day.

I understand why Donald Trump has been bringing up Bill Clinton’s affairs and allegations of sexual misconduct—most recently in an Instagram video and using the word “rape” in a Sean Hannity interview—because he thinks he can tie Hillary to the tawdriness.

But Vince Foster?

This came up in a Washington Post story yesterday. Trump was quoted as saying: “It’s the one thing with her, whether it’s Whitewater or whether it’s Vince or whether it’s Benghazi. It’s always a mess with Hillary.”

The paper followed up:

“When asked in an interview last week about the Foster case, Trump dealt with it as he has with many edgy topics — raising doubts about the official version of events even as he says he does not plan to talk about it on the campaign trail.

“He called theories of possible foul play ‘very serious’ and the circumstances of Foster’s death ‘very fishy.’ ‘He had intimate knowledge of what was going on,’ Trump said, speaking of Foster’s relationship with the Clintons at the time. ‘He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”

“He added, ‘I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it.’”

Although he did kind of discuss it right there. I don’t see what Trump gains by reviving those conspiracy theories. Starr, backed by the FBI, concluded in a report that there was no foul play and no cover-up in the death of the deputy White House counsel.

And by the way, Foster left a suicide note. This was the final line: “I was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.”

There's a burgeoning debate over how much the media should cover this sort of thing. But when a de facto presidential nominee says such things on the record, it is obviously news.

Starr, meanwhile, is sounding a bit regretful about his role in the investigations that led to Clinton’s impeachment, saying in a panel discussion that the ex-president has been part of a “redemptive process” since leaving the White House: “President Carter set a very high standard, which President Clinton clearly continues to follow.”

Calling Clinton “the most gifted politician of the baby boomer generation,” Starr said: “His genuine empathy for human beings is absolutely clear,” Mr. Starr said. “It is powerful, it is palpable and the folks of Arkansas really understood that about him — that he genuinely cared. The ‘I feel your pain’ is absolutely genuine.”

Ironically, there were unconfirmed reports yesterday that Baylor University had fired Starr as its president--for not being more aggressive in investigating reports that male athletes had raped female students.

So will any of these golden oldies, so exhaustively covered at the time, have resonance two decades later? Hillary critics are starting to say that many voters have forgotten the details of these scandals, or are too young to have lived through them.

One complicating factor, raised by CNN’s Chris Cuomo, is that that Trump occasionally defended Bill Clinton at the time. “He was a private citizen who was friendly with the Clintons and he was trying to protect a friend,” Trump lawyer and confidante Michael Cohen told Cuomo. “Now, it’s a different game. It’s 2016, he is the Republican presidential nominee.”

In the end, I suspect most voters want to hear more about their future than to wallow in tales of Bill’s women and Donald’s women in the last century. But there could be some collateral damage in a town where ruining people—especially presidential candidates—is considered sport.