US Election 2016: Hillary's campaign and Bill's women

Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers Image copyright AFP
Image caption Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers

Early this year, Donald Trump made the seemingly audacious suggestion that Hillary Clinton was somehow responsible for Bill Clinton's infidelities. Trump called her an "enabler" and said she "attacked the women who Bill Clinton mistreated afterward."

In typical Trump fashion, the comment was designed to get attention. Mrs Clinton has been a champion of family issues and women's rights throughout her career, so the idea that she was the enabler of someone Mr Trump has called "the greatest abuser of women in the history of politics," appeared outrageous.

And yet, something resonated in Mr Trump's description of Hillary. There was a kernel of truth to his claim and now it is hurting Mrs Clinton with young female voters.

The New York Times today has a long article outlining Mrs Clinton's role in the political handling of her husband's sexual affairs. It's pretty damning, and for Clinton's supporters it must make unpleasant reading.

Anyone with an iota of empathy, of course, sympathises with what Hillary Clinton went through during the Lewinsky scandal. I was here and covered the story. It was grim, and the image of Chelsea steadfastly holding both parents hands as they walked, heads slightly bowed, to the helicopter on their way to that summer holiday in Martha's Vineyard will stick with me as one of the more poignant family portraits ever taken.

Dealing with a spouse's unfaithfulness is traumatic in private. It must be an even deeper circle of Hell when splashed on the front of every newspaper.

Image copyright AP

What is disconcerting now, however, is Hillary's role in pursuing the women themselves - Gennifer, Paula, Monica, they all, according to both the New York Times and previously published accounts, became the subject of brutal, organised discreditation campaigns.

In 1992, Hillary told Esquire magazine that if she had the chance to cross examine Flowers, she would "crucify her." Taking such determined steps to destroy a woman's reputation in order to protect her husband's political career smacks of depressingly cynical calculation.

The Clintons hired a famous private investigator to dig up the women's pasts with the aim of destroying their reputations. It is not clear from the Times' reporting to what degree Mrs Clinton favoured this tough approach.

Did she drive it or just give it an accepting nod? Maybe the more relevant point is that she condoned it. Hillary also famously called Ms Lewinsky a "narcissistic loony toon," according to a friend's testimony. A staff member who was close to Hillary said she referred to Mr Clinton's affairs as "bimbo eruptions".

And there's the problem for young women voters.

Why should the character or the sexual past of these women be relevant to the truthfulness of their claims? Indeed, Mr Clinton went on to confess to affairs with both Ms Flowers and Ms Lewinsky, after initially denying them.

By discrediting the women, the Clintons were spreading the subliminal message that it was somehow their fault more than Bill's. What were they trying to prove - that he was led astray by sexual predators? In 2016 that sounds grotesque.

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Media captionHow it all started for Hillary Clinton

Today's sexual mores are very different from the 1980s and 1990s. Young women today expect women to stand up for other women, particularly in the area of sexual relations and particularly when those sexual relations involve a very powerful man and a younger woman.

Younger women who have been through bruising college sexual abuse scandals across America have little tolerance for women who in any way cast blame on the victim. That empathy extends to consensual affairs - they just don't like women shaming other women. Which is exactly what Hillary Clinton was complicit in doing, according to the New York Times, and other previous accounts.

Mrs Clinton's supporters say this is all old news, and is part of a right-wing attempt to slime her. Many millennial voters weren't even born when Monica and Bill were cavorting in the Oval Office. This is their first introduction to this sordid story.

However the Clinton campaign tries to spin it, it just doesn't look great for their candidate.