Haunting Hillary Clinton: How Critics Spun An Old Story Into A New Scandal

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With her book tour in full swing, a fresh grenade has been lobbed into Hillary Clinton’s camp.

This time, it's a decades-old recording in which Hillary, in her previous life as an attorney, discussed her defense of a man accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. In the recording, it sounds as if she believed her client was guilty. Recently she addressed the issue, telling British parenting site Mumsnet that she had attempted to get herself removed from the case all those years ago, but was denied.

Amid the controversy, America’s political thought leaders sprang into action. They went straight for the important question, the one that matters most: “What’s the spin on that?”

Clinton's critics spun the situation to claim that her defense of her client was somehow in violation of women's rights. Commentary Magazine writer Jonathan S. Tobin said it's not possible to be a "defender of rapists while also posing as a champion of women and children on the national political stage." Her proponents argued that her work on the case had nothing to do with women's rights, and that Hillary had simply done her job, giving her client a vigorous defense. “Defense attorneys have an unpleasant but necessary job, and Clinton did what she was obligated to do, which was to give her client a constitutionally mandated adequate defense,” Amanda Marcotte wrote for Slate.

Hillary has long been an advocate for women and girls, reportedly calling women's rights “one of the great causes of my life.” In the 1990s, she helped launch the nonprofit Vital Voices to train women leaders around the world. As Secretary of State, she crisscrossed the planet bringing attention to issues such as sexual slavery. Recently, she announced a global initiative called No Ceilings, which will evaluate the progress of women and girls over the past two decades.

The rape case has come up before. Hillary wrote about it in her memoir Living History in 2003. She has said she was 27 years old and doing legal-aid work in Arkansas in 1975 when a judge appointed her to represent a man accused of raping a 12-year-old. Citing a legal obligation to defend her client, she eventually got him a plea deal on a lesser charge.

But now, words she spoke about the case decades ago have returned to haunt her. The controversy began last month when the conservative Washington Free Beacon published a recording of an interview she did with an Esquire reporter in the 1980s. In the interview, which, incidentally, never ran in the magazine, she casually discussed the case and chuckled when she said, "I had him take a polygraph, which he passed, which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs," thereby implying that she thought her client was guilty. The chuckle got lots of attention from critics.

Alana Goodman at the Free Beacon said the recording "calls into question Clinton’s narrative of her early years as a devoted women and children’s advocate.” Others called that argument illogical, and dangerous: "It is the job of defense attorneys to do the best they can for the clients they have," wrote Jamelle Bouie for Slate. Anything less — varying the quality of their work according to the caliber of their clients — is literal malpractice, to say nothing of its corrosive effect on the foundations of our legal system.”

The victim of the alleged rape, now 52, resurfaced as well, telling Josh Rogin at The Daily Beast that Hillary put her “through hell” by discrediting her in the case. “And, you are supposed to be for women?" she said. "You call that [being] for women, what you done to me?”

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Hillary tackled the controversy in the interview with Mumsnet this month, saying, “I was appointed by the local judge to represent a criminal defendant accused of rape. I asked to be relieved of that responsibility, but I was not, and I had a professional duty to represent my client to the best of my ability, which I did.” She added, “When you’re a lawyer, you often don’t have the choice as to who you will represent, and by the very nature of criminal law, there will be those who you represent that you don’t approve of. But, at least in our system, you have an obligation, and once I was appointed, I fulfilled that obligation.”

Michael Krauss, a legal-ethics professor at George Mason University School of Law, took a balanced look at the case for Forbes, saying Hillary did nothing wrong by “defending a man whom she believed, or perhaps knew, to be guilty of the crime charged.” However, he said, “I do not feel that jocularity is appropriate when discussing the successful defense of a criminal defendant.”

And that, perhaps, is the heart of the matter: Hillary's tone in discussing the case. She rather proudly describes her defense strategy, detailing how she got her client a plea deal after a key piece of evidence — a bloody swatch from the man's underwear — was lost. It might have been wiser to speak with some empathy for the 12-year-old. It raises a question that has reared its head over the years, the question of her relatability. She recently came under fire for saying she and Bill were "dead broke" when they left the White House. To be sure, they were deep in debt at the time, mostly due to legal fees, but the couple soon made millions from public-speaking fees and other projects. They weren't exactly "broke" in the way that ordinary people are.

In Hillary's new comments on the rape case, she speaks professionally, articulately, rationally — and, once again, from a distance. TIME political analyst Mark Halperin accused her of giving "slick answers." It's a criticism she'll need to keep in mind if she runs for president.

Still, should the decades-old rape case and her discussion of it wipe out a lifetime of important work on behalf of women? Of course not. Krauss, the law professor, puts it this way: “I believe that 30 years of public life has given us more than enough information to evaluate Mrs. Clinton’s qualifications for the highest elected public office, which it is rumored she covets,” he wrote for Forbes. “I don’t think that an event that occurred 39 years ago sheds much new light on a person about whom a great deal of light has already been shed.”

Hillary’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Tell us what you think and give us your spin: Are the criticisms of Hillary’s words and work from decades ago fair or unfounded?