The facts are these. In 1975, before she married Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham defended a child rapist in Arkansas court. She was not a public defender. No one ordered her to take the case. An ambitious young lawyer, she was asked by a friend if she would represent the accused, and she agreed. And her defense was successful. Attacking the credibility of the 12-year-old victim on the one hand, and questioning the chain of evidence on another, Clinton got a plea-bargain for her client. He served ten months in prison, and died in 1992. The victim, now 52, has had her life irrevocably altered—for the worse.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, for an Esquire profile of rising political stars, Hillary Clinton and her husband agreed to a series of interviews with the Arkansas journalist Roy Reed. Reed and Hillary Clinton discussed at some length her defense of the child rapist, and in the course of that discussion she bragged and laughed about the case, implied she had known her client was guilty, and said her “faith in polygraphs” was forever destroyed when she saw that her client had taken one and passed. Reed’s article was never published. His tapes of the interviews were later donated to the University of Arkansas. Where they remained, gathering dust.
Contrary to what you may have heard over the past week, Clinton’s successful defense of the rapist Thomas Alfred Taylor is not “old news.” On the contrary: For a CV that has been scrutinized so closely, references to the rape case in the public record have been rather thin. One of those references came from Clinton herself. In 2003, when she was a senator from New York, and published her first memoir, Living History, Clinton included a brief mention of the case, mainly as a way to take credit for Arkansas’ first rape crisis hotline. And in 2008, Glenn Thrush—then at Newsday—wrote a lengthy article on the subject.
Don’t remember it? There’s a reason. “My then-editor appended a meaningless intro to the story, delayed and buried it because, in his words, ‘It might have an impact,’” Thrush said in a June 15 tweet. Well, the editor got his way. It didn’t have an impact.
The occasion for Thrush’s tweet was “The Hillary Tapes” by the Washington Free Beacon’s Alana Goodman, who obtained the Reed interview and made it public for the first time. Goodman is careful to quote a source saying that, once an attorney takes on a client, he is required to provide that client with the strongest possible defense. Yet the same source also noted that Hillary Clinton’s subsequent narrative of the case—specifically, her implication to Reed that her client had been guilty all along—raised serious questions regarding attorney-client privilege. And Goodman also notes the casual and complacent manner in which Clinton treats such a morally fraught episode, as well as the “parallels between the tactics Clinton employed to defend Taylor and the tactics she, her husband, and their allies have used to defend themselves against accusations of wrongdoing over the course of their three decades in public life.” Pretty newsworthy, it seems to me.
And yet, looking over the treatment of Goodman’s scoop over the past week, I can’t help thinking that the reaction to “The Hillary Tapes” is just as newsworthy as the tapes themselves. That reaction has been decidedly mixed. Not long ago, in 2012, the Washington Post ran an extensive investigation into the “troubling incidents” of Mitt Romney’s prep-school days, whereupon the media devoted hour after hour to the all-important discussion of whether Willard M. Romney had been something of a child bully. Here, though, we have a newly unearthed recording of Hillary Clinton laughing out loud over her defense of a child rapist—and plenty of outlets have ignored the story altogether. The difference? As the Newsday editor said: It might have an impact.
No matter your view of Hillary Clinton, no matter your position on legal ethics, the recording of the Reed interview is news. It tells us something we did not already know. It tells us that, when her guard was down, Clinton found the whole disturbing incident a trifling and joking matter. And the fact that so many supposedly sophisticated and au courant journalists and writers have dismissed the story as nothing more than an attorney “doing her job” is, I think, equally disturbing. Dana Bash to the contrary notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton was not forced to take on Taylor as a client. It was her choice—and not, for her, a hard one. Certainly that complicates our understanding of the former first lady as an unrelenting defender and advocate of women and girls.
Let’s even concede that Clinton was just doing her job. What makes that job exempt from inquiry and skepticism and criticism? Yes, Mumia, Bill Ayers, and child rapists have the right to legal representation. But that does not give the lawyers who represent them the right—the entitlement—to public office. If it is fair to attack a candidate because he used to travel with the family dog on the roof of his car, because he may have forcibly subjected a fellow student to a haircut, then it is entirely fair, it is more than fair, to attack a candidate for defending the rapist of a 12-year-old girl, and for laughing about it a decade later.
Lawyers I can handle. Librarians? They’re trouble. I did not expect, when I arrived at the office Wednesday, to find a letter from a dean of the University of Arkansas sitting on my desk, informing me that the Free Beacon’s research privileges had been suspended because we failed to fill out a permission slip, that we were in violation of the University of Arkansas’ “intellectual property rights,” and demanding that we remove the audio of the Hillary tapes from our website. (Both the letter from Dean Allen and the response of the Free Beacon’s lawyers can be read below.)
Now, we obtained these materials without having to fill out any forms and without being provided a copy of any university "policy." The university has yet to prove that it owns the copyright to the Reed audio. Nor has it explained how, exactly, that audio does not fall under fair use. And remember, too, that the institution protesting our story is a library—which ostensibly exists for the sole purpose of spreading knowledge and literacy and information and print and audio and visual media. That is what libraries are for, isn't it?
Puzzling. Less puzzling, though, when I discovered that the author of the letter, Dean Carolyn Henderson Allen, was a donor to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, and that the University of Arkansas Chancellor, David Gearhart, is a former student of the Clintons, and that his brother, Van Gearhart, worked at the same legal aid clinic as Clinton at the time of the Taylor case.
One would expect the media to rally behind potential violations of a publication’s First Amendment rights—but, with the exception of this Politico story, the University of Arkansas’ attempt to suppress the Hillary tapes has yet to be the subject of extensive coverage.
I wonder why.
“Defending even a child rapist as vigorously as possible might be a plus if she were running to lead the American Bar Association,” wrote Melinda Henneberger, in one of the few stories about the Hillary tapes to appear in the mainstream media. “But wouldn’t her apparent willingness to attack a sixth-grader compromise a presidential run?”
Indeed, I think it would. Which is why the reaction to Alana Goodman’s scoop has been so muted and unusual. And why Hillary's people must be wondering: What’s next?