VAN BUREN, Arkansas — Juanita Broaddrick joined Twitter in 2009. The 73-year-old retired nursing home operator from Van Buren, Arkansas, tweeted a few times about the weather, Weight Watchers, and drinking coffee on her porch, then abandoned the service until fall 2015, when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton made a series of statements that enraged her.
In September, Clinton tweeted that every sexual assault survivor had “the right to be believed.” In November, she reiterated that “every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” The following month, she was asked at a campaign event whether the handful of women who’ve accused her husband, former President Bill Clinton, of sexual harassment and assault — Juanita Broaddrick included — deserved to be “believed” as well.
“Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence,” Clinton replied with a smile that was just one awkward beat too slow.
Broaddrick oozes genuine, sweet-as-sweet-tea Southern hospitality, but she went “ballistic” when she heard Clinton’s statements on sexual assault, she recently told me. It had been years since Broaddrick had spoken publicly about the Clintons. Sitting at home, alone and fuming, Broaddrick thought to herself, What can I say to make this believable to people, that this really happened to me? She signed back in to her dormant Twitter and started typing. In January, one tweet went viral: “I was 35 years old when Bill Clinton, Ark. Attorney General raped me and Hillary tried to silence me. I am now 73....it never goes away.”
Broaddrick claims Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, when he was Arkansas’ attorney general, during what she thought would be a morning business meeting. As with many rape allegations, there is no way to definitively prove what happened, especially since Broaddrick didn’t speak out for decades. Through a lawyer in 1999, Bill Clinton denied assaulting Broaddrick and has never been charged. (A spokesperson declined to comment further to BuzzFeed News.) But contrary to what Hillary Clinton alluded to last fall, there is no concrete “evidence” that discredits Broaddrick’s rape claims. Her allegations have long been an inconvenience for Democrats — and an extremely convenient cause for Republicans to champion.
The current ’90s nostalgia isn’t all Friends reruns, chokers, and Pokémon. We’re also relitigating the decade and reconsidering scandals with 21st-century hindsight. Our understanding of sexual misconduct has evolved, thanks to the record number of women who are speaking out about it. From college campuses to the military and the workplace, sexual assault survivors are forcing rapists, and the institutions that protect them, to be held accountable. They're also dispelling pervasive myths about who “perfect” rape victims are and how they should behave.
Looking back, it seems that O.J. Simpson got away with not just murder, but also domestic violence. The sexual harassment allegations Anita Hill made about Judge Clarence Thomas would likely derail a Supreme Court nomination today — and the accuser wouldn’t be brushed aside as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” In the ’90s, the media called Monica Lewinsky a “tramp”; now, she’s a celebrated anti-bullying spokeswoman. Bill Cosby is no longer “America’s Dad” but a “probable sexual predator.”
Juanita Broaddrick seems primed for the same modern reassessment. But the political implications of her claims are too disastrous for liberal politicians and pundits — the people who typically support self-declared rape survivors — to rally around her, especially this close to election day. That means only Clinton-hating conservatives are visibly incensed by her claims, and the more that they amplify Broaddrick’s story, the more skeptical progressives become.
"Women know that this is an unfair attack on Hillary, and that's why it continues to exist in this small corner of the right-wing media world,” said Marcy Stech, vice president of communications at the political action committee Emily's List.
Broaddrick has repeatedly said that she’s not politically motivated. She insists she has no plans to join Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign and says she’s only voting for him because she doesn’t want the man she claims raped her — and the woman she believes enabled him — back in the White House. She voted for Barack Obama in 2008 for the same reason, she said.
But even if Broaddrick doesn’t want to admit it, she’s become increasingly cozy with conservatives as election day draws nearer. She used to tweet mostly about her own story and other sexual assault–related issues; these days, her feeds are filled with outlandish Clinton conspiracy theories and angry posts about Benghazi. She may have once donated more than $1,000 to Obama, but now she retweets criticism about him and his wife.
Broaddrick’s move to the right damages her mainstream credibility. Liberals may not want to call her a liar, but they don’t understand why she has to back Trump, either, especially since his party has been mostly absent from — if not antagonistic toward — the ongoing national conversation on sexual violence. But the progressives who started that conversation aren’t eager to include Broaddrick in it. The right-wingers may have an agenda, but at least they tell Broaddrick they believe her. That’s all she’s ever wanted.
“People saying that they’re sorry is very respectful,” Broaddrick told me, “but when somebody says, ‘I believe you,’ that probably does me the most good, because I want to be believed. It’s a hard thing to come forward and talk about. And for somebody to choose to make me valid…that’s nice.”
The other women who've accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct — such as Gennifer Flowers (adultery), Paula Jones (sexual harassment), Kathleen Willey (unwanted groping), and, of course, Monica Lewinsky (more high-stakes adultery) — have sought celebrity, financial settlements, or book deals. Broaddrick hasn’t. When not living in the shadow of the most powerful political couple in recent history, she’s enjoyed privacy and comfort. She made good money as a nursing home administrator and now lives the dream retiree life, complete with indoor tennis sessions (her Twitter handle is @atensnut, or “a tennis nut”) and the occasional European cruise.
Van Buren, a town of 23,000 near the Oklahoma border, isn’t fancy, and Broaddrick’s colonial-style mansion would stand out if it weren’t hidden from view. Her 23-acre ranch is a sharp, secluded turn off of a main road with a church, an auto shop, and a smattering of fast-food restaurants.
When I visited, Broaddrick greeted me from her sweeping front porch in rolled-up jeans and a blue and yellow tank top, quickly ushering me out of the 90-degree heat and into one of her living room’s many squishy chairs. Her 13-year-old grandson, Ridge, took a break from painting the fence (Broaddrick pays him $10 an hour) to give me a tour of the property on their camouflage-colored four-wheeler.
Broaddrick first told Ridge her story about the Clintons this year, after he overheard some confusing adult conversations and filled in the gaps with Google.
“It was hard. I almost cried,” Broaddrick said. “He said, ‘I know what happened. I know what Mr. Clinton did to you.’ And I said, ‘Well good, I’m glad you finally know, because it’s been something I’ve dreaded having you find out.’”
Now Ridge is also on Twitter, where he is as precocious and earnest as he is in real life, and hopes to help his grandma “spread the word about Hillary&Bill Clinton from a kids/teens point of view.” So far, that involves making a lot of anti-Hillary memes.
Ridge and I bumped along past blackberry bushes, a lily-padded pond, a trampoline, and a tree house. The house also has a long, shady driveway and is surrounded by an electric fence. Broaddrick sleeps with her bedroom door locked. She wears a baseball cap when she runs errands, although she isn’t sure if her neighbors know, or care, about her past. She didn’t think her longtime ladies’ church potluck group knew, either. Then, one night earlier this year, when Broaddrick was back in the headlines, the women stood up and clapped for her when she walked into their weekly Thursday dinner.
“I found out they all knew, but they would never say anything to me,” Broaddrick said. “I just bawled like a baby.”
Broaddrick, then 35, first met Bill Clinton when he was 31 and the attorney general of Arkansas, during a campaign stop he made at her nursing home. They discussed her business and his campaign — Broaddrick wasn’t much into politics, but she had recently started volunteering for him with a friend — and Clinton told Broaddrick to call his office if she was ever in nearby Little Rock. A few weeks later, she did just that while attending a nursing seminar there. They arranged to meet one morning in the coffee shop in the hotel where the seminar was held. At the last second, Clinton called up to Broaddrick’s room and asked if they could meet there instead, since there were reporters in the lobby below. She said yes. Minutes after entering her room, he tried to kiss her, she says, biting her upper lip, hard.
Shocked, Broaddrick says, she resisted Clinton, even telling him she was not only married, but having an affair with another man (who would later become her second husband). He ignored her, she says, and pushed her on the bed and raped her. Afterward, she says, he put his sunglasses on and told her to get some ice for her swollen lips before leaving the room.
“There was no remorse,” Broaddrick told me. “He acted like it was an everyday occurrence. He was not the least bit apologetic. It was just unreal.” She rushed to the door and locked it, she says, afraid that someone would come back in to kill her.
Two of Broaddrick’s friends who had also attended the nursing conference found Broaddrick in tears, her lips swollen and blue. She told them what had happened but made them swear not to tell anyone else. She was scared of retaliation, didn’t think anyone would believe her, and blamed herself for allowing Clinton to come up to her room.
“I had never known anybody that had been raped,” she told me. “I could not imagine anybody that could get in that situation and not get out of it.”
Soon after, Broaddrick says, she ran into Hillary Clinton at a political rally Broaddrick had promised friends she would attend. Hillary shook her hand and thanked her for everything she had done for Bill. To Broaddrick, the gesture felt like a threat to stay silent. As attorney general and later governor, Bill Clinton was “the main person that regulated my business and my income,” Broaddrick said. “After she said what she did to me, I just thought, I will keep quiet.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign declined to comment to BuzzFeed News but has in the past denounced attempts to connect Hillary to the allegations against Bill, saying that she “has spent her whole life standing up for women, and charges to the contrary are grossly unfair and untrue.”
Broaddrick says Bill Clinton called her a few times after the assault but she never picked up. Aside from a letter his governor’s office sent her when she won a nursing home award in 1984 — Clinton scrawled “I admire you very much” on the bottom — the next time she heard from him was in 1991, when, she claims, he confronted her in person to apologize. She wondered what had caused the change of heart. Soon after, he announced he was running for president.
Despite Broaddrick’s attempts to keep her story within her small circle of friends, word traveled through Arkansas' small-world political circles. State Republicans who opposed Clinton tried to convince Broaddrick to go public. Lawyers for Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who sued Clinton for sexual harassment, sent private investigators to Broaddrick’s door in 1997.
“It's just that was a long time ago and I don't want to relive it," she told them, according to a public transcript (they recorded her without her knowledge). "You can't get to him, and I'm not going to ruin my good name to do it.”
When Jones’ lawyers subpoenaed her, Broaddrick signed an affidavit denying that Clinton had ever raped her. It was her decision to do so. “I did not want to get involved, and I signed it hoping to stay out of it,” she told me. The next year, Clinton was on trial for impeachment for allegedly obstructing justice during the Jones case. Federal prosecutor Ken Starr’s investigation team reached out to Broaddrick to ask whether Clinton had forced her to file a false affidavit. Broaddrick was afraid of lying to a federal grand jury, she says. After Starr gave her immunity from prosecution for perjury, she decided it was time to tell the full truth.
Broaddrick still desperately wanted to stay anonymous, but Jones’ lawyers used her name in a 1998 court filing. As Clinton’s impeachment trial loomed closer, reporters started staking out her house and tabloids printed vicious rumors about her family. Broaddrick agreed to sit down for a television interview with NBC News' Lisa Myers on Dateline. She also hoped to help impeach Clinton.
But the meticulously fact-checked Dateline report didn’t run until two weeks after the impeachment trial, in which Clinton was acquitted. Starr found Broaddrick’s rape claims inconclusive — the statute of limitations on them had passed decades before — and didn’t include them in the report, although he allowed Republicans to hear them.
NBC has said the 35 days it took to vet the segment were standard. Myers, who said she had never fought so hard to get something on the air, explained the delay to Broaddrick this way: “The good news is you’re credible. The bad news is you’re very credible.”
Myers, now retired and living in Florida, has stayed in touch with Broaddrick ever since.
“No one can objectively look at Juanita's story and not be troubled,” she told me. “One of the things that makes her so credible is who she is — open, straightforward, seemingly guileless.”
When the segment finally aired, it didn’t make much of a splash. Maybe it’s because NBC ran it opposite the Grammy Awards. Maybe it’s because Americans had Clinton scandal fatigue. Or maybe it’s because, in the ’90s, an extramarital affair was one thing, but “date rape” — the then-newly popularized term for rape victims who know the person who attacked them — was another. Today, there’s less stigma about rape and many more victims who go public with their stories. These accounts are often complex, but reporters are no longer as nervous about covering stories without clear evidence or answers. That wasn’t the case back then. Much of the post-Dateline news coverage focused more on why NBC took so long to run the interview than on Broaddrick’s rape claims.
Or maybe nothing happened because even people who did believe Broaddrick didn’t know what to do about it. About a third of all Americans believed Broaddrick’s allegations, according to a 1999 CNN poll, but two-thirds thought the media should stop pursuing the story. It was decades too late for Broaddrick to press charges. The impeachment trial was over. The Clinton camp flatly denied the assault. It was devastating to have spoken out without making any impact, Broaddrick said. She retreated from public view afterward, declining most interviews.
Life wasn’t awful — Broaddrick was surrounded by family and grew her nursing home business into a successful multi-facility enterprise. But the alleged rape and its decades-long aftermath was still “a horrible stain on my life,” Broaddrick said. There were little things, like having to switch church services because her pastor blessed the president by name. And then there were big ones.
Broaddrick said she is still afraid of enclosed spaces, from the backseats of cars to the last row in an airplane. After the alleged assault, she stopped meeting with men alone in her office. And she credits her 2004 divorce from her second husband to Clinton, too.
Her husband didn’t want her to talk to Dateline, she says, and she felt he always blamed her for letting Clinton come up to her room.
“Clinton was always just right there,” she said. “He was always there between us.”
Drinking iced tea at Broaddrick’s spotless kitchen counter, she and I talked about how the dialogue surrounding sexual assault has evolved. (Ridge was also there, and offered that “all kids know, if you were to force something like that [sex], you’re pretty much evil.”)
Broaddrick credited the shift to women, such as Bill Cosby's accusers, who have been brave enough to accuse powerful men and the social media platforms that enable them to do so on their own terms. On Twitter, Broaddrick is overwhelmed by support from rape survivors, she said.
“I can’t imagine being something that inspires them,” she said. “I haven’t got there yet.”
In the ’70s, she said, no one talked about rape. Women thanked Broaddrick for telling her story on Dateline in 1999, but weren’t explicit. Now, teenagers describe their sexual assaults to her in private messages.
Broaddrick estimates that about 80% of the people who message her online lack a political agenda and are simply concerned with her well-being. She acknowledged that might be wishful thinking, though.
“I’m really putting myself out there,” she said, “so I may be gullible in wanting their sympathy.”
It only takes a quick click to determine that most of the people who tweet at Broaddrick also happen to be rabid Clinton-haters. It’s true that their messages are often sincere: “God bless you! No one should have had to go through what you did.” But their social media profiles are unabashedly #NeverHillary. (That message was from PatriotTrumpet, whose Twitter bio reads: “I will vote for the GOP nominee because the alternative is unthinkable.”)
There’s a thin line between validation and appropriation. It’s undeniable that Broaddrick’s decision to speak out this year is a godsend for conservatives trying to convince women voters that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is the female-friendly candidate. Trump regularly makes sexist comments, has been accused of sexual harassment and assault, and is often dismissive of women who make sexual misconduct allegations. Yet he’s called Bill Clinton “the worst abuser of women in the history of politics" and Hillary an “enabler” because “she treated these women horribly” — Broaddrick most of all. In May, he used a heart-wrenching audio clip of Broaddrick’s voice in an anti-Hillary ad.
“He starts to bite on my top lip and I try to pull away from him,” says Broaddrick — the clip is from the 1999 Dateline interview — who audibly tears up while Bill smokes a cigar in the background.
Trump’s campaign did not ask for permission to use Broaddrick’s voice in his ad, she said.
“I was really hurt,” she said. “You take the most awful part of my Dateline interview, where I’m crying, trying to relate what had happened to me, and put that in a campaign ad? I thought it was very tasteless.”
But on the radio in May, Broaddrick said while the clip was “painful to hear,” she wasn’t “unhappy” and she thought the use of her voice was “important.” She didn’t tweet angrily about Trump, either, as she did about Hillary last January.
I spoke to Broaddrick one afternoon recently while she was driving to see Dinesh D'Souza's new documentary, Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. She hadn’t heard of it until her Twitter followers told her she was one of its stars. “I would have appreciated a heads-up,” she told me. She texted me afterward, saying, “Was hard to see my crying anguished face on that large screen ... I don’t know why but I wanted to sink down and not be seen when it came on :(” She still gave the movie three “thumbs-up” emojis on Twitter.
In theory, partisan politics shouldn’t play a role in determining whether an alleged rape victim deserves to be heard. But lately, right-wing news outlets and conservative politicians with awful track records on women’s issues have treated Broaddrick’s story with the sensitivity of a Feministing blogger.
Ann Coulter, who once said rape isn't actually rape unless the victim has been "hit on the head with a brick,” tweeted in May: “BREAKING NEWS: BILL COSBY ORDERED TO STAND TRIAL FOR RAPE. Courage, Juanita, justice is coming.” Breitbart, which often criticizes other outlets for credulously reporting on public rape accusations, has written more than 30 favorable stories about Broaddrick this year alone. The National Review, which has run pieces about how rape accusations ruin lives and why believing the pop star Kesha’s rape claims is akin to “Stalinist finger-pointing,” published a piece calling Broaddrick’s allegations “credible” and “serious” despite a lack of formal charges or physical evidence.
“The unwillingness of rape victims to admit their assault is a well-known phenomenon,” the author wrote.
Their argument is that Broaddrick's story is so solid that, as conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote earlier this year, one “need not be a ‘believe all rape allegations’ absolutist to find her claim persuasive.” In fact, Broaddrick’s story, like many rape claims, is not clear-cut. Why did Broaddrick take so long to speak out? Why did she lie in her affidavit for Paula Jones’ lawyers? Why did Ken Starr find her claims “inconclusive”?
Progressive news outlets and politicians with victim-centered approaches have transformed the national conversation on sexual violence by allowing rape accusations that wouldn’t necessarily hold up in court to nevertheless be aired in public: The logic seems to be that if a woman is willing to risk the consequences of coming forward, her accusations are worthy of consideration.
It’s not so for Broaddrick. Clinton supporters are most dubious of Broaddrick’s claim that Hillary meant to threaten her into silence when she shook her hand a few weeks after the alleged rape. Nearly every Democratic operative and liberal pundit I spoke to pointed out that Broaddrick only made her allegations against Hillary public in 2000, when Hillary was running for Senate for the first time. Broaddrick told Dateline that the Clintons had never threatened her and didn’t appear to tell Starr's investigative team, either, since he didn’t note any obstruction of justice related to her in his report.
Joe Conason, a liberal political commentator who has written books defending the Clinton legacy, believes there’s an “apparent contradiction” between what Broaddrick says happened now, what she told NBC in 1999, and what she may have told Ken Starr’s investigators.
"I don’t think we will ever know with certainty what happened between Bill Clinton and Ms. Broaddrick,” Conason said. “But having said firmly that no one close to him ever tried to intimidate her, she changed her story to insist that Hillary did.”
Broaddrick said that NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell repeatedly questioned her about the interaction during a phone interview in January. Later, NBC officials abandoned the interview because, a spokesperson said, there was nothing new to report. Mitchell later called Broaddrick’s accusation “discredited and long-denied” on the air.
Broaddrick was furious. In July, Broaddrick’s son, a lawyer, pressured NBC into removing the word “discredited” from the clip.
“While questions have been raised about her account, upon review, on May 19, we removed that word,” an editor’s note now reads.
It’s certainly reasonable to doubt Hillary threatened Broaddrick — it’s not abnormal for a politician’s wife to shake people’s hands on the campaign trail — but it’s not quite fair to say Broaddrick’s account of the interaction hasn’t been consistent. Starr’s investigation was limited to whether Bill Clinton had obstructed justice — investigators wanted to know whether anyone had forced Broaddrick to file a false affidavit in the 1998 Paula Jones civil suit. That’s what Broaddrick discussed on Dateline as well, and in both cases, she said she had made that decision herself. Broaddrick said she did mention the alleged 1978 Hillary handshake to Dateline but that it was cut. Myers confirmed the anecdote wasn’t included for a variety of reasons, including that Hillary was not a politician at the time.
At home in her spacious living room, Broaddrick admitted to me that she has no way of knowing what, exactly, Hillary knew at the time about the alleged assault.
“When you look back over almost 38 years, some of the anger fades, the fear fades, and you think, I hope she didn’t know,” Broaddrick said.
But she is adamant that she felt threatened that day, and often describes the interaction as premeditated and sinister in interviews with conservative websites. She doesn’t understand why they’re the only ones who believe that Hillary wanted her to stay silent.
“I just wish some of the people who are high on the list of supporting victims would come forward and say, ‘Yes, I believe her,” Broaddrick said. “But they won’t even say they’re sorry for me. They just say, ‘It’s not Hillary’s fault.’”
It's no longer acceptable — in progressive circles, at least — to condemn a woman for her husband's misdeeds. Broaddrick presents a dilemma for those inclined to support survivors of sexual assault: Can you believe a woman's story, on principle, but reject the way she decides to tell it?
“With this more feminist era also comes heightened attention to how women are charged with keeping and controlling men, blamed for their bad behavior while getting no credit for their quiet work in the background,” said Jill Filipovic, a columnist who often writes about gender and politics. The only reason this story is being retold “is because Hillary is now running for president,” she said.
“I suspect using Broaddrick's claims to try to puncture Hillary Clinton's feminist bona fides — and make no mistake, that is how they are being used and how they will be used — will badly backfire, since it plays into a lot of the same stereotypes feminists reject.”
On August 8 — the day Trump suggested “Second Amendment people” could take action against Hillary Clinton — Broaddrick hosted an "Ask Me Anything" on a Trump subreddit.
Broaddrick repeatedly told me that she’s only voting for Trump because she is anti-Hillary. She supported Obama in 2008 for the same reason, she said, and didn’t feel the need to vote at all in 2012. Broaddrick also insisted that she had no plans to work for Trump’s campaign. I asked her if she worried that answering questions on a subreddit “for serious supporters” of Trump would give people the wrong idea.
“Yes I do and I hope to convey the message that I am not politically motivated except for wanting to help defeat HRC,” she texted me. Broaddrick did explain just that to the redditors, writing that she only “came forward because of Hillary’s statement that all victims should come forward.”
But when one redditor thanked Broaddrick for “standing strong for victims of sexual assault” before asking nicely if she would “accept an invite from Mr. Trump if he offered to let you speak and talk about the Clintons and how they treated you,” Broaddrick said she would “have to think about it.”
“Not out of the question,” Broaddrick wrote.
Another redditor pointed out that Hillary Clinton’s campaign website appeared to have made some edits to its “campus sexual assault" page. Last winter, website archives show, a September 14, 2015, quote from Hillary ran across the top:
“I want to send a message to every survivor of sexual assault: Don’t let anyone silence your voice. You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed, and we’re with you.”
In February, shortly after Broaddrick’s viral tweet made headlines, the line “you have the right to be believed” was cut from the text. A video of the full remarks, that line included, is currently on the page. The Clinton campaign declined to comment on the change.
Trump, on the other hand, may have used Broaddrick’s voice in an ad without her permission, but he’s also done more to help her heal than any other presidential candidate.
Before this year, Broaddrick had a tough time saying the word “rape” out loud, she said. Then, in January, Trump used the word to describe her claims on The Sean Hannity Show. Afterward, Broaddrick realized she “can’t skirt around it anymore,” she said. “That’s the correct terminology.”
That Donald Trump is the one encouraging a self-described rape victim to take back control by telling her story is another bizarre chapter for Juanita Broaddrick. She’s the first to agree “bizarre” is the right word to describe the last four decades.
“I can understand your perplexity about it,” she said to me recently. “My life has been complicated.” ●
Katie Baker is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Katie J.M. Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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