Sex and Congress
Who remembers Anita Hill? If you are my age, you likely remember a few details but millennials may need to rely on Google. Perhaps the most overt ‘tell’ of where our culture was with sexual harassment in the early 90s was the media’s obsession with how to pronounce the word ‘harassment.’ I remember Tom Brokaw on several occasions explaining to the audience the proper way to say the word. In October 1991, I was a freshman in college and was visibly shaken that the Senate would confirm a Supreme Court nominee accused of such vulgar language and sexual misconduct. Back then, these types of allegations should have halted the nomination in its tracks. Remember Robert Bork? Well, that should have happened with Clarence Thomas. And yet, it did not.
My roommate, who at the time was a conservative Republican and who would a year later do a 180 to become a left-wing liberal, was visibly offended at the thought of female legislators marching in firm support of Hill’s claim that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her while she worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She saw the entire episode as a feminist witch hunt; an example of left-wing, liberal overreach. She was pleased and I was horrified that both Democrats and Republicans voted to confirm Thomas (including our beloved Joe Biden). Thomas turned out to be one of the most conservative members of the bench, replacing a real civil rights icon, Thurgood Marshall.
Twenty-six years later and here we are, more sexual harassment and misconduct allegations in our nation’s seat of government. Have we grown culturally? What could we have done in the last twenty-six years to have prevented what so many of these women have had to go through to tell their stories? And how do we, and more appropriately, how do I, make sure that we do not respond to these controversies in a partisan way? What is the right way to address these issues years after they occurred and how do we hold leaders accountable in a responsible and judicious manner? I wish I had answers to all of these questions but I, like a lot of Americans, am waiting for the rest of the shoes to drop. In the meantime, I have some thoughts.
I reject the notion that our acceptance and enablement of President Clinton’s alleged sexual misconduct set the stage for Donald Trump. They are two different men with very different backgrounds. The Senate’s decision not to convict President Clinton on impeachment charges did not lead to Trump’s election any more than it led to his vulgar statements about grabbing women’s genitals. However, given our current dialogue on sexual harassment, Americans and specifically Democrats need to reassess decisions that we made 25 years ago. We cannot go back and change history, but we can learn from mistakes of the past.
Personally, I readily admit that I was wrong to ignore or rationalize allegations that surfaced later in Clinton’s administration. When Gennifer Flowers claimed to have had a decade’s long affair with then, Governor Clinton, right before the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Bill and Hillary gave an interview to 60 Minutes. The interview itself was controversial but it probably saved Clinton’s candidacy. As I recall, the couple admitted to having problems in their marriage but had worked through them. At that point in our political history, an affair could have been a career-ending admission. So the idea that voters were willing to look past marital infidelities was a very big deal. But to me, it was something that happened in the past, the couple had forgiven each other and had decided to move on. That was all that I really needed.
By the time Clinton was up for re-election in 1996, there was an allegation of sexual harassment from Paula Jones. Jones claimed that Clinton had made unwanted sexual advances while she was an Arkansas state employee. At the time of the election (November 1996), the lawsuit was still going through its initial phases. Clinton denied everything and the lawyers were doing “lawyer” stuff. Part of the reason that Clinton was re-elected (with such a substantial margin), despite the ongoing lawsuit, was his ability (and his lawyers’) to shame the victim. (Plus, the economy was doing very well). From the beginning, Jones’ life was turned upside down with the worst information becoming public, including a nude photo in Penthouse (a judge temporarily stopped publication). It is true that Jones’ stories had holes and inconsistencies. But it should have been a red flag to everyone, especially women, that the President and his supporters chose to fight the battle in the court of public opinion.
In retrospect, I also question the decision not to remove Clinton from office or to encourage his resignation. I do not remember the specifics but I suspect that most Democrats saw the same polls as the President. Clinton was popular in 1998 and while the Republicans held on to the Senate and the House, they lost a good portion of their majority. Speaker Gingrich had to resign and the results were seen by the GOP as a repudiation of the attacks on President Clinton. Democrats did not say much against their president and there were some Republicans that voted against impeachment and removal from office. It was not a party-line vote. And while I do not recall specifically my feeling toward the matter, looking back, I think we errored in not pushing harder for Clinton’s resignation. He lied under oath. The lie itself did not matter (he lied about a relationship with Monica Lewinsky). It was a lie. Moreover, his treatment of an intern, Monica Lewinsky was completely inappropriate and while she continues to maintain that she was complicit and not a victim (which is absolutely her right), the President acted recklessly and immorally.
While I do not believe that history would have been significantly altered if Clinton had been removed from office, I do think the Democrats made a mistake.
Let’s pretend for a moment, that Moore was not a racist, xenophobic, Islamaphobe and that his only issue was liking underage girls. That should be enough to disqualify the man from any elected office including dog catcher. But the sexual misconduct allegations are the icing on the cake. Moore was unsuitable for office well before his sexual proclivities became public. Anyone who holds the Bible as a superior legal document to the Constitution should not be part of a legislative or judicial body. Combine that with his bigoted ideology and he should have been kicked out of the primary.
If this man is elected to the Senate, McConnell should refuse to seat him. If he does, then the GOP could very well pay dearly in the next election cycle. That said, all norms have been shaken and are now skewed. So it is anyone’s guess as to what will happen or if the GOP will pay any price.
Representative Joe Barton, Texas
Five days ago, reports surfaced that Joe Barton, House Member from Texas had been “threatened” by a former girlfriend in which he had shared nude photos of himself via text message. Those nude photos had mysteriously found their way to the internet. Accusations that he threatened the woman should she disclose their affair quickly surfaced.
I literally rolled my eyes when reading this story. My first thought was, “Grandpa, did you learn nothing from the Weiner episode? Never take pictures of your junk. And if junk photos are absolutely necessary, never ever transmit them over the internet.” Since expelling members for stupidity would result in quorum problems, I am afraid this one will need to be addressed in the House Ethic’s Committee. However, the HEC is notoriously slow (as is the Senate version) and secretive. It must be much faster and transparent in addressing Barton’s complaint as well as those I will note below. For now, calling for his removal is a bit of overkill although I do think he should step down from any leadership posts until the review is complete.
Representative John Conyers, Michigan
Well, this one really blew up this weekend, didn’t it? I am a fan of Nancy Pelosi and am not going to get into a virtual discussion about her viability as minority leader. She is very good at what she does and she will step down when she is ready. So naysayers can step back. That said, I do wonder what was going through her mind during her interview with Chuck Todd yesterday. “Would you like a stick of butter with that foot, Ms. Pelosi?” How much easier would it have been had she negotiated with Conyers to step down from the Judiciary Committee ahead of that interview? You know that move was in the works; Conyers did not just “decide” on Sunday afternoon to give up his ranking position on the House Judiciary Committee. Had that decision been made prior to the interview, the “icon” statement would have been received much differently. As it is, Pelosi easily insulted a constituency that we can ill afford to alienate (women).
I believe Conyers should resign. I understand that he wants to allow the Ethics Committee to do its work and ordinarily, I would support that process. Yes, he is a civil right’s icon and it is because of this history that he should step down. These are serious allegations – sexual harassment that was covered up with taxpayer funds. I have not heard him or his representatives deny that fundamental allegation and thus, he cannot recover from it, even if it were somehow legal.
Secondly, and just as importantly are the rumors of Conyers odd behavior, including showing up for meetings in his underwear and pajamas. Conyers is 88 years old. As much as the sexual harassment allegations concern me, his mental health is perhaps of greater concern. The sexual harassment occurred in the past (at least that about which we know). Ranking members have a great deal of responsibility and if Conyers is unable to fulfill those duties, then his staff, employees that are not beholden to the voters, are the ones doing the representing. So Nancy, yes, Conyers is an icon. Let him retire as an icon without embarrassment.
As a note – there are many elderly representatives and senators in Washington D.C. Thad Cochran, 79-year-old Senator from Mississippi was rumored to be disoriented and confused on a regular basis, requiring assistance from his staff to get from one committee hearing to another. I am not suggesting that members take a competency test. But I do believe that leadership within the House and Senate has a responsibility to the American people to address issues within their caucus. We cannot have the chair of the Appropriations Committee confused about where he is at any one time.
Senator Al Franken, Minnesota
I have saved the most difficult situation for last. Since Leeann Tweeden first came forward, I have been back and forth on what Franken should do. Resign or throw himself on the mercy of the court (aka – the voter). The partisan in me – the Democrat – says he should resign. Why? Because Democrats blew it with Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi said something really stupid on Meet the Press, and we have hammered Roy Moore and Donald Trump. If we want to take the moral high ground, then we need to lead on this issue.
But the human being in me – the one that thinks beyond politics – understands that there is a lot of grey in life and that so far, the accusations against Al Franken are not comparable to those of John Conyers, Donald Trump or Roy Moore. Are they acceptable? No. Are the same? No. I watched his press conference today and while Franken is a former comic and actor, I have to say, he did not sound like any polished politician I have ever heard. He was not only contrite but visibly shaken and embarrassed. He took a few questions and then abruptly thanked the reporters and went back into his Senate office. He seemed incredibly emotional. I think the most honest answer he gave was to the reporter who asked him whether he expected more allegations to surface. He honestly said that he did not know, as had he been asked two weeks ago, he would have had no idea that any of this would happen.
Clueless? Yes. Repentant? Absolutely. Resign or win back the trust of Minnesotans and all of America? What’s most interesting is that progressive groups seem to be the angriest at Franken; they are the most disappointed and some have called for his resignation. There is an active Senate Ethics Committee review underway but again, these investigations tend to be slow and opaque. In these instances, we must have transparency. So I am still confused on this one. I do not know whether there is a “right” answer.
Twenty-six years ago, Anita Hill appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee which at the time was chaired by Democrat Joe Biden. At that time, the all-male committee barely knew how to pronounce sexual harassment, let alone how to deal with it in a Supreme Court nominee hearing. Justice Thomas and his supporters chose to smear Hill during the hearings and over the last three decades; attacking the victim was the ‘go-to’ move then and for some, it is today. The challenge we all have now is the over-correction and being able to discern degrees of bad behavior. On one hand, we have to allow the perpetrators to admit guilt and where appropriate, be forgiven. But on the other, where sexual misconduct has had a long-term impact, we need to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
The shoes have only just begun to drop.