In my previous entry regarding sexual misconduct within the National Federation of the Blind, I said that sexual predation is not a partisan issue. I misspoke (or mistyped as the case may be.) What I wish I’d written was that sexual misconduct should not be a partisan issue. I guess I could pull a New York Times or Newsweek and go back and edit my entry to make myself look better, but I’ll let it stand. Yes, sex and sexual violence is definitely a partisan hot potato.
Why? Why should a base crime that affects everyone equally be so polarized.
My answer comes in the form of political observations gleaned since I was old enough to take an interest in politics. With my lifetime serving as the parameters of the scope of the high-lights of the politics of sexual misconduct in the public eye, let me give you some prominent examples that will serve to illustrate why this topic is so divisive.
1991 (I was 16)
On July 1, Judge Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George H. W. Bush to fill the pending vacancy of Thurgood Marshall. During Thomas’s confirmation hearings, Anita Hill, a former employee, accused him of sexual harassment while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and at the EEOC in the early 1980’s. Thomas declared his absolute innocence, but said little else. It was a classic ‘he said/she said’ affair, with everyone from Nina Totenberg to Rush Limbaugh staking out their ideological territory.
After Hill came forward, Committee Chair Senator Joe Biden reopened Thomas’s confirmation hearings, which quickly became contentious with many people testifying both in support of Thomas and Hill. On October 15, the Senate finally took up the vote and Thomas was confirmed with a close margin of 52/48. The vote fell along party lines.
In 1992, a record number of women were elected to various political offices, causing feminists and the media to call it, “The year of the woman,” or, “The Class of Anita Hill.” Hill was celebrated as a modern feminist icon who brought the issue of workplace sexual misconduct out of the shadows and into the light.
In his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas put forth the theory that the Democrats went after him due to his well-known stances in opposition to abortion and affirmative action; two issues that were and are central to the DNC platform.
The battle lines had been drawn. Conservatives who supported Thomas saw the allegations as an opportunistic political hatchet job designed to keep an originalist conservative off of the Supreme Court. Liberals who supported Hill saw her as a brave survivor who came forward and told her story in the face of hostility. Both parties wrote autobiographies, published 10 years apart, that dealt with the issue. Two made-for-cable movies have been aired featuring the event. In the last 30 years, the socio-political boundaries have not changed with respect to the case.
1998 (I was 23)
President Bill Clinton was no stranger to scandal. Throughout his two terms in office, several women accused him of sexual misconduct ranging from verbal harassment to rape. Victims included Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones. In 1994, Jones filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton. The suit took time to wind its way through the court system, but in 1997, Pentagon employee Linda Tripp began surreptitiously recording phone conversations with her friend and former coworker, Monica Lewinsky, in hopes that evidence of an affair with Lewinsky would aid in Jones’ legal effort.
On January 17, 1998, future conservative internet warrior Matt Drudge published allegations of Clinton’s affair with his former intern Lewinsky on his website. This forced the mainstream media to run with the ball. It was a story that would dominate the news cycles for the next year. It was a tawdry business that involved an independent council, denials, an incriminating blue dress, retraction of said denials, perjured grand jury testimony from the president of the United States and impeachment proceedings.
In December of 1998, the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton on two articles. The vote fell along party lines. In February of 1999, the Senate acquitted him on both charges. The vote also fell along party lines. IN April of 1998, Paula Jones’ lawsuit was thrown out, but she appealed. Later that year, Clinton quietly settled with her, but admitted no wrongdoing.
During the scandal, the issue of character was front and center. Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and conservative talker Rush Limbaugh, claimed that character matters first and foremost in a president. The Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution stating that God blesses a country based upon its morality. Democrats downplayed the character issue, claiming that the GOP was engaging in a witch hunt against Clinton. In March of 1998, feminist icon Gloria Steinem wrote a now-controversial column in the New York Times defending the president and minimizing the plight of his victims. The controversy translated into thousands of arguments over dinner tables, around water coolers and at parties as to whether or not Bill Clinton was fit to serve as president.
After Clinton was acquitted in 1999, his reputation was bloodied, but not broken. Clinton left office in January of 2001 with a fairly high approval rating. Everyone with even the slightest of political inclinations knew that his wife Hillary would soon be angling for higher office. Matt Drudge’s website, The Drudge Report, became a mainstay for conservatives in the following decade. During the investigation, software entrepreneurs Joan Blades and Wes Boyd founded MoveOn.org, a website dedicated to the censuring of Bill Clinton rather than the more drastic course of impeachment. The site became a mainstay for progressive activism in the following decade.
2006 (I was 31)
On March 15, rape and assault allegations against three lacrosse players at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina exploded across the media. The alleged victim was an African-American college girl who was working as a stripper. She had been invited to a private party at a home owned by Duke U and occupied by two of the captains and accused perpetrators. The accuser claimed that she was gang raped and beaten in a bathroom by three of the players. An Email sent by one of the players hours after the party seemed damning.
Even as the players were arrested and indicted, the case was unraveling. In the subsequent months, the firestorm of controversy would shift from issues of race and sexual violence to those of police and prosecutorial misconduct. The shift was due to the actions of District Attorney Mike Nifong, who acted as lead prosecutor on the case. Over the months between the party and the eventual dismissal of the charges against the players, investigators uncovered gross misconduct on the part of Nifong, who was charged with withholding crucial DNA evidence that would have exculpated the accused. Investigation of the Durham police also unearthed wildly varying accounts of the assault by the alleged victim, as well as several problematic photo ID’s by the police.
The cracks in the case didn’t stop the media dog pile. In the ‘90’s, Americans had their choice between the three broadcast networks, CNN, print media delivered to their doors or bought at the stand, or Rush Limbaugh. By the mid 2,000’s, their options had increased to four broadcast networks, three major cable news networks, dozens of internet news sites and a veritable army of A.M Limbaugh clones. The fault lines were partisan and predictable. Limbaugh, Michael Savage and the entire pundit wing at Fox News pre-judged the case in favor of the defendants. Nancy Grace, Rolling Stone and feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte were among those quick to pre-judge in favor of the accuser. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the NAACP were quick to emphasize the racial angle of the case by stoking the narrative of three rich white college kids raping a black single mother who was only stripping to put food in her child’s mouth.
But the most disturbing attack came from the so-called, Gang of 88; various faculty members at Duke U who signed an open letter and published it in the Durham Chronicle. In the letter, they condemned racism, sexism and other forms of oppression that were rife at Duke. Their bias in favor of the alleged victim was obvious and shameless.
Nearly a year after they were arrested, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges against all three players. He went a step further, declaring them innocent. In June, 2007, Mike Nifong was disbarred over his handling of the Duke Lacrosse Case. The three players subsequently went elsewhere, but sued both Duke U and the Durham police department for its handling of the case.
2011 (I was 36)
On April 4, Vice-President Joe Biden stood in front of a group of college kids in New Hampshire and proclaimed that sexual violence was no longer merely a crime, but a violation of a woman’s civil rights. This announcement was immediately followed by the issuance of a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education to all colleges and universities across the country. The letter contained strong language suggesting new guidance on the enforcement of Title 9, the federal statute prohibiting any sex discrimination under any education program receiving federal financial assistance. The letter emphasized the point that Title 9 requires any institution that is aware of sexual violence to take swift and forceful action on the matter. The letter went on to suggest that consideration of a sexual assault case should entail a preponderance of the evidence, which is a lesser legal standard than the reasonable doubt measure that is used in a court of law. The hammer falls at the conclusion of the document, when institutions are warned that a failure to comply with the guidelines may likely result in the withholding of federal funding. This is the kiss of death to all institutions of higher learning.
Unsurprisingly, conservatives and libertarians stood aghast at the directives, but objections were also raised in unexpected quarters. Two professors from Harvard suggested that the new guidelines resulted in a, “sex bureaucracy,” placing more and more normal behavior under federal scrutiny. Legal theorist Janet Halley also expressed concerns about the fairness of the process, worrying about the trampling of the rights of the accused, particularly men of color.
2014 (I was 39)
On November 19, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely entitled, “A Rape on Campus.” It told the story of a female student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who claimed she had been gang raped by several members of a fraternity while at a party. The story received much media attention and predictable partisan reaction from the pundit class. It also resulted in the president of UVA suspending all fraternities. However, other independent journalists found notable discrepancies in the accuser’s story.
On January 12, 2015, Charlottesville police officials told UVA that their investigation resulted in no corroboration of her story. The Columbia School of Journalism performed an audit of Rolling Stone’s editorial processes. On April 5, Rolling Stone issued a full retraction of the story and published the audit report from Columbia.
2016 (I was 41)
On July 21, Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, resigned in the wake of more than a dozen allegations of sexual harassment brought forth by female employees including Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly. Media figures who despised Ailes and his so-called right-wing propagandist network rubbed their hands together with glee. FNC pundits such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity circled the wagons.
On October 7, the Washington Post dropped the granddaddy of all October Surprises when it released 11-year-old audio of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump blatantly admitting to sexual assault. The video was recorded while Trump and television host Billy Bush were preparing to record a segment of Access Hollywood. Trump described how he had unsuccessfully tried to bed Bush’s co-host, Nancy O’Dell. Then he saw an actress outside the bus and said:
“I’ve got to use some tictacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know…I’m automatically attracted to beautiful. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet…just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…grab ‘em by the pussy…you can do anything.
Even before the Washington Post released the bombshell, Trump’s campaign learned of the audio and had gone into crisis mode. The following weekend was full of GOP officials disavowing Trump and his remarks. Paul Ryan very publicly disinvited Trump from speaking at a fundraiser in Wisconsin. Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and Chris Christie all distanced themselves. Every political operative and big-name donor forecast doom for the Trump campaign. Trump laughed them off. The only person who’s opinion concerned him was his running mate, Mike Pence. Pence dropped off the radar on Saturday, spending time alone with his wife in prayer at his home in Indiana.
On October 8, Trump posted a short video to his Facebook page in which he apologized for his remarks. He then deflected, accusing the Clintons of doing far worse.
On October 9, just two hours before his second presidential debate with opponent Hillary Clinton, Trump held an unannounced press conference in which he appeared with Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. During the debate, Trump and Clinton exchanged verbal barbs. She accused him of being unfit to serve, while he accused her of enabling her husband’s bad behavior. When pressed by Anderson Cooper about his comments on the tape, he dismissed them as, “Locker room talk.”
Over the next two weeks, Trump’s poll numbers cratered, but then began to rebound in the days before the election. On November 8, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton and became the 45th president of the United States. The reason for Trump’s ultimate success with his voting base in the face of initial opposition from the GOP machine can best be summarized by a quote from Tim Alberta’s book, American Carnage:
“Trump may have been a shameless deviant, but in the eyes of conservatives, he was running against the first family of perversion.”
Since the discovery of the Hollywood Access tape, 26 women have come forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault during his time on the NBC reality show, The Apprentice, as well as in connection with the Miss U.S.A. beauty pageants. Trump denied all of the allegations and threatened to sue his accusers, as well as the New York Times for publishing their accounts. As of this writing, no lawsuit has been forthcoming.
2017 (I was 42)
On April 11, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly announced that he would be taking a hiatus from his nightly show, The O’Reilly Factor. This was the flagship program for the cable network and the highest rated program in its time slot. O’Reilly claimed he was taking his annual Easter vacation, but the true reason was transparent. Earlier that month, the New York Times had published an expose in which it unearthed the settlement of five lawsuits against Fox News and O’Reilly for sexual misconduct. Backlash against O’Reilly was immediate, with 60 percent of advertisers withdrawing their sponsorship for the program. On April 19, FNC announced that Bill O’Reilly had been dismissed from the company. On April 21, The O’Reilly Factor was canceled.
On October 5, the New York Times published a bombshell report alleging over 30 years of sexual abuse and misconduct by Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Five days later, Ronan Farrow published another article in the New Yorker in which 13 women alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Weinstein. The most damning portion of the New Yorker piece was a leaked audio recording in which Weinstein admitted to groping Ambra Gutierrez. Farrow claimed that he wanted to break the story months earlier, but was stonewalled by NBC, where he worked as a reporter.
Since the initial reports in October, 2017, over 80 women have come forward to accuse Weinstein of harassment, assault or rape. Weinstein initially tried to downplay the scandal, but the rising number of accusers resulted in his ejection from The Weinstein Company, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and nearly all of his other professional associations. Conservative pundits were quick to blast Democrats in general and feminists specifically, claiming that Weinstein was a typical Hollywood figure who had poured millions of dollars into various Democrat-friendly causes and candidates in exchange for the political machine looking the other way with a wink and a nod at Weinstein’s criminal behavior.
The toppling of Harvey Weinstein soon gave rise to a social media phenomenon known as the #MeToo Movement, in which thousands of survivors of sexual violence across the globe came forward to share their stories. On January 1, 2018, over 300 actresses published an open letter in the New York Times that gave birth to the Hollywood-based Time’s Up initiative. In the wake of the Weinstein allegations, a number of high-profile men were subsequently accused of sexual misconduct and were terminated from their professional positions. Casualties included Kevin Spacey, John Besh, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Les Moonves and John Conyers. Judge Roy D. Moore was credibly accused of sexual misconduct by eight victims while running for the Senate seat in Alabama. Though the Republican Party endorsed him, he lost his election to Democrat Doug Jones.
In 2018, both the New York Times and the New Yorker received the Pulitzer Award for their coverage of the Weinstein story. In 2020, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape in the third degree and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
2018 (I was 43)
On July 9, President Trump announced the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Anthony Kennedy. The pundit class immediately began to incessantly chatter about the impact of the nomination. Kennedy had been an unpredictable swing vote, while Kavanaugh was more solidly conservative. Everyone knew that Kavanaugh’s nomination, if successful, might change the philosophical bent of the court for at least a generation.
On September 16, the Washington Post reported that Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford when they were in high school in the summer of 1982. Ford claimed that Kavanaugh and a friend locked her in a bedroom during a party and that Kavanaugh tried to rip off her clothes before she managed to escape. Questions arose over the conduct of Senator Diane Feinstein, who apparently knew about Ford’s allegation but sat on it until it was finally leaked to the media.
One week after the Washington Post report, a second woman accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in 1983. Subsequently, two more women came forward and accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, but their claims were discredited by investigating journalists. The already contentious confirmation process became explosive, inflamed by flagrant grandstanding by various senators on the Judiciary Committee, tweets by President Trump engaging in rampant victim-blaming and the behavior of Michael Avenatti, the attorney representing one of the accusers.
On September 27, both Kavanaugh and Ford testified separately in front of the Judiciary Committee. Reaction in pundit circles was partisan and predictable, though conservatives were generally impressed with Ford’s composure and consistency on the stand. Democrats pounced on Kavanaugh’s emotional testimony, particularly a combative exchange with Senator Amy Klobuchar. After the hearing, several GOP senators and the entirety of the Democrat minority called for a delay in the full senate vote so that the allegations could be investigated by the FBI. More controversy ensued when the White House attempted to limit the scope of the FBI investigation.
On October 6, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court with a narrow majority. The vote was 50/48 and fell along party lines.
Reaction to the Kavanaugh drama was predictable. Kavanaugh accused the Democrats of orchestrating a political hit job on him, suggesting a revenge motive for his role in the Ken Starr Report and Bush v. Gore. Many right-leaning pundits were skeptical of the timing of Ford’s allegations, noting strategic parallels to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill affair. Democrats were indignant, particularly in the wake of the burgeoning #MeToo Movement, claiming that Kavanaugh was another powerful predator who was going to get away with it, while Christine Blasey Ford was a hero for coming forward.
2020 (I was 45)
During the Democratic presidential primaries, former Vice-President Joe Biden was accused of sexual harassment and assault by former staffer Tara Reade. In an interview with Katie Halper on her morning radio show on March 25, Reade alleged that Biden had pushed her against a wall and penetrated her with his fingers when she worked as a senate staffer for him in 1993. She made the same accusation in subsequent interviews with NPR, Newsweek and Politico. Biden flatly denied the accusations. In an interview on MSNBC on May 1, he touted his accomplishments on behalf of women by passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Subsequent investigative efforts by journalists turned up a mixed record on Reade’s credibility; some viewed her as a hero, while others claimed she was manipulative and duplicitous. A probe into Biden’s past uncovered a series of women who felt uncomfortable with the level of touching that Biden engaged in, but none of the concerns rose to the level of Reade’s claim.
Conservatives noted the relative lack of outrage in media and DNC circles over Reade’s allegations. Even though various journalism outlets did background work, the general consensus was that they went easier on Christine Blasey Ford than they did on Tara Reade. By late Spring, the issue had disappeared from public conversation, replaced by the ongoing pandemic and racial unrest.
On November 4, Joe Biden was elected as the 46th president of the United States.
On December 14, Governor Andrew Cuomo was accused of sexual harassment by former aid Lindsey Boylan.
WHAT!!! YOU NEVER HEARD ABOUT THAT? I’M SHOCKED!
Sidebar: I have painted each of these events in very broad strokes. If you want more nuance and detail, I encourage you to research all of these stories for yourself.
Why have the politics of sexual assault become so divisive? There are many reasons, I guess, but in my view, it all comes down to one big one. The stakes.
If Clarence Thomas is right, Democrats opposed his nomination, not because he sexually harassed Anita Hill, but because they didn’t want an anti-abortion judge on the court. If Democrats and the media ignored Hillary Clinton’s role in enabling her husband’s predatory behavior, it was because America really needed to obliterate the glass ceiling by electing the first female president. If Republicans reversed their earlier position on character and morality playing a central role in the presidency in order to defend Donald Trump, it was because the alternative of President Clinton 2.0 was far worse than rank hypocrisy. If the DNC and the mainstream media sought to downplay the possibility of the fact that Tara Reade was telling the truth, it was because the idea of a President Biden was far preferable to that of four more years of President Trump.
In all cases, the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t. Everyone from high-level staffers to political pundits to keyboard warriors across the social media spectrum have the same internal and external conversations. Ok, maybe I don’t like what Trump says and does, but I like him better than Hillary! Or socialists! Ok, maybe the timing of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations are a little iffy, but we just can’t let the Supreme Court transform America into Gilead!
When scandals like these flair up, reaction is always immediate and very partisan. Those in the camp of the accusers will point to Harvey Weinstein or Roger Ailes as an example of a man who got away with sex crimes for decades. Those in the camp of the accused will point to the Duke Lacrosse players or the UVA fraternity students as evidence that men can be falsely accused. There is plenty of evidence on both sides. People cherry pick their facts, build them into talking points and go forth into the arena of social media armed for battle. Names are called. Fingers are pointed. Labels are attached. Everyone wages war on the bad guys, all while the victims continue to suffer. The spirit of unhealthy partisanship festers and coalesces into an unholy devil’s brew that is poisonous, but tastes so, so sweet on the tongue of righteous gladiators.
The thing that struck me as I journeyed down memory lane to put this thread together is how often the victims of these crimes are blatantly used for the purposes of others. Donald Trump’s pre-debate press conference with three of Bill Clinton’s accusers was a transparent attempt by him to use them for political leverage. They, in turn, allowed themselves to be used, ostensibly for payback. Al Sharpton was clearly using the alleged victim of the Duke Lacrosse players for his own ends, just as he used Tawana Brawley in 1987. It is entirely possible that Diane Feinstein used Christine Blasey Ford to further her political agenda. I seriously doubt that Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer are great vessels of empathy and compassion. Who wouldn’t want a Pulitzer? When are we going to see the journalistic blockbuster vindicating Juanita Broaddrick? Five months after Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News, Sean Hannity hosted him on his program and gave a very sympathetic interview. A month later, Hannity was excoriating Democrats for giving Harvey Weinstein a pass for decades.
This is a vicious cycle that will keep repeating as long as we as a society view this issue through the lens of tribalism. Honestly, I don’t know if it will change in my lifetime.