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Sex and Power in Washington

Why the capital is ripe for sexual abuse—and why that’s unlikely to change

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

I’ve seen few issues over which there was more confusion than the recently sprouted one of inappropriate sex in Washington—and certain related outposts as well. Lumped together in the furor are minor matters such as a bottom pinch (not that that’s a nice thing to do) and allegations of far more serious forms of harassment. Also conjoined are the ostensible and the actual reasons for expelling a member of Congress over varying degrees of sexual aggression. A sorting out is in order—as is a grasp of reality.

Washington has all the ingredients for inappropriate sexual adventuring. For one thing, it’s full of lonely people—in particular men disconnected from their families. We owe this to Newt Gingrich, who upon becoming Speaker of the House in 1995 told incoming Republican freshmen to leave their families back home so that the members could concentrate on their jobs in Washington. Washington is also full of ambitious people—young things (male and female both) setting out on what they hope is an ever-rising path to more important jobs, whether it is the lobbyist who sets his sights on becoming head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (I knew one who did, but he didn’t make it), or the lowly congressional aide who longs to one day take the seat of the congressman or senator whom he or she is currently serving. Washington is the land of opportunity for sexual conquest, with members of Congress working late nights (yes, they often do) or traveling with aides on supposedly essential business. And, finally, it’s a city stuffed with people who have power over others. 

Mixed with a healthy—or unhealthy—libido, this heady brew of loneliness, ambition, power, and opportunity leads to extra-curricular sex of various types, and of various degrees of seriousness. The same holds true in news media companies where the main on-air man has power over the entire staff. 

Affairs can and do happen anywhere. And if somewhere in America a dentist pinches his assistant’s bottom, is that as serious as a senator pinching the butt of women who posed for pictures with that senator at a state fair? To be precise, if it happened, as two women have claimed, Al Franken’s problem is that what he apparently considered playful isn’t enjoyable for his pinchees. But those are the only untoward acts that Franken has yet to be blamed for as a senator. (Former members of Franken’s Senate staff as well as 26 former colleagues at Saturday Night Live have signed letters saying that he consistently treated them with respect.) So crazed have we become by the flood of accusations, that serious Washingtonians have engaged in debate over whether a photo shows a grinning Franken actually fondling the breasts of a sleeping television host while the two were traveling for the USO to entertain U.S. troop stationed in the Middle East in 2006, when Franken was a well-known comedian, not a senator.

For what it’s worth, this writer sees him as cupping his hands over her breasts, not even necessarily touching them. His entertainment-tour partner also complained that Franken demanded that a certain kissing scene be rehearsed and in so doing stuck his tongue down her throat. And his co-entertainer forgave Franken after he apologized. 

To my mind all of these complaints aren’t remotely grounds for ejecting Franken from Congress. He didn’t exercise his congressional power over any of the complainers. Buffoonery isn’t the congressional equivalent of an impeachable offense. But two factors complicate Franken’s situation: In the outsized frenzy over the first complaints from his fellow troop entertainer Franken suggested that his case be taken before the Senate ethics committee, where all kinds of political mischief and attempts at point-scoring by Republicans can occur. In the Franken case, a circus could be made out of a can of tuna fish. 

The second complication for Franken is that some Democrats seem willing to throw him to the wolves to make their larger case: that Donald Trump’s past behavior toward women should be reviewed and held against him—somehow. Also, at the time Franken’s case was made public a huge fuss had been stirred by a Washington Post disclosure that Roy Moore, the bizarre ex-state judge (he was debenched twice) now running for an open U.S. Senate seat from Alabama, had at an earlier time preyed upon young women below the age of consent. The “reasoning” seems to have gone that in order to hold both Moore and Trump accountable, Democrats need be equally tough on their own offenders. No matter what the alleged offense was.

It’s worth remembering that it lately came to light that the revered George H. W. Bush (after all, he was a much more respected president than his son was), though confined to a wheelchair, is still a bottom-pincher himself. Even the presence of the formidable Barbara Bush hasn’t impeded his proclivity for taking a squeeze of another woman’s rear end. Along with the charges of groping have come reports of H.W. telling the same accompanying corny joke: that his “favorite magician” is “David Cop-a-feel.” (Don’t ask me to explain.) Though word of H.W.’s propensity for groping women’s bottoms had circulated for years (as did fairly serious rumors of his having an affair while he was president), in light of recent events Bush’s spokesman put out an explanation: “At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures. To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke—and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner.” As lame as that explanation may be, no one is making much of a fuss about Bush’s behavior, at least quantitatively greater than Franken’s. 

As for Representative John Conyers, House Democratic leaders are trying to ease him out of office, apparently on the grounds of senility—the 88-year-old now-former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has shown up for some occasions in his pajamas. At first the House Democratic leadership (mainly Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) felt that Conyers surrendering his committee chairmanship would suffice. (Her much misunderstood calling him an “icon” on Meet the Press was part of that process, not a defense, and was based on his undeniable past role as a civil rights leader. Pelosi would have been wiser to pass on the Sunday show appearance until Conyers had stepped aside from the chairmanship.) But the fourth harassment charge against Conyers, brought to light the day after Pelosi’s appearance, pushed leaders into pressing for Conyers’s resignation from the House, though a significant portion of the Congressional Black Caucus disagreed with this.

It seems to me that a major factor in the issue of who should be punished is: Does or did the harasser have power over his victim(s)? Few men will ever sink to the low standard set by Harvey Weinstein, who could make or break actresses’ careers—and did both, depending upon how the aspiring actress responded to his overtures. Other sexual predators who took advantage of their ability to affect a woman’s career include Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, Leon Wieseltier, and newcomer to the harassment fraternity Matt Lauer. Also, and mainly at an earlier time, Michael Oreskes, recently news director of NPR and earlier Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, when most of his alleged offenses occurred. 

Unwanted sexual aggression is never a good thing, but it’s doubly objectionable when the victim’s career is at stake. This distinction is what puts a question mark over the head of Glenn Thrush, a breakout reporter in the Washington bureau of the Times. Thrush, who has been “suspended” by his paper pending an investigation, was accused of making sexual advances on colleagues during his previous job at Politico, but he had no direct power over them, which puts him in a different category. 

Since a firing over sexual predation can be a career ender it needs to be handed out with considerable thought. But some, such as Lauer’s, have come quickly—within two days of a complaint, described as “detailed.” It was the first such complaint about him in his 20 years at NBC, though it came with a suggestion that NBC officials were aware of other inappropriate activity on Lauer’s part—which were made public by Wednesday afternoon and consisted of a variety of disgusting sexual aggressions against women. This was a sign of how hard it’s been for women to complain about sexual mistreatment by their professional superiors. 

An apparent instigator of the swift action against Lauer was that his employers had become aware that The New York Times and Variety had been circling Lauer in recent weeks, asking questions about his behavior. This suggests that some outlets have been more concerned about bad publicity—which can lose them precious advertisers—than about the actual behavior of those charged with offenses, or the impact on the women subjected to the employees’ actions. At the very least, the celerity of the employers’ action has been affected by the heightened interest in the issue of the harassment of professional women. The speed with which NBC acted was a symptom of the swiftness with which the public attitude toward the matter has changed since the Times first exposed Harvey Weinstein’s sexual exploitations: Apparently until the beginning of this week, NBC officials felt—or perhaps desperately hoped—that they could get away with sitting on the bad stories they had been aware of about Lauer’s behavior toward women who also worked for their company. The day Lauer was fired, two more women came forward to register new complaints about Lauer’s treatment of them. They aren’t likely to be the last ones.

On the very afternoon Lauer’s firing was made public, of all things Garrison Keillor, who played a man of simple ways from Lake Wobegon, was fired by Minnesota Public Radio for what was said to be an “inappropriate” relationship with one of his coworkers. 

Washington is filled with rumors of who might be next. A highly coveted and apparently inaccurate list of possible targets has been circulating around town for some weeks now. But it lacked some of the biggest names who have since been caught.  

The retroactive blaming of some major figures has become nearly absurd. Bill Clinton’s animalistic behavior toward women was well known before he was elected president; we knew of planning within his campaign for possible “bimbo eruptions.” His reckless affair with Monica Lewinsky earned him an impeachment by the Republican-led House and a near conviction in the Republican-led Senate in 1998. Though the Republicans insisted at the time that the charges against him didn’t have to do with sex—that they were based on a lie Clinton told to a grand jury and obstruction of justice (which was the same thing)—it very much had to do with sex. But while Bill Clinton’s offense was stupid as well as reckless, on the basis of the extended discussion during Richard Nixon’s ordeal of what constituted an impeachable offense, Clinton’s misbehavior didn’t amount to an impeachable offense or call for removal from office. 

Most of the American people agreed: The Republicans lost House seats over the matter in the 1998 midterm elections, and Gingrich, who had led the effort to remove Clinton from office, was dumped by his party as speaker and left the Congress. (There was the small problem of hypocrisy on Gingrich’s part, since at the time, while on his second marriage, he was widely known to be having an affair—with a woman he eventually wed and is still married to. And, as if the Gingrich story wasn’t ironic enough, his aforementioned third wife, Callista, was named by Trump to be the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.) 

But the fact that Bill Clinton endured punishment for his colossal misjudgment—and the fact (I know: here come the bricks and stones) that the affair with Lewinsky was quite evidently consensual—is considered irrelevant by those putting it under retroactive consideration. The affair began at a staff member’s birthday party in the White House in November 1995, with Lewinsky lifting her skirt to show the president that she was wearing a thong, which was unsurprisingly followed by an invitation to his private study that afternoon and a kiss, with more intimate relations beginning that evening. But timing is everything. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the possible horde of candidates for the next Democratic presidential nomination, who welcomed Bill Clinton’s support and appearance with her when she ran for the Senate in 2008, now says that he should have resigned over his affair.

Similarly, the country was on notice about Donald Trump’s aggressive sexual proclivities before it elected him president. Recently he’s been telling people that his voice on the infamous Access Hollywood tape isn’t his voice, even though he admitted it was his voice when it was first exposed by The Washington Post in October of 2016. But Trump has reasons to be especially nervous these days, what with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who clearly knows something that Trump quite obviously doesn’t want made public, attempting to make a deal with the special counsel Robert Mueller. And Trump is also in an awkward position with regard to Roy Moore; he’s sort of endorsed Moore (vouching for Moore’s denials), though Republican leaders have made it clear that they hope he loses.   

It doesn’t look as if the current upheaval about sexual predation will wind down anytime soon. More targets are being examined by reporters, and Capitol Hill is like a volcano about to explode. The problem has been rife there as long as anyone can remember (and probably before then, as well). Congress clearly has to change its rules for dealing with charges of sexual aggression, which make it nearly impossible for a female plaintiff to win and which pays some of them off secretly with taxpayers’ money. Media and other corporations have to reconsider their guidelines. And the punishment should fit the crime—which in the current frenzy may not always be the case. 

But anyone who thinks that the matter of sexual aggression, in the arena of politics and the press that cover it, will go away doesn’t understand the male libido and the temptations provided in these particular professions. One possible positive sign is that, for the younger generations in the workplace, the presence of females isn’t novel, which leads to more respect for them. Latter-day Savonarolas pronouncing “zero tolerance” in Washington aren’t living in the real world.