With at least two actresses and an author accusing former President George H.W. Bush of groping them from his wheelchair during photo-ops, the sexual harassment conversation that exploded three weeks ago with Harvey Weinstein is poised to fell yet another social more: the idea that the actions of a “dirty old man” should be simply shrugged off.
“Dirty old man” just joined “boys just being boys,” “the casting couch” and “harmless locker room talk” on the list of sexual harassment excuses that are in their death throes, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum told HuffPost. “But just don’t pronounce them dead until we see the coffin.”
The Bush story is definitely a sign of the times though. Back in 2007, we all thought it was adorable that No. 41 ― at age 82 ― gave actress Teri Hatcher a peck on the cheek and a pat on the behind after their lunch together. He was labeled “frisky” then. What a difference a decade makes.
“There is no doubt that this greater focus on sexual harassment is a good thing,” Feldblum said, “because it won’t go away on its own.” And, no, she cuts no slack for men of any age ― even former presidents ― who behave or touch anyone else inappropriately.
Actresses Heather Lind and Jordana Grolnick both reported that they were posing for photos with the elder Bush when he groped their behinds and made an off-color joke. Grolnick and author Christina Baker Kline said he quietly joked about his favorite magician or his favorite book.
Grolnick said, “I felt his hand dig into my flesh” as they smiled for the photographer and Bush delivered his joke’s punchline: “David Cop-A-Feel.”
Some have suggested that Bush, 93, who suffers from a form of Parkinson’s disease and has been in a wheelchair for five years, should be given a pass and excused from the accusations of sexual harassment. NBC anchor Andrea Mitchell tweeted to that end:
Not all agreed though that what Bush did was defensible.
The non-apology apology
Other possible excuses for Bush’s groping were offered up on social media, most notably that as people become elderly, they develop certain medical conditions that can result in a loss of impulse control.
Some suggested that if he cannot control himself in public, those who are responsible for his care must stop putting him in situations where inappropriate behavior can occur ― not just laugh uncomfortably at it and then look away.
Two statements of apology issued from Bush’s office indicated that the former president should be let off the hook because of his age or illness. Women saw the behavior as just another example of powerful men treating women and their bodies with a sense of entitlement.
The former president’s spokesman Jim McGrath initially told CNN that “President Bush would never — under any circumstance — intentionally cause anyone distress, and he most sincerely apologizes if his attempt at humor offended Ms. Lind. ”
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. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.
But Feldblum said that when it comes to harassment, it doesn’t matter what people think might be OK but rather how they behave.
“Workplace training is about how to change behaviors, not minds,” she said. And the same advice is applicable to what occurs outside the workplace.
As for the dirty-old-man defense? No one ― for reason of age or infirmity ― should be able to touch you or make you uncomfortable with impunity, she said. Not Great-Uncle Ernie and not even a former president.