Does Character Matter? Politicians, Sexual Harassment, and the Path to a New Normal

Rethinking the Character Question

For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character, and although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I've been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character.President Andrew Shepard, The American President (1995)

Richard Wagner was a vile human being. His music is brilliant. Should we refuse to listen to it? If the quarterback of your city’s football team has abused women, should you refuse to root for your team? What if he has embezzled money, or has made racist statements? It’s obvious where I’m going with this: politicians. John Kenney, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump…Roy Moore. Do we care about our political leaders’ “character” separate from our opinions of their policies? What do we mean by that term, anyway?

More than seven in ten (72%) white evangelical Protestants say an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life—a 42-point jump from 2011, when only 30 % of white evangelical Protestants said the same. Roughly six in ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and Catholics (58%) also believe elected officials can behave honestly and ethically in their public roles regardless of their personal behavior. In 2011, only about four in ten white mainline Protestants (38%) and Catholics (42%) held this view. Notably, religiously unaffiliated Americans have remained constant in their views; six in ten (60%) believe elected officials who behave immorally in their personal lives can still perform their duties with integrity, compared to 63% in 2011.

Full confession time: I defended Bill Clinton and John Kennedy (not that I was around then, in retrospect) on the grounds that we judge Presidents by their performance of their duties not by their personal merit. I still don’t think that premise is entirely wrong, but I was entirely wrong in the case of Clinton. I mean the word “wrong” both morally and strategically. Morally, my action in overlooking or dismissing Clinton’s conduct made me a part of a systemic program of denial that left women everywhere vulnerable to abuse. And as a Democrat, a member of a party that made caring about women’s rights part of its creed that was doubly wrong: it was hypocritical on the one hand, and on the other hand it was a position that ignored the fact that the Democratic Party had the capacity to be mobilized to make things better in a way that the Republican Party does not. It’s the same reason we hold the United States to a higher standard than Russia: we genuinely believe that the United States has the capacity to do better, so failing to demand better is acquiescence. There is an obligation that comes with claiming the high road, and there is leverage in that claim as well.

Today some commentators are bemoaning the fact that Democrats seem to be acting on their principles in calling for the resignations of Al Franken and John Conyers, while Republicans are benefitting strategically by abandoning all pretext of moral principle and embracing Roy Moore. Dahlia Lithwick, whose arguments I usually love reading, puts it this way:

[B[ecoming the party of high morality will allow Democrats to live with themselves but that the party is also self-neutering in the face of unprecedented threats, in part to do the right thing and in part to take ammunition away from the right—a maneuver that never seems to work out these days. When Al Franken, who has been a champion for women’s rights in his tenure in the Senate, leaves, what rushes in to fill the space may well be a true feminist. But it may also be another Roy Moore… Unilateral disarmament is tantamount to arming the other side. That may be a trade worth making in some cases. But it’s worth at least acknowledging that this is the current calculus. It’s no longer that when they go low, we get to go high. They are permanently living underground. How long can we afford to keep living in the clouds?

In this instance I believe Ms. Lithwick is wrong. It’s not just that tolerating Bill Clinton made the Democrats ineffective in pushing for improvements generally, it specifically neutered a great deal of the force of arguments on behalf of Anita Hill. And in the longer term it made it easy to persuade Republican women that their choice of party did not involve any sacrifice of equality or protection against predators. A party that abandons its principles whenever it is convenient may gain in the short term, but the cost is that an appeal to those same principles later will be unconvincing. Let me put this in purely self-interested, strategic terms: do the Democrats want to go even further to abandon any claim to being the party that stands for gender equality? I have no idea what price the GOP will pay for abandoning any claim to being the party of character, family values, and Christian morals, but I am certain that there will be a price to be paid. For one thing, the claim that secularists should pay respectful attention to the arguments of evangelicals because they are motivated by sincere moral principle has moved into the category of unintentional humor.

But let’s be clear about what we’re discussing. The allegations we are hearing and reading are not accusations of bad moral character, they are accusations of bad conduct. We do not need to presume to look into mens’ and womens’ souls and judge their hearts in order to recognize that if we excuse and defend their bad behavior then that fault is ours.

So I still do not embrace the idea that a candidate should be judged on the basis of his or her “character”, but I absolutely embrace the idea—too late—that political leaders cannot be given a pass for their actions.

And another thing.

Allegations are not conclusions

Lauer's sudden ouster came as a shock to viewers -- but not as a complete surprise to his "Today" show colleagues. They knew that Variety and other news outlets were investigating Lauer's off-camera conduct. One of those outlets, The New York Times, was in touch with an accuser who then met with NBC lawyers and human resources officials on Monday evening. The accuser's attorney, Ari Wilkenfeld, said it was a three-hour-long meeting. "My client detailed egregious acts of sexual harassment and misconduct by Mr. Lauer," Wilkenfeld said. An investigation ensued on Tuesday. A decision was made to terminate his employment on Tuesday evening -- a swift turnaround time.

Here’s a key point about the Matt Lauer firing: there was an investigation. I’m not talking about waiting for a criminal conviction or following any particular legalistic standard, but the fact of an allegation in and of itself is not the same thing as reaching a conclusion that allegation is true. In the case of Roy Moore there is much more than a set of allegations, there are corroborating statements by 30 other people and a huge amount of incidental evidence showing that his public statements in his own defense are untrue. But there may be other cases, now or in the future, where an employer acts as soon as allegations are received. Employers and political parties need to take a lesson from college campuses’ handling of sexual assault claims. I have said publicly that colleges do a terrible job of protecting women. But it is also true that colleges have done a terrible job of ensuring fairness to those who stand accused (as Laura Kipnis has amply documented). The failure to demonstrate fairness to the accused undercuts the completely valid appeals for more protection for victims. I don’t know whether there has yet been a false accusation among the flurry of claims against prominent men in politics and the entertainment industry, but if one of these claims is proven to be false it will cast doubt on all the others in the minds of anyone who would benefit from disbelieving them.

So where is this all going?

There is going to be a new normal.

The reckoning that we are going through is long overdue, and it is going to be difficult and uncomfortable not only for those directly involved but for the rest of us, who have to consider wonder what the new normal will feel like. But there will be a new normal, because people have to be comfortable with a set of norms if only so that they will be willing and able to call out the violations of those norms. We are beginning one of our national conversations here. The leadership of the Republican Party has made it eminently clear that they have no interest in being part of that conversation. The leadership of the Democratic Party needs to do better if that party is going to be relevant to the next generation of American women.

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