The embers of unwanted physical aggression are being stirred up in a wide range of workplaces as victims’ fear of reprisal appears to be diminishing.
In this moment of cultural upheaval over sexual harassment and abuse, some are calling for a reckoning of the two-decade-old Bill Clinton sex scandal. I had my own reckoning with that in 1998 when I was editorial page editor of The Seattle Times, one of the few newspapers in the country to call for Clinton to resign. “Without moral authority, the president cannot lead,” the editorial stated. Resignation was the one remaining step by which he could “restore the importance of principle and honor in public life.” I knew even then that those words sounded lofty and unrealistic. But what is an editorial page for if not to be an occasional beacon, its searchlight aiming above the scrum and scandal of politics.
After the editorial I was called, among other things, a “scumbag in cahoots with Republicans.” That critic was wrong. My personal political views have always tended to the liberal side. I voted for Clinton. But sexual harassment falls into a nonpartisan world where ethical behavior trumps political persuasion. I shared with our readers this excerpt from the mission statement of our editorial page: “To be an influential advocate for ethical leadership in public and private sectors.” We took it seriously, even when it cost us subscribers, as it did in this case — within days more than 100 readers had canceled the paper; reaction ran two-to-one against us. Thank goodness there was no Twitter or Facebook back then.
Now retired from journalism and living in rural North Idaho, I am watching the sexual-harassment story erupt. The election of an admitted sex abuser as president probably has something to do with that. President Donald Trump seems — at least for now — to be inoculated from any consequences of his gropes and grabs. But other guys are no longer immune. With the fall of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the seemingly impenetrable facade of the powerful good guy who gets away with it is crumbling, creating greater incentive for women to speak up about their experiences with men who behave badly. The list grows: Alabama’s Roy Moore, Sen. Al Franken, Charlie Rose, Rep. John Conyers and others. Once again partisans are being tested to see beyond party and political calculations, to examine behavior and consider appropriate consequences.
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As editor of the opinion pages through the ’90s, I followed the riveting Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearing before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, which became a national consciousness-raising session about sexual harassment in the workplace. I followed the political highs and personal lows of the Clinton era, along with those closer to home: Sens. Bob Packwood of Oregon and Brock Adams of Washington state, both of whom lost their seats due to sex scandals.
I took more than a professional interest in the sex-and-politics stories. My #MeToo tale is not as crass as many, but real. Early in my career, I worked in public television. One time, while conducting a live interview with then-U.S. Rep. Steve Symms of Idaho, I felt an unmistakable pressure against my knee. I moved, and he widened his spread to touch my leg again. After the interview was over, the congressman invited me to a cocktail party. In my anger and embarrassment, instead of raising a ruckus, all I could muster was a frosty “no thanks.” Like many women in similar situations, I was flustered and ill-prepared to respond, leaving a residue, embers easily stoked years later into new sparks of anger and disgust.
And so today we see those embers of unwanted physical aggression stirred up by current events into stories ripe for the telling. Stories are coming from all kinds of workplaces, not just Hollywood, media and politics. Silicon Valley, Olympic sports, and TED Talks also have been cited.
The behavior is as old as mankind. What’s new is that victims’ fear of reprisal seems to be diminishing. While Moore in Alabama has pushed back on his accusers, the outright shaming that the Clintons used strategically in their first presidential campaign, and later against Monica Lewinsky, is less evident today.
All this could be a watershed moment, not necessarily a reckoning of the Clintons, whose time has passed with Hillary’s crushing defeat, but a right-now reckoning, and a clear warning to all men who presume they have the privilege and power to harass and abuse.