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Opinion: Sexual Harassment From John Tower to Donald Trump — and Beyond

America has belatedly reached a moment of reckoning about sexual harassment

Sen. Al Franken should stay in the Senate and give Minnesota voters a chance to offer their own verdict in 2020 on accusations of sexual harassment made against him, Walter Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Al Franken should stay in the Senate and give Minnesota voters a chance to offer their own verdict in 2020 on accusations of sexual harassment made against him, Walter Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In early 1989, with the inauguration of George Bush, John Tower’s failed confirmation fight for secretary of Defense riveted Washington.

A diminutive former four-term Texas Republican senator who had served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Tower seemed, on paper, as a noncontroversial choice.

But his former Senate colleagues remembered him as arrogant and pugnacious. That was why Tower proved vulnerable to a three-pronged attack on charges of conflict of interest, alcoholism and (as it was quaintly known in those days) womanizing.

With the Cold War not quite over, the alcoholism was the most serious issue. Sam Nunn, the Democratic chairman of Armed Services, questioned whether a heavy drinker like Tower could “carry out his military command responsibilities 24 hours a day.”

The sexual aspects of the Tower confirmation fight included both public charges of philandering arising out of a contentious divorce and accusations of sexual harassment. Buried in Pentagon files were accusations that, while a top arms negotiator for Ronald Reagan in Geneva, Tower lavished “special attention on the secretaries” and chased one of them around his desk.

What gave the Geneva stories credibility was Tower’s reputation on Capitol Hill as a senator with whom no woman under the age of 90 could safely share an elevator.

A trendsetter

Tower’s defeat on the Senate floor (more than two years before Anita Hill’s accusations failed to derail Clarence Thomas’ confirmation) marked one of the first times that nonconsensual sexual activity played a significant role in a Washington scandal.

Prior to Tower, the archetype was Wilbur Mills, then the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who was found by the Park Police at 2 a.m. drunkenly cavorting with a stripper named Fanne Foxe (a.k.a. “The Argentine Firecracker”) near the Tidal Basin. Or Wayne Hays, who chaired the House Administration Committee, putting his mistress on the public payroll as a secretary even though she admitted she couldn’t type.

What seems surprising in hindsight is that the spotlight thrown on sexual harassment by both the Tower and Thomas confirmation fights had such little lasting influence.

The retro mood on Capitol Hill in Washington in those days was aptly expressed by Sidney Yudain, the founder of Roll Call. Asked by the New York Times about Tower, Yudain said dismissively, “Everybody up there had an eye for the ladies.”

But there was also an unfortunate sense, evident in 20th-century press coverage, that sexual accusations were primarily a partisan weapon brandished when other lines of attack had failed.

Anita Hill only made headlines when it looked like liberals had failed to derail Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination as it headed to the Senate floor. Many early sexual charges swirling around Bill Clinton were spread by Republicans irate that the GOP had lost control of the White House to a parvenu from Arkansas.

As a male journalist of a certain age, I have spent the last few weeks thinking about my own coverage and attitudes over the years. By chance, I know as acquaintances many of the male journalists accused of sexual harassment and I attended a small book party for Al Franken over the summer.

Part of my reaction is the human one to feel more scorn toward those men whom I disliked in other contexts. Regarding those with whom I have had friendly encounters (from writer Leon Wiesltier and publisher Hamilton Fish to Franken), I find myself searching for extenuating factors.

But, in truth, there is so much that we don’t know about the sexual demons lurking beneath respectable male public facades. I do not doubt the honesty and the courage of the women who have come forward both publicly and anonymously.

Yet I will confess a concern with the lynch mob atmosphere that likens all male offenses — such as drunken late-night passes — with the compulsive, ugly, predatory behavior of Harvey Weinstein.

The Big Dog

As a liberal columnist, I went back and re-examined how I treated Bill Clinton during the impeachment saga. I wanted to make sure that I was not guilty of hypocrisy before I commented on Franken. For if your guiding light in sexual scandals is partisan advantage, then you don’t have principles — only talking points.

In The New Republic in late January 1999, I wrote, “Months of legal wrangling over impeachment have blinded liberals to the ironclad case for reviling Clinton. The proper penalty is not toothless censure but perpetual scorn.” In the same Clinton piece, I added, “There is something that smacks of Bonapartism in the Democrats’ confusion of personal fealty with political principle.”

That tendency to excuse all sins of the Great Leader now afflicts the Republicans with Donald Trump in the White House. With the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape filled with Trump’s crude sexual boasting about grabbing women, the only proper response should have been “perpetual scorn.”

Based on everything we currently know, nothing that Franken has done or been accused of comes close to matching the sins of Clinton, Trump and Weinstein — or, for that matter, the allegations that led CBS to fire Charlie Rose.

As a result, I hope that Franken stays in the Senate and gives Minnesota voters a chance to offer their own verdict in 2020.

Recovering from a scandal takes patience and courage. It requires a politician like Franken to temper future ambitions and to instead concentrate on doing good works within the Senate with humility and quiet dignity.

More important than Franken’s fate is that in 2017 America has belatedly reached a moment of reckoning about sexual harassment. This Great Reckoning means that hopefully never again will male politicians make a habit of chasing secretaries around desks.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.  

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