If George H.W. Bush can’t help himself, someone else should help him.
After weeks of agreement about the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, a split has emerged over sexual harassment. Bush, the 41st president, uses a wheelchair because he cannot walk. He suffers from an illness similar to Parkinson’s disease and, many have speculated, some degree of dementia. He is 93 years old. When he takes photographs with young women, he says that his favorite magician is “David Cop-a-Feel.” Then he touches their behinds.
To some, this conduct is more of the same revolting harassment that has finally started to get men in trouble. To others, Bush’s condition puts him in another category. The truth is somewhere in between.
It’s possible to make too much of Bush’s behavior. His actions are not on the same plane as Weinstein’s, or Leon Wieseltier’s or Mark Halperin’s alleged abuses (or, for that matter, Bill Clinton’s). Treating them as if they were draws attention away from the crimes that most deserve condemnation.
It’s also possible to make too little of it. Suggesting that Bush’s advanced age means he did not harm the women he fondled feeds into the same story that society has told itself for decades. It shames women into making excuses for their harassment and their harassers — and into keeping quiet. The statement Bush’s office issued saying he had “patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner” in an effort “to put people at ease” suggests that what he did was okay. It wasn’t.
Still, though, this case may say less about Bush than it does about the people around him.
One sign of senility is a loss of control. A patient with Alzheimer’s who in life was always gentle may lash out in anger and aggression; Lewy body disease often leads to what doctors call inappropriate sexual behavior. Parkinson’s medication can also cause impulse-control disorders. We can’t know for sure whether any of these maladies has anything to do with Bush’s actions. But if age or illness exonerates the former president, there are plenty in his orbit who could have taken on responsibility instead.
Barbara Bush, according to all accounts, stood by when her husband fondled these women. She rolled her eyes. She joked that he might end up in jail. People standing nearby laughed. Aides knew; the Secret Service knew. (One security guard told the woman who initially complained about George H.W. Bush that she shouldn’t have stood next to him.) The same thing had happened enough times that women were warning each other to stay away. Bush’s own spokesman said he did it “routinely.”
It is difficult, no doubt, to manage a sick man who does unexpected things at unexpected times. In this case, though, there appears to have been no effort at all. There was only embarrassed acceptance.
Not tolerating sexual harassment means not tolerating sexual harassment — from anyone, in any form. That puts a burden not just on men to quit abusing people, but also on those with the ability to stop it. The Bush debacle may speak to a culture of sexual toxicity, but it speaks just as much to the culture of complicity that comes with it.