As president, John F. Kennedy made sexual advances toward a 19-year-old White House intern named Mimi Beardsley. He pressured her to provide oral sex to other men. Whatever else happened between them, these acts are sexual harassment and coercion, and if Kennedy were alive today, his behavior would disqualify him from public office.
It’s entirely appropriate that former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner is serving time in prison for transferring obscene materials to a minor.
And given the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against former president Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party should have gotten him off the campaign trail a long time ago.
See? I may be a liberal. But saying these things isn’t so hard.
Over the past year or so, as our national conversation about sexual harassment and assault has grown from “grab ’em by the p—y” to #MeToo, we’ve witnessed some extraordinary acts of moral contortionism.
After The Washington Post published a video clip of then-candidate Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, Trump appeared with Clinton’s accusers before a debate in a bizarre attempt to balance the scales (never mind that he was running against Hillary Clinton, not her husband). In the aftermath of The Post’s story about Senate candidate Roy Moore’s alleged pursuit of teenage girls when he was in his 30s, which included an account from a woman who says Moore touched her sexually when she was 14, conservative pundit Ann Coulter raised the specter of Mimi Beardsley — as if that made Moore’s behavior acceptable.
This is moral sickness in the service of partisanship. Some of Moore’s defenders have even gone so far as to say that they would vote for criminal men on their own side of the aisle if it meant keeping Democrats out of office. Bibb County (Ala.) Republican chairman Jerry Pow told the Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent, Daniel Dale, that “I would vote for Judge Moore,” even if he was guilty of a sex crime, “because I wouldn’t want to vote for Doug” Jones, Moore’s Democratic opponent. Bibb added, “I’m not saying I support what [Moore] did.” But apparently he can tolerate it if it helps his party win.
I cannot believe that there is any bill the current Republican-led Congress could possibly pass that is worth defending the alleged molestation of a 14-year-old. I cannot believe that there are no costs, be they moral or political, to tolerating gross misconduct in your midst as long as the abuser in question helps you stand against your opponents. This degrading race to the bottom drives us all deeper into the muck.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was right that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” emphasis mine. Sticking to a point even if the facts ought to lead you to another conclusion is foolish, not brave. That’s why it’s nice to see Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell belatedly say that he believes Moore’s accusers and that Moore ought to withdraw from the Senate race. But it’s equally foolish, and equally demeaning, to abandon a sensible consistency in the name of strategic flexibility — to treat a lack of principle as proof of your own savvy and supposed sophistication.
It’s long past time to stop viewing consistency as merely a restriction. When consistency is sensible, it can be liberating, too. If we truly believe that sexually assaulting or harassing women disqualifies men from positions of power, we can stop debating the allegations against Bill Clinton. We can free ourselves of any need to weigh the roles Harvey Weinstein created for women against the other women’s careers he undermined or destroyed. (We might also take a moment to remember that for every famous man who abused women in private and defended our rights in public, there’s probably a woman or uncompromised man who could have done that public-facing work equally well.)
Tangling ourselves up in endless skeins of justification is a burden. We can set it aside if we’re firm in our convictions and don’t let party loyalty or the promise of some hypothetical piece of legislation sway us. That may mean accepting some short-term political losses. But it’s a reasonable price to pay for preserving our morals and our peace of mind.