A 2017 Washington Post profile of Karen Pence brought renewed attention to the so-called Billy Graham rule — named for its best-known practitioner — and its various iterations. Vice President Pence does not eat alone with women other than Karen, and he does not attend events where alcohol is served unless she attends as well. Other evangelical men do not meet alone with women to whom they are not married under any circumstances. The latest high-profile practitioner is Mississippi state Rep. Robert Foster (R-Hernando), who declined to allow Mississippi Today reporter Larrison Campbell to shadow him for a day for a piece on his gubernatorial campaign unless she was accompanied by one of her male colleagues.
Foster’s quickness to condemn the discussion of his decision as a communist plot to bring down America lends the merest hint that his intentions here were less about preserving the sanctity of his marriage and more about ginning up the sort of culture war controversy that could be a boon to his campaign fundraising. But on the off chance that there are more sincere married men out there who are concerned about the appearance of impropriety in the age of #MeToo, but who also would like to find ways not to disadvantage women who work in politics, policy and the press — or who are simply engaged voters and citizens — I have suggestions. And, as a courtesy, I’ve brought along a male colleague, Robert Gebelhoff, to accompany us via byline in case it might be uncomfortable for you to take advice from a lone woman.
1. Provide your own darn chaperone: If you are worried that your reputation will be stained by spending time alone with a woman, or if you are concerned about your own self-control, do not put the onus on the woman who needs to meet with you to provide you both with a minder.
Part of what made Foster’s request to Campbell seem disingenuous is that it would be somewhat unusual for any candidate to be alone with any reporter under any circumstances, much less a whole day that includes a long ride. The idea is enough to give any campaign manager or press secretary worth their salt a modern-day case of the vapors. Who knows what could happen, even if we’re sensibly discounting the possibilities that the candidate will turn into a cartoon wolf and start chasing a gal reporter around a table — or that Hollywood is reality and all lady journalists are just waiting for an opportunity to cast away our glasses, unbutton our sensible shirts and start seducing every source in sight! Fortunately for Foster, he has a male campaign director, Colton Robison, who would presumably be going on this day-long trip anyway to keep an eye on things.
2. Be like Keanu Reeves!: As a politician, even if you’re not alone in a room with a woman, you are inevitably going to be in contact with them on the campaign trail. I completely understand that you are eager to avoid a situation where a selfie you take with an eager voter, or a greeting you exchange with someone introducing you at an event, is taken out of context. Presumably, given your publicly stated concerns for your virtue, you are not going to pull a Joe Biden: There will be no hair-sniffing and no shoulder rubbing. But how to handle the inevitable photo opportunities?
Fortunately, you have Reeves to guide you. Not only is the actor apparently ageless and able to switch seamlessly between movie genres, he has also perfected the art of taking pictures with his fans while making sure that it’s clear where his hands are at all times. Pockets are your friend! So are railings, tables, walls and any other surface where it might be convenient to rest your hand other than on the body of a woman.
3. Worry less about your own sexual magnetism. Or worry more: One of the ironies of this particular dust-up is that Campbell, the female reporter who requested to shadow Foster, is, in her own words, “very openly gay.” Implicit in the concern that spending time alone with a woman could lead to impropriety is the assumption that all men and women are potentially attracted to each other. This is very much not true! It seems unlikely that Robert Foster, or any man, could induce Campbell to change her sexual orientation. And who is to say that there’s not some dreamy gay male reporter out there who could entice a previously heterosexual male politician to contemplate switching teams?
I get why people are eager to protect their marriages and reputations, I really do. If only men who use the Billy Graham rule in professional settings were as concerned about the perception that they were discriminating against women as they were about the perception that they are seducing or harassing us.