What did they do? Some offenses (rape, membership in the Ku Klux Klan) would obviously be disqualifying. But the misdeeds fall along a spectrum. Mugging for a camera as you pretend to grope (if that was the case) a sleeping woman would not be as vile as forcing a woman to perform oral sex. But is “not as vile” the standard we want?
How do we know? Sometimes there are photographs, documents, contemporaneous accounts. Sometimes additional victims come forward, suggesting a pattern of bad behavior. We have to remember that false or mistaken accusations occur, though rarely. But we’re also allowed to take motivation into account: Why would a woman step into the hell of public scrutiny if this hadn’t really happened?
Is cluelessness an excuse? Is it more forgivable to wear blackface at age 19 than at age 25? Might someone have believed they were paying tribute to, rather than mocking, Michael Jackson or Kurtis Blow — and if they did believe that, does it matter? If it felt like attempted rape to a teenage girl, does it matter whether the teenage boy thought he was just horsing around? Is some cluelessness — believing, in 1984, that any representation of the Klan could be acceptable — too clueless, too racist, to forgive?
What have they done since? If someone offends at age 25 but never offends again; if he lives a life of service, dedicated to such causes as civil rights and equal opportunity — should that count for something?
On the other hand, if it does, will we find ourselves judging people who agree with us less harshly? Is that defensible?
How sorry are they? We want to know that the offenders appreciate the gravity of their offenses. We do not want to see them joking about moonwalking — nor lashing out at their accusers. If they were clueless or even racist at a young age, we need to hear how they have changed and what made them grow.
And yet, when we are presented with the perfect, heartfelt apology, how do we know this is not just a more artful politician, or one with better handlers? If he has burned with shame ever since applying “brown makeup,” why did he not tell us until now?
What impact will our judgment have? Presumably, the standard may differ when we are considering whether someone deserves a promotion (to a higher court, say) than when we are pressing for a resignation that would nullify a democratic election.
But are we allowed to think about consequences? If our judicial nominee is fervently antiabortion
and we believe abortion is murder, can we excuse past misbehavior in the interest of future lives saved?
What if hewing to our principles means that a Republican will replace a Democratic governor, barely a year after state voters made clear they want Democratic leadership? What if that means three years of undermining priorities that a majority of state voters support? What if the policies most undermined are the very ones most important to helping undo the legacy of racist governance: voting reform, say, or access to health care for poor people? Are we hypocrites if we take that into account?
And if the Republican majority leader of the state Senate feels free to shrug off accusations as serious as those that may bring down a Democratic attorney general — can that change our calculation?
Who are we to judge? Everyone is entitled — everyone is obligated, maybe — to weigh these issues. But if you have lived a life free from the sting of bigotry; if you have lived a life where you need not worry about your safety when you visit an acquaintance’s hotel room; if you are white, heterosexual, male — you had better at least listen closely to the judgments of those who experience life differently from you.
And finally: What about the racist, sexist elephant in the room? We are living with a president who is happy to exploit this moment of reckoning even as he remains unaccountable for his own demeaning of women and blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Muslims and anyone else he can brand as “other” for his own sordid ends.
We cannot let him drag us down to his level. But nor can we pretend he is not an omnipresent part of this story. How do we deal with that?