One splendid July day five years ago, during the last presidential campaign when the bar of civility rested comfortably above the waist, I traveled to New Hampshire to interview Republican candidate Mitt Romney for a magazine piece. Before my sit-down with the governor and his wife, there was a photo shoot, and at the request of the photographer I stood back quietly, out of the way. It wasn’t my turn, and I was happy to watch as he engaged the couple, snapping away before their lakeside home for the perfect cover image. He’d shot the Romneys before, and kept up a pleasant patter to keep them relaxed and lens-ready. At one point, with Romney about to attend the Summer Olympics in London, the cameraman zoomed in and asked playfully, “If you’d been an Olympic athlete, what sport might you have played?”
Romney’s eyes twinkled as if he’d been waiting for the question. “Women’s beach volleyball,” he shot back, with a satisfied, boys-will-be-boys grin. The entourage chuckled. The candidate beamed. And his press person, clearly unaware that a founding feminist lurked in the wings, nudged me and whispered, smirking, “He likes the uniforms.”
I rolled my eyes. I was ever-so-slightly offended. But I neither complained nor used it in the piece. Mormon humor, I figured. And nowhere near as tacky as strapping your dog to the top of your car for a cross-country trip. Boys, even 65-year-old would-be presidents, will be boys.
I recall this previously unreported moment in American politico-sexual history out of nostalgia for the sort of mindless insults that every woman in the world has endured for centuries. Yes, they make you uncomfortable, because a man with whom you think you have a business relationship is fixating instead on naked or near-naked female bodies. But unless the striptease moves from fantasy to fact, the moment passes. We are used to it. We sigh. We move on and our clothing stays put.
Mitt Romney, at least that day in New Hampshire, was not guilty of sexual abuse. Just sexual boorishness. There’s a difference.
Not all men are pigs.
Certainly not Winston Churchill, who, in the stirring new movie The Darkest Hour, about his daunting role shaping the allied victory over Nazi Germany, terrifies his new secretary with his gruffness, his demands and his dictation of letters from the bedroom while wearing only his bedclothes. In bed.
As the film presents it, Churchill’s lifetime love affair with his beloved wife, Clemmie, precluded any Charlie Rose moments with unsuspecting underlings. More important, the life-and-death demands of wartime London removed the stigma from any such impropriety. His state of undress reflected the urgency of the moment, not the passions of an unleashed id. Or maybe just a weird guy. But not a sex fiend.
Not all men are pigs. No matter their politics.
What former president George H.W. Bush has done to the rear ends of, apparently, countless admirers, is annoying. And utterly inappropriate. I don’t find horny old geezers adorable. But he’s not a sexual predator.
What Al Franken did or did not do to the breasts and butt of a fellow actor — and maybe a few constituents as US senator — was worse than inappropriate. And his “comedic” idea for a skit in the race for TV ratings were as adolescent as they were deplorable. But Franken has apologized. Profusely. And credibly. Even without Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey, it is possible to confess and be redeemed. Unlike real love, the unrequited fondness for an unwilling person’s body DOES mean having to say you’re sorry, and if you do it right, there’s room for change.
Anyway, there’s really only one word to describe the misbehavior of these trusted public servants: icky. But not necessarily actionable.
Not all men are pigs.
Some, however, most definitely are. And let’s stop pretending that we didn’t know.
Let us end, here and now, the fiction echoing endlessly from recent revelations that one could be shocked — SHOCKED — by the “dear friends” and “nice guys” finally exposed as sexual predators.
The latest firing of a media man — NBC’s Matt Lauer — sent his co-host, Savannah Guthrie, into a dirge of devastation. She said she was “heartbroken” about her dear friend’s plight.
Recently, the otherwise admirable Gayle King went on the air to lament her lack of sleep, her emotional distress, over her co-anchor Charlie Rose’s hideous fall from grace. Gayle, this is not about you.
Roy Moore’s wife sounded downright insulted that anyone could suggest her hubby had diddled underage girls before he met her. Really? Not even a hint, Kayla, when he confessed that he, nearly 30 at the time, first noticed you as a teenager?
And someone, but I can’t remember who, surely defended Harvey Weinstein as the guy you want at your table at the charity gala.
The truth? For most of these men, the response from those who knew them best was, more commonly, “Well, it’s about time.” Not to mention the ones we’re waiting to hear about.
Believe me, as the president of the United States might say with far less credibility. Women knew. And probably some men.
Matt Lauer’s fate had been rumored for weeks. What’s shocking is that his journalist compatriot didn’t know the news.
Weeks before CBS’ Charlie Rose was outed as a preying mantis who ruined the psyches and careers of countless TV journalists, I was told by several women: “Charlie’s next.” His own producer owned up to ignoring the buzz.
Minutes after Mark Halperin lost his gigs on TV and in print because of vile sexual predation, I heard from several women far younger than I about the abusiveness attached to Halperin at ABC News. His creepy and vulgar activities were an open secret. Other ABC bosses, as it turns out, were less physical but equally indecent.
Me? I once worked for an executive who, about to check a script I’d written, said with a straight face, “Why don’t you come into my office and take off your clothes and we’ll discuss it?” The moment passed. I was humiliated, but intact. And I wondered, not for the first or last time, about how much sex these guys really need. I know, I know: Sexual misbehavior is not about sex, it’s about power. But guess what? They’re not making lewd remarks and groping for unavailable body parts because they’re seeking an extra scoop of ice cream. It’s about sex.
I can’t even contemplate the twisted appetites of Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes.
They all belong in the same — what’s that current phrase? — ah yes: silo. Never before has a barnyard metaphor seemed so appropriate.
These men are pigs.
And the swine-in-chief, the insecure, little-handed fool whose reality distortion field can let him pretend that he never said the things he was caught saying on tape, is largely responsible. Donald Trump’s assaults on women have so coarsened public discourse, we are actually and openly discussing things formerly bleeped by network censors.
He’s not, of course, alone.
You could credibly make the case that Bill Clinton started the sleaze, by engaging in and then lying about a sexual encounter with an intern. And the enablers who surrounded him trashed some more grown-up women who were making what now seem like perfectly plausible accusations.
As a result, an entire generation now exists who have been exposed — figuratively — to presidential genitalia. This is not normal.
George Orwell, as usual, nailed the pathology when the actual pigs of his book, Animal Farm, proclaimed that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” At the time, the pigs ran the government.
Today our presumably human, dim-witted dictator has said, and believes, of grabbing women’s genitals and staring at bare-breasted beauty queens: “When you’re a star… you can do anything.” Including discount the testimonies of anyone whose truth threatens his fragile and sick ego.
Or, as the man running strategy for Moore’s campaign in Alabama has said, “We don’t believe these women. It’s just that simple. And y’all can keep trotting them out if you want to, but we’re not going to talk about that.”
Simple as that. If we don’t say it, it doesn’t exist. Trump just denied that the tape he apologized for doesn’t exist.
Is there a doctor in the house?
I am reminded of the way one of my heroes, champion swimmer and movie star Esther Williams, described the men who ran Hollywood during the last century. At 5’8”, plus her usual 3-inch heels, she called them “little guys with big libidos.” Exactly.
So let’s lose the hypocrisy and face up to facts: It’s fine to be rational. Not everything is criminal; a friendly compliment is no reason to call HR. And a dopey joke about bikini-clad athletes is not an assault. But if his snout is in all the wrong places, don’t feign shock when he gets smacked down. The correlative to #MeToo is #YouToo. Who’s next? It could be the guy sitting next to you at the anchor desk. Or in Congress. Or backstage.
Please, don’t be surprised.