Cuomo’s Fall

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has resigned, brought low by a New York Attorney General report that found that he had harassed multiple women. His resignation will take effect in 14 days, at which point he will be succeeded by New York’s lieutenant governor. He continues to be investigated by multiple legislative committee and district attorneys.

Only a year after Cuomo was lauded by the news media and social media, and mentioned as a potential presidential candidate as a result of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic–a handling that later gave rise to its own set of questions about Cuomo’s truthfulness and transparency–the formerly defiant, powerful politician has been dethroned, done in by his own wretched excesses and improper conduct. He thought the rules didn’t apply to him, and now he has found that they do. He deserves his sorry fate, and one can only hope that his plummet from the heights to the ashes will serve as a cautionary tale and lesson for other politicians who believe, in their hubris, that they also are bulletproof. One can also hope that his story might cause other people to hesitate before giving unqualified and gushing praise to political figures who might turn out to have feet of clay.

Cuomo’s dizzying fall reminds me of the poignant poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The Space Invaders

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is dealing with the fallout of a devastating report released by the New York Attorney General’s office that found that he had sexually harassed at least 11 women and that his office featured a “toxic culture” of fear and intimidation. Cuomo responded to the report by saying that he “never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances.” He says the report is inaccurate, biased, and the product of politics, and so far he has rejected countless calls–ranging from President Biden to multiple officials within the New York state government–that he resign from office.

Cuomo’s lawyer prepared and released an 85-page response to the Attorney General’s report. One of the interesting things about the response is a section with “eight pages with photos of the governor hugging various people, and another 15 showing hugging involving political figures including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and U.S. senator from New York.” (You can read Cuomo’s statement about the Attorney General’s report and find his 85-page response here.) The response document explains, at page 5, that Cuomo “has hugged or kissed male and female members of his staff, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, Andrea Stewart Cousins and Carl Heastie, as well as constituents he meets on the street, and family and friends, as has been well documented.” The response contends: “The Governor’s conduct in this regard is unremarkable: Democratic and Republican politicians, male and female alike, use handshakes, hugs, and kisses to connect with others.”

In short, politicians routinely invade the personal space of everybody, male and female, so what’s the big deal? The implication is that such unwanted contact is not harassment, it’s just the reality of how politicians generally behave.

Of course, not every politician engages in serial hugging, kissing, and touching. When I worked on Capitol Hill, my boss, Congressman Chalmers P. Wylie, was a very proper person who never, in my personal experience, did anything more than give a good firm handshake for a “grip and grin” photo with constituents. And while other politicians seem to crave close physical contact–you can find lots of photos of President Biden awkwardly touching people, for example–the fact that other politicians don’t recognize boundaries doesn’t excuse Cuomo’s behavior. More importantly, can anyone really doubt that the power relationship allows politicians like Cuomo to behave as if the normal rules of interpersonal conduct don’t apply to them? If you look at the photo above, it’s hard to believe that any normal person would hold someone’s face in that way, and then not recognize from the woman’s facial expression and obvious discomfort that the contact was unwelcome–and upsetting. But that’s not how the “personal touch” politicians are wired.

We’ll have to see what happens with Governor Cuomo and any litigation that might result from the Attorney General’s report and other apparently ongoing investigations. But maybe his “everybody does it” defense might actually cause people to take a closer look at handsy politicians and bring an end to their hugging, clutching, shoulder-grabbing, close-talking invasions of personal space. Politicians really need to learn to keep their distance.

Holding Congressional Harassers Accountable

We frequently criticize the Congress in this country, and for good reason.  So when Congress does something right — and on a bipartisan basis, to boot — it’s only fair that it should be recognized.

Sexual-Harassment-in-the-Workplace-722x406Yesterday Congress passed legislation that would end taxpayer financing of settlements of claims of congressional harassment of staffers.  Under the current system, if a Senator or Representative is accused of sexual misconduct and decides to settle the claim, the settlement is funded by our tax dollars.  And, because settlements typically involve strong confidentiality protections, we may not even learn of the existence or nature of the harassment claim or the amount of the settlement payment.

And get this:  more than a thousand former congressional staff members wrote to Congress in support of the bill.  One of the bill’s sponsors, Democrat Jackie Speier, said that their letter “made the case all too clear, that sexual harassment in Congress was a huge problem.” Speier added:  “Time is finally up for members of Congress who think that they can sexually harass and get away with it. They will no longer be able to slink away with no one knowing that they have harassed. … They will pay back the U.S. Treasury.”

The legislation reflects a compromise, as congressional legislation typically does; it also caps lawmaker liability at $300,000 if there is actually a court finding of harassment and assessment of damages.  But at least court cases and decisions are matters of public record, so the misbehavior of the Senator or Representative will become known to all and they can be held accountable by voters for their misconduct.  In my view, that cap on damages is more than outweighed by the elimination of taxpayer funding of settlements, a requirement that Congress report on and publish such settlements, and changes to other rules to strengthen protections for congressional staffers.

I don’t like the special treatment that members of Congress routinely receive, and my tax dollars obviously shouldn’t go toward enabling congressional misbehavior and funding secret settlements to cover it up.  I’m glad Congress finally agrees with that common sense conclusion.  The bill now goes to President Trump for his consideration.  Let’s hope he also sees the light and signs it into law.

The Folly Of Hubris

Al Franken announced today that “in the coming weeks” he will resign his seat in the U.S. Senate.  Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, was the subject of a series of allegations of sexual harassment and improper conduct, and ultimately members of his own party decided it was time for him to go.

51kbpkvrpyl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Why Franken will leave “in the coming weeks” rather than immediately isn’t entirely clear — but apparently part of the Senatorial prerogative is deciding when your resignation will actually take effect.  In any case, Franken  is one of three members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, to announce during this week alone that he is resigning in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.

When I heard that Franken had finally bowed to the inevitable and decided to resign, I thought about the fact that I saw him on the Bill Maher show only recently, when he was riding high and touting his new book, called Giant of the Senate.  I’ve seen the book prominently displayed in the local library during a recent visit before the allegations and the appalling photo first hit the news.  Franken being Franken, no doubt the book title was in large part tongue in cheek — but still the juxtaposition of the book title and its cover illustration with Franken’s rapid downfall and humiliating resignation suggests a valuable lesson.  Hubris, even partly tongue in cheek hubris, is just begging to be brought low.

You can probably buy Franken’s book at a discount these days.

Every Man A Groper (Or Worse)

Every day, it’s getting more embarrassing to be a guy.

Every day, it seems, some new revelation comes out about some guy doing something that is just flat out appalling and inexcusable — if not outright criminal.

623-03695485Every day, it seems, some prominent actor, director, or other entertainment figure, or some well-known liberal or conservative politician, or some high-powered business executive, is alleged or shown to have engaged in activities that could easily be characterized as gross sexual imposition, indecent behavior, sexual assault, or outright rape.  The steady drip, drip, drip of allegations makes you wonder whether there is any widely known male public figure who hasn’t grabbed what they shouldn’t have grabbed, or exposed what they shouldn’t have exposed, or tried to grope a young girl, or engaged in some forced sexual activity with someone who was unwilling.   And it’s to the point now where you wake up each day and ask:  Who’s next?  Who else is going to be shown to have done something that is totally, disgustingly inconsistent with their pure-as-the-driven-snow public reputation?

Once, in the past, there was a sense of chivalry and manners, a pride in self-control and behaving like a gentleman, and a Victorian attitude about treating all people with politeness and decency and respect.  I’d like to think that there are still men out there in positions of power who continue to adhere to those concepts.  But the news we’ve heard over the past several weeks, from the Harvey Weinstein disclosures to whoever is the subject of today’s revelations, really makes you wonder how many of those decent people are left.

Men need to start rethinking what it means to be a man, and how we can teach boys a code of conduct that allows them to be proud, upright members of society, rather than evil predators who ruin people’s lives with their depredations.  The problem here seems to run awfully deep.

The Depths Of Depravity

In the wake of the disgusting Harvey Weinstein scandal, actresses and other women who are participants in the film and TV industry are stepping forward with their stories about sexual harassment, and worse.  They are ugly, extremely disturbing stories, and it seems as though there are many more stories to be told.

Molly Ringwald in Breakfast ClubMolly Ringwald, the youthful megastar of many hit movies of the ’80s, wrote an opinion piece for the New Yorker entitled “All the Other Harvey Weinsteins” that describes her experiences as the target of harassment and demeaning conduct, which included an incident that occurred when she was only 13.  Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Thompson, Reese Witherspoon, and other well-known figures have similarly talked about their personal histories in dealing with ugly comments, degrading behavior, and sexual assault.

Thompson says she thinks that sexual assault is “endemic” in Hollywood, and she seems to be right in her use of that word:  the incidents that she and others have related make it clear that the problem isn’t limited to Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby.  From the stories being told, Hollywood has been a grossly depraved place for decades and maybe forever, a place where egregious behavior was tolerated, rationalized, and covered up, where powerful men were able to do what they wanted, no matter how sick or twisted, without fear of being caught and punished or otherwise held accountable, and agents, directors, producers, and others were all part of the culture of harassment and corruption who did nothing to help or protect the girls and women who were being subjected to shameful and at times criminal behavior.

Let’s hope that the dam has finally broken, and that the torrent of stories about harassment and assault in Hollywood finally changes the system for the better — but I wouldn’t count on it.  The depravity of the film and TV industry seems to have been so deep and embedded, with so many people either actively participating or looking the other way, that I wouldn’t trust Hollywood to self-regulate going forward.  In fact, I wouldn’t trust Hollywood types when they talk about just about anything.

It’s time for the news media and the government regulators to start paying a lot more attention to what happens behind the scenes and behind the cameras, to ensure that girls and women don’t become victims, again and again and again.

A Conspiracy Of Silence And Hypocrisy

The Harvey Weinstein story is an appalling one.  The reports of Weinstein’s behavior related by women in articles published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other publications are horrific.  Those stories tell us a lot about the ugly sexual realities of the Hollywood and film-making world — and they also tell us a lot about the quality of the people who work there.

ox281266930182248439It’s pretty clear that a lot of people knew of Weinstein’s behavior and had heard stories about him.  They were aware, at least, that there were indications that he had repeatedly engaged in aggressive sexual propositioning and grossly inappropriate behavior, even if they credited his claims that his ultimate sexual liaisons were all “consensual” rather than criminal.  Some people obviously knew more, and were involved in either helping to identify young women for Weinstein to target or in quashing or covering up the terrible stories that are only now surfacing, years later.  And yet, none of these people evidently said anything, or did anything, to stop Weinstein’s behavior, and he continued to show up on the red carpet for the awards shows and work in the Hollywood community and win awards and gain accolades and get his picture taken with grinning movie stars without having to answer for his conduct or suffer any consequences.  It’s a sad and disgusting commentary about the lack of ethical, principled, decent, courageous people who would be willing to endure potential repercussions in order to do what they know is right.

Lena Dunham wrote a piece for the New York Times about her experiences with sexism in Hollywood and the silence of men in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.  I don’t always agree with Lena Dunham, but she’s right in this instance.  I’m guessing, though, that the awareness of Weinstein’s behavior went beyond his unfortunate victims and men, and included women as well.  They all engaged in a conspiracy of silence — and also a conspiracy of the rankest kind of hypocrisy.  Those of us out in “flyover country” are frequently lectured by the Hollywood stars about what we should be doing, what we should be thinking, or who we should be supporting — but it certainly appears that at least some of those Hollywood stars cravenly didn’t act in accordance with their stated beliefs when it counted.  Maybe they just lack any personal courage, or maybe they’re concerned only about themselves and their next movie, or maybe they didn’t believe what they were saying in the first place and said it only because that’s what was written on the script.

I’ll remember the awful Weinstein story the next time I see a public service announcement featuring Hollywood stars or other celebrities lecturing us on how to conduct ourselves.  In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the hypocrisy it exposes, why should anyone credit anything a Hollywood star has to say about the world?

A Little Judgment, Please

The tale of Hunter Yelton is a small story about a small boy in a small town, but it may just teach us a large and important lesson about modern America.

Hunter is the six-year-old boy in a Colorado school district who had a crush on a girl and kissed her on the hand during class.  Their classmates reported it, and the school district determined that Hunter’s action constituted sexual harassment under the school district’s policy, which defines sexual harassment as any form of unwanted touching.  Hunter was suspended and the charge of sexual harassment went on his school record.

The word got out, and the reaction was swift and overwhelming.  People were outraged that a six-year-old boy could be accused of sexual harassment for a peck on the hand, and Hunter’s story became news throughout the country.  Now the school district has dropped the sexual harassment charge and has classified his behavior as “misconduct,” and Hunter is back in school.  He says he’ll try to be good.

The large lesson to be learned from this small incident is that judgment is needed — by the school district, by parents, and by the media.  The school district has a policy that defines sexual harassment so broadly that a six-year-old’s kiss on the hand apparently falls into the same category as a high school senior’s pawing of a freshman classmate.  Obviously, they aren’t the same thing, and school districts shouldn’t treat them as the same thing.  “Zero tolerance” policies can be a problem when they don’t permit teachers and principals to exercise judgment and distinguish between Hunter’s kiss of the hand and conduct that is much more serious and needs to be dealt with much more severely.

At the same time, a knee-jerk depiction of this incident as another ridiculous example of Big Brother run amok isn’t quite right, either.  The mother of the girl whose hand Hunter kissed has now been heard from, and she says that Hunter has tried to kiss the girl repeatedly without permission, and she has tried to teach her daughter how to respond when that happens.  She appreciates the school district acting to protect her daughter — and wouldn’t you feel the same way if it was your little girl?

The upshot of this story is that school districts should have rational policies that recognize distinctions in behavior, but also that discipline and order in the classroom is important.  When I was in grade school, pestering behavior would be treated by the wrongdoer standing in the corner and, if the misconduct didn’t stop, a trip to the principal’s office, a call to the parents of the misbehaving child, and a stern talk about proper conduct.  It seemed to work just fine back then.  Why shouldn’t it work now?