In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, women feel empowered like never before to come forward with accusations of sexual harassment and assault. They are coming forward against not just Weinstein, but other men as well.
Rich and powerful men like Weinstein and Mark Halperin enjoyed the ability to do whatever to almost whomever without fear of consequences. That luxury has since disappeared, at least for the time being. Expectedly, accusations like those against Weinstein, which include violent rape, are getting somewhat muddled with lesser violations, like lewd comments and leers. Women are also using this new cycle to smear the names of good, innocent men for the sake of publicity and politics.
As of this writing, three women have come forward with tales of abuse from former President George H.W. Bush. They aren’t stories from his time in the White House, but from relatively recent public engagements.
A word about President Bush’s current state: he is confined to a wheelchair and suffering from Parkinson’s disease and related dementia. He has had frequent brushes with death in the last year, when he has been hospitalized for illnesses that often prove fatal for others in their 90s (Bush is 94). Dementia affects the frontal lobe, where impulse control, especially related to sexuality, lies.
It is entirely possible that all three women are telling the truth about the former president making a joke and copping a feel. The joke he told while doing so is so lame (“David Cop-a-feel”) it’s believable. But the question begs: does it matter? And what does it say about our media that it seems the answer is yes?
Let’s Get Real about the Context Here
Dementia is a powerful and demoralizing disease. It turns men into children, caregivers into incapacitated, drooling shells of their former selves. It is a condition one should not wish upon his worst enemy. How one behaves in this last stage of life doesn’t define anyone: not a relative and not a former president.
The media’s willingness to publish these stories, which amount to smears, about a former president, who not coincidentally has an R after his name, is a remarkable new low. Would they hold their grandfather responsible for the same behavior? They won’t even hold a far more lucid ex-president responsible for his actions while in the White House (and one might suspect after he left as well—once a dog, always a dog).
It’s remarkable we know more about a former president touching the behind of the woman at eye level with him in a wheelchair than we do about a former president with a long and documented history of sexual harassment. Then again, Americans know better than to expect consistency and objectivity to occur to most members of the mainstream media.
Those coming forward with these stories about a former president are doing so because the media environment for tales of sexual harassment is ripe. In publicizing these stories, the actions of a deteriorating and elderly man are grouped with that of venomous, cold, predatory, and calculating men like Harvey Weinstein.
Outside of the physical differences—one is capable of physically overpowering a woman, the other is in a wheelchair—the most obvious one is that of intent. Absent a fully operational brain, it is impossible for President Bush, or anyone suffering from dementia, to form intent. That is why it’s possible to insure nursing homes. If it were possible for staff to sue residents of nursing homes for sexual assault, none would be able to withstand the lawsuits. Ask anyone familiar with working with the elderly, and they’ll regale you of tales of handsy old men.
If It Were Your Grandpa, What Would You Do?
In Slate’s retelling of one woman’s story, she explains what President Bush’s staff did afterwards.
Our driver, who was stopped at a light, sat there for a moment, then leaned back and looked at us. ‘I do trust you will be … discreet,’ she said.
Her comment wasn’t menacing. But in that moment I thought: She has heard this before. The people around President Bush are accustomed to doing damage control. There must be many of us, I remember thinking. And now I know there are.
Was this request for discretion so much to ask?
A case could be made that Bush should cease public appearances. Perhaps his inner circle believed those who met him would be capable of managing a harmless grab by an increasingly senile old man. In a society where college students can’t deal with hearing speakers of different opinions, and grown adults can’t just ignore a stray hand from a 94-year-old, that may sadly become necessary.
Americans would be denied the honor of meeting a former president, and he would be denied the pleasure of being honored by those who admire him, simply because his inner circle doesn’t want to risk more damage to his reputation in his last years. That would be a shame for all involved.
His staff, understandably, doesn’t want the history and public image of a man like President H.W. Bush to be defined by actions that are most likely the product of a deteriorating mind in the twilight of his life. This driver must have believed that this woman would have in her the decency to extend to the former president some grace about his condition. Sadly, it appears several women given the honor of meeting the former president and a scruple-less partisan media are no longer capable of even that.