Over the past several weeks, as titans of industry, entertainment, and journalism have been fired left and right for sexual misconduct, politicians’ ability to weather such allegations has been a subject of no little chatter. When TV personalities Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer leave spinning office chairs in the wake of their immediate dismissals, why have politicians facing serious accusations been spared?
On Tuesday, one of the first political casualties of this sexual harassment wave turned out to be Rep. John Conyers. The 88-year-old congressman and civil rights leader from Detroit has been dogged by charges that he sexually harassed women on his staff and covered up. His Democratic colleagues were slow and stumbling in addressing his conduct, but eventually many, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, stated that he should resign.
Conyers’ resignation, which he refers to as his “retirement,” raises a question. Does this move give the Democratic Party moral high ground in the firestorm of sexual harassment charges? The answer must decidedly be no. There are several reasons this is true, and even beyond that a deeper question that Americans must decide.
John Conyers Admits Nothing, and Loses Little
The first and most basic reason Conyers’ resig-tirement doesn’t absolve the Democratic Party of any sins is that he isn’t admitting to anything. In his own words, during a sympathetic radio interview, Conyers had this to say about the allegations against him: “They are not accurate, they’re not true and I think that they’re something that I can’t explain where they came from.” This is delicate, political speech, to be sure, but let’s be clear: he is calling his accusers liars.
Another problem Democrats face in claiming that Conyers’ decision to leave the House is some great moral victory is Sen. Al Franken. Franken not only faces multiple allegations of sexual abuse, there is even a photo of him groping a woman that he sent her as a way of throwing his failed sexual harassment in her face. The fact that an accused black leader is leaving Congress while the white “Saturday Night Live” star Franken stays snugly in his seat speaks volumes to Democrats’ supposed progressive values.
But perhaps the most revealing moment in the Conyers saga came in late November when Pelosi called Conyers an icon. This apparently was meant to mitigate the possibility that he had reached up staffers’ dresses. What benefit of the doubt was Pelosi suggesting his iconic status gave him? Maybe if you’re an icon, they just let you do it.
This raises an interesting question that my colleague Mary Katharine Ham addressed on Twitter not long ago.
Ahh, the “Did he save more than he raped?” standard, but for serious. https://t.co/TKd5CXoEVC
— Mary Katharine Ham (@mkhammer) November 23, 2017
The reference is to comedian Dave Chappelle’s defense of Bill Cosby. Basically, he argued that even if the rape charges against Cosby, of which he was found not guilty in court, are true, his legacy as a black leader and influence on young black men outweigh his crimes. “He saved more than he raped.” Chappelle took some heat on this, but how different is it from Pelosi’s insistence that Conyers is an icon? How do we separate sexual misconduct from a broader legacy?
Conyers’ legacy came up in the radio interview in which he announced his retirement and son’s candidacy. The interviewer said Conyers’ legacy is the push for slavery reparations for black Americans. In regard to this, Conyers said, “My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now. This too shall pass…my legacy will continue through my children.”
Do We Still Believe in ‘Good, But Flawed’?
This brings us to the broader question that not only Democrats but all Americans must come to terms with. When does misconduct, sexual or otherwise, besmirch a politician or historical figure to such an extent that he must be expunged not only from office, but also from memory? In this iconoclastic age where we tear down monuments, who can be safe? Shall Conyers, who was elected 26 times to Congress, be expunged from history? Or do we need to find some way to deal with his accomplishments and flaws?
We have learned during the current onslaught of sexual harassment claims that no party, religion, cultural perspective, or status can claim to be free of predators. They walk among all of us. In a deplorable decision, the Republican National Committee has decided to re-endorse Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been credibly accused of child molestation. The Democratic Party has rallied around Franken and given Conyers a respectable back door. It’s all dirty.
The Democratic Party has not solved its sexual harassment problem by having old man Conyers deny culpability and wander into the sunset with his son taking his place. They deftly danced around the image of a black man taking the fall while white Franken stands stoically as the sexual harasser of the fun Left. And we all see that.
What are we supposed to wish for Conyers? Do we wish him thanks for his half a century in American politics? Do we thank him for his service to the country and black Americans? Or do we condemn him and damn his memory for being yet another powerful man who could not keep his hands to himself? Can we do all these things at once? I tend to think we can.
No, Conyers’ resignation does not solve Democrats’ problem of cleaning their own house before they go hog-wild on the GOP regarding Moore in 2018. But it’s a start. If they keep going, if they expel Franken, this can be a serious and partisan issue. The GOP had their chance to expel Moore; they chose instead to ride him. Men like Marco Rubio and Ben Sasse will have to live with that choice. But so far, Democrats show no inclination towards handling all of this in a better way. If they do, watch out.