History

Sexual Politics 2003

Clarence Thomas, your legacy's calling

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A dozen years ago on October 15, Clarence Thomas' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court barely passed senatorial muster, sadly ending the most priapic, innuendo-ridden television series this side of Three's Company and Full House. That incredibly heated "high-tech lynching," to use Thomas' evocative, hyperbolic term for the proceedings, did more than momentarily pump some blood into the flaccid career of Long Dong Silver, tempt Coca-Cola to introduce a pubic-hair flavored version of soda pop, and paradoxically usher in the so-called Year of the Woman and what history will surely remember as the Decade of the Penis.

The Thomas hearings marked the first time in contemporary politics that charges of sexual harassment—or, more correctly, since it isn't clear that Anita Hill's claims technically met the legal standard of sexual harassment, unwanted sexual advances—were blatantly put in the service of partisan politics. (Note that I'm not talking about improper but clearly consensual sexual activity, such as Gary Hart's monkey business on the Monkey Business or even Bill Clinton's internal trysts with Monica Lewinsky in the Ovum Office. However nightmare-inducing and ill-advised those might have been, they are a separate beast with two backs.)

While questions remain about the veracity of Hill's claims, this much seems certain: Democrats and liberals opportunistically used alleged examples of unseemly conduct as a club with which to beat up on a nominee they already opposed. The charges of improper, crude, and objectionable sexual behavior were not important in and of themselves. Rather, they were means to an end, a strategy by which one political faction might further its cause.

How else to explain the immediate invocation of extenuating circumstances when one of your own—as opposed to one of your enemies—is charged with improper behavior? If Democrats had actually been serious in claiming that such behavior disqualified a person from holding high office, they would have asked Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who admitted to similar personal "shortcomings" while pushing a sex harassment bill, to relinquish his seat in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body.

Twelve years later, the partisan use of sex charges looms as the real legacy of the Thomas hearings, and nothing shows it as clearly as the responses to the pre-election revelation that the governor-elect of California has a groping problem. Remember the good old days when Bill Clinton was accused of asking Paula Jones to "kiss it" when he was governor of Arkansas? (Clearly Clinton misunderstood that state's license-plate motto, "Land of Opportunity.") Or when he was accused of grabbing Kathleen Willey's breasts as she begged for a job? Republicans and conservatives were righteously, and rightly, outraged. For many, including columnist Jeff Jacoby, such behavior rendered Clinton "unfit for office."

Democrats and liberals took a different, more, er, nuanced view. Most famously, feminist icon Gloria Steinem articulated in the pages of The New York Times what came to be known as the "one free grope" policy. With all the clarity of a Jesuit debating arcane church doctrine, Steinem argued that it's perfectly OK for men in powerful positions to grab ass as long as they subsequently take "no" for an answer. And, though this went unstated but was clearly understood by all, as long as they weren't Republicans.

In the Schwarzenegger case, the sides, predictably, have switched once more. Democrats, liberals, and women's groups were outraged after Gropergate broke, calling the candidate a sex offender and worse. After Arnold issued a classic non-apology apology for being a serial groper, conservatives could barely be bothered to denounce such boorish behavior. The Wall Street Journal actually praised Arnold for his "candor," ignoring the Austrian Oak's pathetic, exculpatory claim that 'twas "rowdy movie sets" what made him do it—as if backstage at Jingle All the Way were a real-life staging of Fellini's Satyricon or Bob Guccione's Caligula.

In a Boston Globe column, Jeff Jacoby sagely asked, "Where was all this outrage when Bill Clinton was president?" and asked to be called "cynical" in pointing out that it's Schwarzenegger's political affiliation that has outraged the many women's groups that deemed him unfit for office. Given Jacoby's newfound equanimity—"A man may not automatically be unfit for office because he exploits or belittles women," he wrote—he'll excuse readers for directing some of that cynicism his way.

No one, however, better underscores the partisan nature of outrage over unwanted sexual advances than Tammy Bruce. Bruce rose to fame when, as the head of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Women, she insisted that the main issue in O.J. Simpson's murder trial was violence against women, not racial politics. NOW responded by ousting her as chapter head. In the years since, the openly lesbian Bruce emerged as an amusing, category-busting pundit whose early embrace of guns and other women was far more entertaining than her recent turn to an essentially conservative Republican agenda (even as she apparently retains her Democratic Party membership). She has become a fixture at the right-wing Web site NewsMax.com and a regular at FrontPage, a webzine whose creator, David Horowitz, is dedicated to the electoral annihilation of the Democratic Party. Where is this staunch feminist regarding Schwarzenegger? On his "transition team," and touting his honesty and forthrightness.

Good for her. She's got a new gig and a rationale she can live with. Good for Republicans and conservatives, too, who can taunt Democrats and liberals with a valid charge of obvious hypocrisy. And good for the Democrats and liberals, who now have a new, convincing cause for outrage, all in the name of sexual politics.

But as Clarence Thomas starts his next 12 years on the bench and as politicos of all stripes continue to insist that they act on hardcore, bedrock principles rather than on opportunistic impulse, they'll have to forgive the non-partisans among us for drawing a very different conclusion.