McLean column: Sexual scandals part of history
In the 1884 campaign for the presidency, Grover Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock. In the puritanical society of the times, that should have been the end of Cleveland’s campaign. His opponents shouted “Ma, Ma. Where’s my Pa?” His supporters answered, “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha Ha.”
Cleveland stated that he did not think he was the father but he took responsibility for the child. As a result he overcame the issue and won the presidency. Undoubtedly he was assisted by the poor quality of the Republican opponent, James Blaine.
Sex and scandal have been part of politics in America since the inception of the country. Ben Franklin was well known as a philanderer. Jefferson reportedly had a black slave mistress.
Sexual mores in the country have changed considerably since the founding of the republic. In her book, “Delirium, How the sexual revolution is polarizing America,” Nancy Cohen states that during the Roaring Twenties only 10 percent of women had sex before marriage. In the 1950s, most women still believed that premarital sex was wrong either because of societal mores based on religious beliefs.
After the sexual revolution of the sixties and the advent of the birth control pill, more than 80 percent of women engaged in premarital sex. The sexual double standard had been broken. Today over half of teenage girls have sex by the time they are seventeen. Two-thirds are sexually active before they turn 20.
The change in sexual mores partially explains why some politicians have been able to overcome sex scandals. In the changing era of the 1960s, an adoring press did not report on President Kennedy’s reputed affairs. Among many Americans, mores had changed to the point that sex among consenting adults was no longer news.
However, the Chappaquiddick accident in 1969 when Ted Kennedy drove Mary Jo Kopechne into a river while having an affair ended his chances of becoming president. While he was able to hang onto his Senate seat, being responsible for the death of the young woman and fleeing the scene were too much of a scandal to overcome in a presidential campaign.
Bill Clinton was able to overcome numerous allegations of sexual abuse and even rape to win the presidency. While in office, he survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal. His previous sexual misconduct had already been raised during the presidential elections.
Roy Moore could not overcome forty-year-old allegations of sexual abuse in his run for the senate in Alabama. Normally a “safe” seat for Republicans, Moore lost not because of the allegations. He lost because the allegations exposed serious flaws in his personality and character.
President Clinton overcame his scandals because he had a good personality. He was able to charm and convince voters that his character flaws were not sufficient to disqualify him for office.
Senator Al Franken was effectively booted out of the senate for groping charges. While Clinton overcame the charges against him, Senator Franken became a political liability for the Democratic Party when his sexual misconduct was exposed. How could Roy Moore be attacked for his conduct in that election while Franken remained in the Senate? Thus he was forced to give up his seat.
Usually a higher standard is set for Republicans. While Clinton was able to survive the Lewinsky affair, Newt Gingrich was forced out as Speaker of the House when his affair was discovered during the Clinton impeachment. The Republican was expected to maintain a higher personal standard.
While sexual mores have changed regarding sex among consenting adults, the changing role of women in the workforce has exacerbated the problem of sexual misconduct. In some ways Harvey Weinstein was right when he stated that his conduct was acceptable because he was raised in the sixties during the sexual revolution.
However, what he did not seem to understand was the term consensual sex. While the “casting couch” has been known in Hollywood for decades, it is no longer acceptable for men in power to use that power to abuse women.
As society changes, what is acceptable behavior also changes. While the current flurry of sexual misconduct allegations can have a positive effect on workplace relations, the pendulum can also swing too far in one direction.
Men in positions of power have sexually abused women for centuries.
Women have also seduced certain men because of their power. Did David coerce Bathsheba or did she seduce him? In the current atmosphere there is no doubt that David alone would be the culprit.
If allegations of sexual misconduct are accepted without due process then there is the risk of trivializing abuse. In a December column in Politichicks, Abigail Adams wrote, “Women are coming forward every day accusing men of almost unspeakable crimes — crimes that happened as many as 35 years ago. The men accused have one thing in common: They are well-known, successful men. … Nobody knows what or whom to believe.”
Roland McLean, an Aspen Glen resident, is a University of Colorado graduate, Navy veteran and retiree after more than 30 years in international construction. His column appears on the fourth Thursday of each month. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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