Sloppy Joe

If a sexual assault allegation against Joe Biden falls in the New York Times and no one reads it, will it stop Biden from being elected president in November?

On April 12, while America was understandably preoccupied with other matters, the Times printed the account of a woman named Tara Reade, who claims that in 1993, while working as a staffer in Biden’s Senate office, the future vice president—and now-presumptive Democratic presidential nominee—“pinned [Reade] to a wall in a Senate building, reached under her clothing and penetrated her with his fingers.”

Reade first publicly accused Biden of untoward behavior last year, when more than a half—dozen women recounted a panoply of inappropriate touching, hugging and kissing Biden had engaged in over the course of his career—some of it right out in the open—in anticipation of Biden’s entry into the 2020 Democratic primary. Reade’s own accusation at the time entailed unwelcome physical contact such as neck-stroking and hair-grabbing, but not sexual assault. When asked why she waited until now to lay her most serious charge, Reade said she was afraid following “a wave of criticism and death threats” in response to her initial disclosures.

The Times reporting found that Reade mentioned the alleged assault to several people shortly after it occurred, but also that neither the Senate nor Biden’s office has any record of a formal complaint Reade claims to have filed at the time. Biden himself, through a spokesperson, has denied the incident ever took place.

And so here we are, forced to regard Joe Biden as we have previously regarded the likes of Brett Kavanaugh, Woody Allen, Donald Trump and every other public man whose alleged past sins (i.e., crimes) have been brought to light at a moment when the truth about what happened in the past has a singular power over what happens in the future.

As with Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings, one of three things must be true. One, Reade is a liar. Two, she has a severely distorted memory. Or three, Joe Biden is a sex offender. And as with so many other chapters of the #MeToo story, with no definitive proof on either side, it’s up to each of us individually to decide which party to believe—him or her—and to act accordingly.

What makes the Biden case different—and arguably the most high-stakes iteration of the #MeToo era to date—is that how Americans judge Reade’s claim may well determine the outcome of the 2020 election—and, by extension, every action by the federal government through at least January 20, 2025. At this point, it would be political malpractice for the Democratic Party to blithely assume otherwise.

The potential trajectory of this electoral powder keg is not difficult to game out: Reade sticks to her story. Trump and/or his backers believe her loudly and unconditionally, seizing on the allegation as a 10,000-ton albatross to sling around Biden’s neck 24 hours a day. A not-insignificant number of left-leaning independents—and maybe even a few Democrats—decide they cannot in good conscience vote for someone credibly accused of sexual assault, and ultimately leave their ballots blank, bequeathing a second term to one Donald J. Trump.

Don’t tell me this can’t happen. Don’t tell me a presidential election cannot be swung by the 27-year-old recollections of a heretofore anonymous former Senate aide. Don’t tell me there isn’t a sizeable chunk of the electorate who might otherwise vote for Biden—despite his known flaws—but will think twice when presented with as explosive an accusation as Reade has now presented. Don’t tell me that, when faced with the ultimate hypothetical—If you knew, for a fact, that Biden had once committed sexual assault, would you vote for him anyway?—even the most loyal Democrats would not give themselves at least a moment or two of pause.

And whatever you do, don’t tell me that because Donald Trump has been accused—indeed, has admitted to—behavior that is demonstrably worse than anything ever said about Biden, there is no moral compromise to be made in choosing the latter over the former.

Sorry, folks. It turns out that, in 2020, life is not going to be that simple.

Barring a sudden confession from Reade that she made the whole thing up, every Biden supporter in America—most of whom, one presumes, have been cheering on the #MeToo movement for the last two-and-a-half years—will be forced to reckon with the fact that on November 3, they will be voting for a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, and that the only true rationalization for this decision—the alternative would be worse—is a rationalization all the same.

Liberals have spent the past four years excoriating conservatives for supporting a president whose very existence is an affront to nearly all of their so-called principles—honor, dignity, family values—but whose promises of tax cuts and a right-wing judiciary made the tradeoff both justified and unavoidable in their own minds.

Is that not the moral bargain that today’s liberals will now need to make about Joe Biden? Will the never-Trump crowd not be spending the next six months talking themselves into the idea that one sexual assault is a fair price to pay for universal healthcare and debt-free college education? And given the essentially binary nature of U.S. presidential elections, will they not, in some horrid sense, be correct?

St. Mark asked, For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  I guess we’re about to find out.

Above the Law

Karl Marx famously intoned that history tends to repeat itself, “First as tragedy, then as farce.”  Upon last week’s death-by-suicide of noted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, who hanged himself in his Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial—itself both a tragedy and a farce—I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing weren’t an ominous prelude to the ultimate fate of Donald Trump.

Not that Trump would ever kill himself, of course.  After all, suicide requires a level of nerve, resolve and concentration that our president plainly doesn’t possess.

What I mean is that, no matter how much comes to light about the crimes our 45th president has perpetrated against the republic—financial, political, sexual, moral—he will somehow find a way to skirt ultimate accountability for them, if only by not living long enough for the justice system to work its magic.

In the case of Epstein, you’ll recall, charges of gross sexual improprieties with underage girls were first leveled in 2005, resulting three years later in a jaw-droppingly lenient 13-month jail sentence whereby Epstein spent six days of each week in his own home.  It was only earlier this summer, following exhaustive sleuthing by Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown, that Epstein was treated as the pathological monster that he was, arrested and hauled off to the Metropolitan Correctional Center as details of his child sex-trafficking ring piled up like delinquency notices at the Massachusetts RMV (but that’s another story).

Finally, it appeared, this wretched specimen of a man—friend of presidents and princes, who successfully bought his way into high society, even after registering as a level-three sex offender—would face the full force of the American justice system, providing his countless victims at least a small measure of rectitude.

But that all ended last Saturday when Epstein wrapped a bedsheet around his neck and shuffled off to the great beyond.  He may well be burning in hell and his estate may soon be torn apart limb from limb, but Epstein himself will never be found guilty by a jury of his peers, will never be confronted by his accusers in open court, will never be able to confess or repent for his sins, nor to formally repay his debt to society by rotting away in prison, where he so richly belonged.

Death may or may not be a fate worse than life behind bars, but as far as we here on Earth are concerned, Jeffrey Epstein spent decades getting away with committing the most heinous crimes imaginable, and when the going finally got tough, he channeled his inner Groucho and said to the world, “Hello, I must be going.”

The arc of the moral universe is long, and sometimes it bends toward scumbags.

Such, I fear, is how it will go for Donald Trump:  He will continue to flout every law and convention he finds inconvenient; he will continue not to be held to account for them by the American legal system, Congress or the general public; and when his moment of reckoning finally arrives, he will slink off, ever-so-adroitly, to the great Taco Bell in the sky.

Following the Mueller report—and subsequent testimony of Robert Mueller himself—it has been firmly established that Trump cannot be indicted for any criminal offense while he is in office, thanks to a Justice Department policy asserting, in effect, that the leader of the free world is simply too preoccupied to adhere to such trivialities as the Constitution and rule of law. 

What’s more, should Trump manage to be re-elected next November, the statute of limitations for several of the crimes of which he stands accused will lapse before he returns to private life in January 2025.  And make no mistake:  Barring some major national catastrophe, he will be re-elected next November.

The fact is, historically-speaking, American presidents are like casinos:  In the end, the (White) House always wins.  Lest we forget, even Richard Nixon—the one commander-in-chief who was actually hounded from office ahead of schedule—was granted lifetime immunity from prosecution via a blanket pardon from his hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford.  If need be, does anyone in America believe Mike Pence would hesitate for a moment to take that precedent and run with it?

True:  Presidential pardons can only be granted for federal crimes, not state ones, which means investigations undertaken by, say, the New York attorney general would remain fair game should Trump be defeated next November and return to his Trump Tower penthouse, alive and in one piece, on January 20, 2021.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a rather flimsy reed on which to hang all of one’s hopes for justice ever catching up to America’s worst president.  While we can bank all we want on the assumption that Trump will become the first incumbent in a quarter-century to be unceremoniously dumped by the electorate after four measly years, I find considerably more stock in the old I.F. Stone adage, “History is a tragedy, not a morality tale.” 

Trump does tragedy better than almost any living human being.  And that, among other things, is what makes his presidency such a farce.

The Ultimate Aphrodisiac

American liberals have caught a lot of flak this season—some of it deserved—for the rigid purity tests they’ve imposed on the men and women auditioning to be the next president of the United States.

As irritating as this moral posturing tends to be, please indulge me one small litmus test of my own:  In November 2020, I will not vote for any candidate who has been credibly accused of rape.

Admittedly, this doesn’t seem like a terribly lot to ask of the would-be most powerful person on Earth—the man or woman who is supposed to be a role model for America’s children and grownups alike.

However, recent history would suggest otherwise.

If polls are to be believed, there is a certain chunk of the American electorate—somewhere north of 40 percent, at minimum—that does not consider accusations of sexual assault to be a deal-breaker for a future (or sitting) commander-in-chief.  This was first demonstrated two decades ago by the continued sky-high approval ratings for Bill Clinton following the rape allegation leveled by Juanita Broaddrick in 1999, and later confirmed by the election of the current chief executive, Donald Trump, whose penchant for grabbing women’s nether regions uninvited was exposed by the candidate himself (via “Access Hollywood”) in October 2016 and by more than a dozen women at regular intervals ever since.

It’s worth noting—in case it wasn’t obvious—that this implicit condoning of felonious, predatory sexual behavior by America’s head of state is not a one-party problem.  Liberals and conservatives have both been complicit, and both are guilty of gross hypocrisy on the matter.  For most Americans, it would seem, the morality of sexual violence by politicians is largely a function of time:  When the opposing party is in power, rape is bad.  When one’s own party is in power, rape is negotiable.

At the moment, of course, it’s Republicans who have disgraced themselves on the question of whether sexual assault is a good idea, thanks—most recently—to the disturbing revelations by E. Jean Carroll in New York Magazine.

In case you missed it, Carroll has claimed that Trump forced himself on her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s, which she tried—unsuccessfully—to resist.  While Carroll herself insists the encounter did not amount to rape and does not want to be viewed as a helpless victim, it is extremely difficult to read the details of her account and reach any other conclusion.

This bombshell initially landed on June 21 and, following a weekend of radio silence, was picked up by a handful of news organizations, which gave it enough oxygen to force the president to deny the incident ever occurred, adding—as only he can—“[Carroll] is not my type.”

In the weeks since, the whole nasty business has all but evaporated from the public consciousness, replaced by newer, flashier headlines on other subjects.  As with so much else, the prospect that the president once committed a violent sexual assault ended up being a three-day story, at most.  Ultimately, the public shrugged and moved on to other things.

It begs the question:  Why?

Are our attention spans so short that serious allegations of rape simply don’t register like they used to?  Are we so fatigued and fatalistic about this president’s long history of indiscretions that we have given up differentiating one from another?  Nearly two years into #MeToo, do we not believe E. Jean Carroll is telling the truth, or that her memory is faulty?

Or is it possible that we actually like the idea of a president who is effectively above the law?  Who can do whatever he wants and get off scot-free?  Who is exempt from all the usual rules of ethics and common decency?  Who can rape somebody on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

We don’t admit this out loud, of course.  We use euphemisms like “He’s politically incorrect,” or “He tells it like it is,” or my personal favorite, “He’s not a politician.”

Whichever option is closest to the truth, the underlying rationalization is that any level of unscrupulousness and corruption by the Dear Leader is tolerable so long as he ultimately gives his constituents what they want. 

Trump, for his part, has long been described as a purely transactional figure—someone for whom the ends always justify the means and the notion of right and wrong is a foreign concept.  Less remarked upon—but no less important—is that the general public is transactional as well, and is prepared to forgive any number of shortcomings in service of a greater good.

Hence Trump’s consistently stratospheric approval ratings among Republicans.  After all, if you voted for him on the grounds that he would cut your taxes, appoint conservative judges and make refugees’ lives a living hell, why wouldn’t you be happy with the way this presidency has panned out thus far?

The left can crow all it wants about what a sordid ethical compromise Trump’s base has made, but Democrats’ moral superiority is only as good as the next president of their own party.  Liberals were perfectly happy to excuse every one of Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos while he was in power and carrying out their agenda (such as it was).  While they have had a radical change of heart in recent years, I cannot help but wonder if they would feel differently if The Man From Hope were still in the Oval Office today.

Henry Kissinger famously said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and it turns out that applies not only to those exercising power, but also to the many millions of beneficiaries of it.  It’s a pretty ugly sight when roughly half the nation consciously accepts a credibly accused rapist as the instrument of their political ends, but then one reason we have elections is to correct course, as America stands to do on November 3, 2020.  While there’s more to the presidency than not being a sexual criminal, it’s a perfectly decent place to start.

Perhaps electing a woman would do the trick.

Et Tu, Neil?

I could’ve gone my entire life without knowing Neil deGrasse Tyson has been accused of committing rape in the early 1980s, and of other sexual improprieties in the years since.  There are few public figures in America whom I hold in higher esteem or affection than the director of the Hayden Planetarium and astrophysicist extraordinaire, so the possibility that he is a sexual predator is almost too much to bear.  Indeed, when I first heard the disconcerting stories a few weeks ago, my instinct was to assume they weren’t true—based not on the evidence, mind you, as on the fact that a world in which Neil deGrasse Tyson is a bad person is one not entirely worth living in.

I exaggerate, but only just.  The fact is, supporting #MeToo is easy when it comes to obvious scumbags like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump.  But when the alleged offender is someone you always assumed was one of the good guys—in this case, the guy who taught you almost everything you know about astrophysics, and always with an enthusiasm you wish you’d encountered more in high school—well, that’s when the hemming and hawing begins.

Briefly—and in reverse chronological order—the charges against Tyson are as follows:  First, that earlier this year he made unwanted sexual advances toward an assistant in his apartment.  Second, that in 2010 he made similar—in this case, drunken—advances toward a different woman at a Christmas party.  Third, that in 2009 he reached under a different woman’s dress during a social event at a science conference, ostensibly in search of a tattoo of the planet Pluto.  And forth, that in 1984, he drugged and raped a classmate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a graduate student at the time.

Tyson has denied the rape charge—as one does—writing in a lengthy Facebook post that he and his accuser had been “intimate” on a few occasions and then went their separate ways, and that nothing even approaching sexual assault ever occurred.  No surprise there—in the absence of direct physical evidence, no man so accused would comport himself any differently.

More interesting was Tyson’s response to the more recent charges, which was to confirm that they’re true—albeit with qualifiers and clarifications.  He affirmed, for example, that one evening he hosted an assistant for wine and cheese at his apartment, at one point telling her, “If I hug you, I might just want more,” and that shortly thereafter, the woman “came into my office and told me she was creeped out” by the encounter and “viewed the invite as an attempt to seduce her.”

As to the reaching-under-the-dress incident, Tyson explained that he was admiring a tattoo of the solar system across the arm of the woman in question, which led to “a search under the covered part of her shoulder of [her] sleeveless dress.”  Tyson continued, “While I don’t explicitly remember searching for Pluto at the top of her shoulder, it is surely something I would have done in that situation.  As we all know, I have professional history with the demotion of Pluto, which had occurred officially just three years earlier.  So whether people include it or not in their tattoos is of great interest to me.”

I don’t know about you, but to me this explanation makes absolutely perfect sense.  Having followed Tyson’s career for many years, I find it utterly believable that he would become so giddy over a colleague’s planetary tattoos that he would inadvertently grope her arm just to get a closer look—presumably while launching into an impromptu lecture about, say, the moons of Saturn or the Mars rover.  That’s who Neil deGrasse Tyson is:  A born showman and educator with a childlike infatuation with all things astrophysics.

Of course, this by itself neither substitutes for nor excuses a grown-up infatuation with human flesh, and if a woman claims to have been made uncomfortable by this encounter, it’s not my place to tell her she wasn’t.  Unwanted physical contact is exactly that—unwanted—and being a world-renowned public intellectual does not exempt one from behaving responsibly at all times—not least because of the inherent power differential that comes with the fame and fortune that Tyson has long enjoyed.

To a degree, Tyson has assumed responsibility for the incidents I’ve just described, writing that he apologized profusely” to his assistant the moment she informed him of her concerns, and that, with regards to the woman with the tattoo, “I’m deeply sorry to have made her feel that way.  Had I been told of her discomfort in the moment, I would have offered this same apology eagerly, and on the spot.”

Perhaps more to the point, Tyson has copped to the morally suspect position in which he now finds himself, writing, “I’m the accused, so why believe anything I say?  Why believe me at all?  That brings us back to the value of an independent investigation, which FOX/NatGeo (the networks on which Cosmos and StarTalk air) announced that they will conduct.  I welcome this.”

I don’t doubt it.  Would that more of the men ensnarled by #MeToo possessed the self-awareness and restraint to get out of their own way in this fashion—rather than, say, immediately painting themselves as the true victims and their accusers as lying opportunists and/or deranged stalkers.

As accused sexual predators go, Tyson has carried himself about as well as could reasonably be expected.  Should the pending investigation find the worst allegations unfoundedand the lesser ones as mere misunderstandingsI would feel entirely comfortable resuming my full-bore fandom of his work.

And should the rape allegation prove credible, and the accuser worth believing?  Well, we’ll always have Cosmos.

Kaspersky Password Manager

Create a strong password for your account

CREATE

Do not show again

Rose’s Turn

If you’d asked me a week ago to list my 25 favorite Americans whom I haven’t personally met, Charlie Rose may well have been among them.  I have watched Rose’s eponymous PBS program regularly for the better part of a decade now, plowing through hundreds (if not thousands) of interviews with people from every imaginable walk of life—political leaders, filmmakers, musicians, authors, historians, scientists, businesspeople, fellow journalists—you name ’em, Charlie’s interviewed ’em—and I cannot conceive of my life as an active global citizen without having done so for so long.

In a media ecosystem that tends to value screaming over substance and certainty over wisdom, Rose has truly been a godsend, drawing out more knowledge and insight about the world around us than any other TV newsman in the last 25 years.  The Spartan set of his studio—a large round oak table surrounded by darkness—embodied the simple, unpretentious mission of Rose’s program:  To bring an understanding of a given issue to a wide audience through conversation between serious-minded individuals.  With the possible exception of C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, he did this better than anybody in the business.

If you want a shorthand for how Rose comported himself in his job—and why it proved so darned engaging day in and day out—just imagine if Larry King had bothered to study up on his nightly guests more than ten minutes before the show began—and had he truly cared what they had to say once it did.

Like King, Rose was adept at the rare—and increasingly rarefied—art of allowing his guests to talk for extended periods without interruption and to take the conversation in any direction they chose.  Unlike King, Rose was unfailingly curious and well-read about whatever the topic at hand happened to be—indeed, he seldom if ever booked a guest to whom he showed indifference or dislike—and was equally in his element with Bashar al-Assad as he was with Amy Schumer.

Never content merely to plug some actor’s new movie or boost a rising senator’s presidential prospects, Rose always made his best effort to cut right to the heart of a question, probing his subjects about what truly drives them to do what they do:  What is it, precisely, that gets them out of bed in the morning?  What does success mean to them?  What have they learned from failure?  What makes them happy?  What, in short, is their own personal meaning of life?

Naturally, not everyone who came to Rose’s table was up to the challenge of having their souls plumbed for deeper meaning.  However, a great majority of them were—including many who tend to be reticent in other settings—and those interviews are treasures to behold, and are available for viewing in their entirety at CharlieRose.com, where I will continue to spend time on a fairly regular basis.

However, over the last week, a big fat asterisk has affixed itself to all that I have just written, following a devastating report in the Washington Post about Rose’s secret history of sexually abusing and intimidating at least eight different women in his employ—behavior that ranged from traipsing around hotel rooms in an open bathrobe to forcibly kissing and touching would-be romantic partners to angrily firing those who rejected his advances, potentially ending their careers as a result.

Indeed, from details in the Post story alone, Charlie Rose would seem to be the Harvey Weinstein of broadcast television—a perfect scumbag whose libido and sense of male entitlement are almost farcical in their reckless audacity.

Reading these women’s accounts in full—as I did when the story broke last Monday—felt very nearly like a personal betrayal.  Despite having never met the man, nor frankly known much about him beyond what he presented when the cameras were rolling, Rose had long struck me as a fundamentally decent and respectable elder statesman of news media—a true gentleman whom I could (and did) trust to present the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about how the world really works—up to and including the problem of sexual assault in and out of the workplace.

That he, of all people, would turn out to be a Dirty Old Man who treats women as pure flesh and is so clueless about human nature that he had no idea of his predatory tendencies until he read about them in the Washington Post—well, it’s enough to make you wonder whether the Founding Fathers had it exactly backwards in granting full citizenship exclusively to landowning white men.  Whether, indeed, it might not be such a crazy idea to bar all men from positions of power until (to coin a phrase) we know what’s going on.

In any case, speaking as someone who can occasionally differentiate right from wrong, I understand why Charlie Rose will not—and should not—be allowed on television for a very long time, if ever, and that my continued viewing of old episodes of his show is, for the most part, indefensible.  For all the enjoyment his interviews have given me over the years—right up until last week, in fact—I accept that his fall from grace is a small price to pay for a society in which women’s job security and physical safety are not determined by the carnal urges of the men who sign their paychecks.

All the same, I cannot help but echo the reaction of Gayle King, Rose’s CBS This Morning co-host (along with Norah O’Donnell), who expressed an equal measure of disgust and sadness at the revelation that our boy Charlie is not the man we thought he was—that his periodic and rather creepy on-air flirting with female guests was a massive red flag that no one in authority was willing to see or do anything about.  As King explained to multiple outlets in the days after Rose was banished from CBS and PBS for good, one can be disgusted by behavior that is reprehensible and destructive while retaining a degree of affection for a person one has come to know and love and who, in his better moments, was undeniably charming and respectful to men and women alike.

The truth is that it is extraordinarily difficult to have your entire perception of another person negated in an instant and be able to adjust your loyalties accordingly.  As liberals are continually learning about Trump supporters—and as conservatives learned about many Obama voters before that—once you convince yourself of the inherent goodness of a given individual, it takes an awful lot of bad behavior on his or her part to alter your basic conclusion as to what kind of a person he or she truly is.  Once your initial opinion is established, confirmation bias kicks in and protects you from inconvenient information that might lead you to unattractive truths.

One solution to this conundrum is to be a lot more skeptical about your own assumptions, mindful of Mark Twain’s famous observation, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble:  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Over the past year, there have been a great many things I knew for sure that were proved false by human events, not the least of which was the notion that a man who systematically—and openly—treats women horribly could never be elected president of the United States.  You’d think that fact alone would’ve steeled me against being surprised by anything ever again, and perhaps the truth about Charlie Rose will snap me out of my naïveté once and for all, just as the revelations about other celebrities have snapped other people out of theirs.

I just wish I could be more confident that I won’t be proved wrong about that, too.

The Moore You Know

What America giveth, America can also taketh away.

If the women (and sane men) of this country have been feeling pretty good lately about the swift and sudden accountability that has met certain prominent men accused of inappropriate—and, in many cases, felonious—sexual conduct over the years, that hopefulness is being severely tempered down south, where the good people of Alabama are about to send a pedophile to the U.S. Senate.

The pedophile in question is one Roy Moore, a former judge and religious fanatic who has twice been yanked from his courtroom perch after refusing to enforce laws he found personally inconvenient, and who has been known to publicly suggest (among other things) that 9/11 was divine retribution for America’s sins and that gay sex is “a crime against nature, an inherent evil, and an act so heinous that it defies one’s ability to describe it”—the latter suggesting more about the man’s internet viewing habits than he perhaps intended.

This being Alabama—the most religious state in the union, according to Pew—Moore’s strutting Christian authoritarianism had already made him the odds-on favorite in his state’s special Senate election on December 12.  However, now that Moore has been accused of sexual harassment and/or assault by no less than six women—most of whom were underage at the time—his victory against Democrat Doug Jones seems all but guaranteed.  Indeed, if the latest polling is any indication, Moore’s in-state popularity has only grown as the claims of sexual misconduct have piled up.

In an earlier era—say, 13 months ago—such a scenario would’ve seemed unthinkable in America—not to mention dangerous, appalling, depressing and grotesque.

Here in the penultimate month of 2017, the prospect of a known serial predator being elected to the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body is still dangerous, appalling, depressing and grotesque—but it is also just about the most thinkable thing in American politics.  Roy Moore will, in fact, be the next senator from Alabama, he will not be expelled by his 99 chamber mates when he arrives (contrary to rumor), and he will serve there at least until his first term expires in January 2021.

How do I know this?  Because I lived through all 366 miserable days of 2016—including the one involving the sentence, “Grab ’em by the pussy”—and I know history repeating itself when I see it.  If Donald Trump was the tragedy, Roy Moore is the farce.

One need not be a political scientist to notice the cascade of similarities between last year’s rise of Trump and this year’s rise of Moore:  Both entered their campaigns as objects of national ridicule and disgrace.  Both are known for irresponsible, inflammatory comments on divisive cultural issues and a general contempt for those with whom they disagree.  Both are profoundly immature and obsessed with maintaining their oh-so-fragile sense of alpha superiority.  Both have been able to parlay that über-masculinity into a Stalin-esque personality cult among their most loyal fans.  Both have become so convinced of their infallibility that they never, under any circumstances, admit any fault or assume any personal responsibility.

Finally—and, at the moment, most importantly—both Trump and Moore have been presented with credible evidence of having behaved criminally toward multiple women (at least 12, in Trump’s case), both have faced calls within their own party to drop out of their respective races (Trump after the Access Hollywood incident) and, in denying all accusations, both have flatly and defiantly pledged to fight on to the end, claiming they themselves—not their accusers—are the real victims in this story.

All that remains to be seen is whether lightning can strike twice—whether, for the second year in a row, an obviously and flamboyantly unqualified political candidate can stonewall his way to victory in the face of all common sense, potential criminal charges, and every law of political gravity.

Let’s not kid ourselves, folks:  If America can make a pussy-grabber president, Alabama can make a pedophile senator.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

I came out of the closet far later in life than I should have, and when I finally decided to go through with it, it was largely out of fear of becoming Jim McGreevey.

McGreevey, you may or may not recall, was the openly straight governor of New Jersey—complete with a wife and two kids—who was forced to resign in 2004 following a sexual harassment claim from a male underling.

Finding himself boxed in by events of his own making, McGreevey opted to kill two birds with one stone by stepping down and coming out at the exact same moment.  “My truth is that I am a gay American,” said McGreevey at the press conference that would end his career, adding, “I engaged in an adult consensual affair with another man, which violates my bonds of matrimony.  It was wrong.  It was foolish.  It was inexcusable.”

It took McGreevey 47 years and two marriages to work up the nerve to reveal his true self to the world, and were it not for the sordid circumstances that more-or-less forced his hand, he may well have gone to his grave without owning up to who he really is, denying himself the chance to pursue a happiness that every straight American takes for granted.

What a sad little life that would’ve been—and what a rotten way to free himself from it once and for all.

To a then-closet case like me, McGreevey’s misadventures were a major wake-up call as to the miseries that come from living a lie for decades on end, be they sham marriages or professional ruin.  While I had no immediate plans to run for statewide office, I determined then and there that my own coming out would occur entirely on my own terms and long before I entered middle age and made a series of irreparable, self-defeating life choices.

In the end, I succeeded on both fronts, and though I hadn’t thought of McGreevey for quite some time, recent events have caused me to consider his case anew—and also to reflect how McGreevey is no longer the gold standard for how not to announce your homosexuality in public.

The new champion in that department is Kevin Spacey, the beloved Oscar-winning star of stage and screen, who confirmed his long-rumored queerness in late October after being accused of sexually assaulting the actor Anthony Rapp at a house party when Rapp was 14 years old.  In a widely-panned “apology,” Spacey claimed no recollection of the incident in question, proffering that he must’ve been six sheets to the wind and (by implication) behaving totally out of character.

In the fullness of time—i.e., within a couple days—it became clear that Spacey’s plea of ignorance was a big bucket of baloney:  He had, in fact, engaged in decades of predatory sexual behavior toward vulnerable teenage boys, several of whom have since come forward with their stories of abuse—all backed up by assurances that, within the Hollywood bubble, Spacey’s secret life of pederasty was no secret at all.

Initially, Spacey attempted to spin this horrific saga of sexual menace into an inspiring Big Reveal about his complicated sexual identity—and, in so doing, resurrecting the toxic age-old assumption that every gay man is a pedophile at heart—and major news organizations went along with it until the collective wrath of Twitter forced them to see the forest beyond the trees.

And yet, to my mind, Spacey’s life is a cautionary tale about the consequences of living duplicitously, which in certain ways is a uniquely gay problem.  While very few gay men share Spacey’s predilection for underage boys—let alone the pathology and chutzpah to act upon it—it stands to reason that anyone who chooses to conceal his true sexual desires for an extended period will inevitably be prone to unsavory (if not outright immoral) expressions of those desires at some point down the road.

Hence the imperative for every gay person to come out as soon as humanly possible.

Just as marriage can serve as a stabilizing force in any halfway-meaningful relationship, so does the act of coming out enable one to behave in a healthier, more mature fashion in virtually every aspect of life—not least in the physical realm.  This is precisely why marriage has so long been regarded as the brass ring in the LGBT rights movement:  By legitimizing same-sex unions, society encourages openness between consenting adults and the broader public, thereby reducing the prevalence of the sort of surreptitious—and morally fraught—sexual encounters that anti-gay crusaders are supposedly so concerned about in the first place.

The implication here—totally unprovable, of course—is that had Kevin Spacey summoned the courage to embrace his gay identity early in his career—and had Hollywood fostered an environment where such a thing were feasible for a talented and ambitious actor—he might not have felt the need to slink around at parties and in bars in search of fresh meat.

Then again, maybe not.  Perhaps Spacey is simply a dirty old man who enjoys feeling up clean young men, and no amount of social acceptance of LGBT folk would’ve made a dime’s worth of difference in how he behaved when the movie cameras were turned off.  You certainly can’t blame the booze:  I’ve been drunk as much as anyone in my time—both in and out of the closet—and never once found my hands creeping into places they shouldn’t be (except maybe the cookie jar).

All the same, the fall of Kevin Spacey—like the fall of Jim McGreevey—is a critical reality check for anyone who thinks he can maintain some grand fiction about his sexuality from one end of his life to the other and somehow not cause others (or himself) any pain along the way.

In fact, you can’t, and you’d best not even try.  There is no happiness in the closet, and to be gay is to come out—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

28 Days Later

Amidst all the sludge and dreck of the 2016 presidential campaign, over the weekend I was presented with a small but extremely welcome silver lining:  It will all be over much sooner than I thought.

To be precise, where I live in Massachusetts, it will be over on October 24.  In roughly a dozen other states it’s over already, and in any case, fully two-thirds of the country will be done with this wretched election sometime prior to November 8.

I’m referring here to so-called “early voting,” whereby you can essentially stop by your local precinct and cast your ballot whenever you damn well please, without or without a concrete reason.  As with absentee voting, the idea is that Americans lead busy, distracted lives and shouldn’t need to compromise their packed schedules in order to participate in the most important civic duty on planet Earth.  In short:  If voting is really as important as we claim, why limit it to a single calendar day?

More to the point—and in this of all years—voting early (if not often) carries the irresistible added benefit of hurling the memory of this election into oblivion as soon as humanly possible.

Yes, yes:  I understand the 2016 campaign will not literally end—and the winner will not officially be declared—until after the last vote is deposited on Election Day itself.  But I have followed the Clinton-Trump fracas day in and day out since (or, rather, before) the very beginning, and I am as convinced as I can be that the physical act of marking a ballot—no matter how prematurely—will produce such a profound catharsis for the person casting it that he or she will immediately tune out any and all further nonsense that occurs between that moment and the final results late on November 8.

And why is that, boys and girls?  Because over the last few days, this campaign has ceased being amusing and simply become sad.  Even for me—with my high tolerance for political tomfoolery and perverted sense of what constitutes entertainment—the sheer unpleasantness of recent events between our two major candidates has engendered real doubts as to whether this contest will endure for another four weeks without the entire electorate joining hands and leaping into the Grand Canyon.

Above all, of course, I’m thinking of Sunday night’s debate in St. Louis, where Clinton and Trump—but mostly just Trump—abandoned whatever semblance of high-mindedness they had left and proceeded to tear each other to shreds over the most tawdry subject matter that has ever made its way into a presidential forum.  Triggered by the recently-leaked audio tape in which Trump boasts of his proclivity for sexual assault (yup, that really happened), the candidates spent the first half-hour of their time arguing, more or less, about whether Hillary being married to a sexual predator is better or worse than Trump being a sexual predator himself.

On this question, we are once again compelled to accept that two seemingly contradictory facts can be true at the same time:  First, that Hillary’s role in smearing her husband’s alleged victims is among the most unattractive components of her career in public life; and second, that Trump’s own behavior toward women over the last several decades is infinitely worse, infinitely creepier and infinitely more disqualifying for someone seeking the highest office in the land.

For the zillionth time:  They’re both bad, but one of them is a whole lot worse, and we have a moral obligation to differentiate between different degrees of awfulness.  If our response to two imperfect options is to throw up our hands and say, “We’re doomed either way,” then our nihilism will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.  In the end, you get the country you deserve.

And boy did we deserve that debate.  It was arguably the most depressing 90 minutes of this entire campaign, and every moment carried a subtext of chickens coming home to roost for everyone involved—the candidates, the media and the 65 million folks despondently watching at home.

Indeed, in an odd way, the debate served as a near-perfect encapsulation of exactly what Americans’ choices over the last 15 months have wrought, for it allowed us to see our candidates for exactly who they are:  A pair of shifty, desperate, unscrupulous cynics, one of whom at least has the decency to know how government works and to truly grasp all the responsibilities that the American presidency entails.

Entering Sunday’s match in the guise of a human Molotov cocktail, Trump succeeded in wounding Clinton every now and again—say, by underlining her highly-checkered record on Iraq and Syria, or by repeating Bernie Sanders’s classic tropes about her shady dealings with Wall Street—all the while confirming every worst impression we’ve ever had about him.  (In the interest of time, we will refrain from listing them here.)

It was a moment of truth for us all, and a suggestion—even more than Friday’s disgusting tape—that this election has essentially played itself out.  At this moment, we have nothing left to learn about either of these political standard-bearers except for supporting details about everything that we already knew.  All the true surprises have come and gone, and the next 28 days will be nothing more than variations on the same tired themes.

This is not to say that we should withdraw from this ongoing major news event altogether, or that we should take our eye off the dwindling (but still potent) number of idiots who have yet to make up their mind.

And yet—if the most recent polling is to be believed—yeah, actually, we sorta can.  Barring the most dramatic plot twist in modern political history, this election is fundamentally over and the only remaining tension concerns the color of Trump’s face when he discovers, once and for all, that he’s a big, fat, racist loser.

Meanwhile—as we wait for that priceless image to congeal—we have the enormous consolation of early voting to keep us sane.  Here in Massachusetts, I will be washing my hands of this ridiculousness the moment the polls open on October 24, and I invite every eligible early voter to join me in that happy civic expedition.

Not Just Cosby

What if Bill Clinton were a rapist?

It’s a thought that no liberal would ever want to consider, and I doubt many conservatives have spent much time with it, either.

We all know that America’s 42nd president is a serial philanderer—after all, we spent a full year forcing him to say so under oath—but we have always been able to console ourselves with the fact that, hey, at least it was consensual.  His relationships with Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, however tawdry, were each the work of two willing participants, even if one of them was president of the United States.

True, Paula Jones famously accused Clinton of making unwanted sexual advances toward her while he was governor of Arkansas, but a judge subsequently ruled that she had failed to prove her case, thereby allowing us to safely move on with our lives and go back to admiring Clinton as the political wunderkind and all-around good-old-boy that he is.  No harm, no foul.

Would that it were true.

Unfortunately, in the long, ridiculous saga of Bill Clinton’s sexual adventures with women who are not his wife, there is one woman in particular whose story, if true, would force us to reassess our whole perspective of this man who, 14 years removed from the presidency, is still arguably the most beloved living American politician, both here and abroad.

The woman’s name is Juanita Broaddrick.  In 1998, she asserted on Dateline NBC that in 1978—when she worked at a nursing home and Clinton was Arkansas’s attorney general—Clinton got her alone in a hotel room, held her down on the bed against her will and raped her.

This 1998 interview was the first time Broaddrick publicly accused Clinton of sexual assault, although several friends of hers knew about the alleged incident at the time.  The case never went to trial, and when Broaddrick attempted to sue the president for key documents, the case was thrown out by a judge.

While there was some coverage of this story when it first broke, Broaddrick was largely drowned out by the far juicier bombshell surrounding Monica Lewinsky, which was commanding the nation’s attention at roughly the same time.  As well, it certainly didn’t help that Broaddrick’s account contained inconsistencies that likely would have doomed her had she ever managed to drag the president into court.

And yet, to this day, Broaddrick has never recanted her story, Clinton hasn’t said a word in his defense except through his lawyers, and there is no conclusive evidence that Broaddrick’s allegation is false.  To the contrary, all available public records indicate that both she and Clinton were in the same town at the time of the alleged rape, and that Clinton had no official business on that day.  If there are any documents that would make Broaddrick’s story impossible, the Clinton camp hasn’t bothered to release them.

In summary:  A woman has accused Bill Clinton of rape and we have no definitive reason to doubt her.

The question, then, is why doesn’t anyone care?  Or, for that matter, why doesn’t anyone even know?

In this of all years, you’d think someone might be interested in the fact that one of the most powerful and adored men in politics might—just might—be a sexual predator.

After all, we are still smarting from the seemingly endless procession of women who claim—credibly—to have been sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, himself formerly the most revered of figures in the worlds of television and stand-up comedy.

As a culture, we have decided that it is no longer fashionable for a rich and powerful man to drug, assault or otherwise prey upon vulnerable women, and that when he is found to have done so, it is our duty to publicly shun him until the wheels of justice begin to churn or, failing that, until he’s dead.

And so I wonder:  Does this principle apply to all rich and powerful men, or just to Bill Cosby?

I understand that being accused of rape by 35 women is not the same as being accused by one.  There are only so many hours in the day for us to pillory America’s most serious sexual criminals, and priority must be given to those whose behavior is outright pathological.

On the other hand, if our underlying premises are that a) rape is bad, and b) rape by the powerful unto the weak is even worse, then by what possible rationale could we continue to pretend Juanita Broaddrick doesn’t exist and her accusation was never made?

Apart from their sheer size, what legitimacy do Cosby’s accusers possess that Clinton’s does not?  Why should we listen to the former but not the latter?  Do we only care about rape victims when they present as a group, rather than as individuals?  Or is it simply that we like Bill Clinton too much to entertain the notion that he might secretly be a monster?

On the whole, I suspect that most of us simply haven’t been aware of this story these past 17 years, just as most of us had no idea about the allegations against Cosby until a fellow comedian, Hannibal Buress, brought them to our attention.  While this fact is, itself, a major concern for anyone who wishes to protect victims of sexual assault, the far more troubling prospect is that a certain number of us were in the know about Clinton and have simply kept quiet.

You tell me:  What allows us to justify our silence in the face of compelling, if circumstantial, evidence?

Sure, we could simply assume that Broaddrick is lying.  That she is crazy, deluded or nursing some kind of grudge against Clinton for God knows what.

Historically, that’s what we’re accustomed to:  Blaming the victim, turning the accusation on its head, brushing off any rumors of impropriety against our political and cultural idols on the grounds that they couldn’t possibly be guilty, because what would that say about us?

We could ask why, if the rape really happened, Broaddrick waited two decades to say so publicly.  Except that, in today’s culture, the question answers itself.  If and when an unsuspecting, private person is sexually mistreated by a respected public figure—someone who, in this case, was the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official—would she not be right to assume that no one would believe her story, and that her life might be irreparably harmed by the ensuing media ruckus?

In any case, that’s what Broaddrick claimed at the time.  In light of how the Clintons have treated women who we know were telling the truth—calling them liars, stalkers and publicity hounds—it’s hard to argue with her logic.

Really, though, our problem is that we just don’t want it to be true.

We like our heroes as virtuous, two-dimensional demigods.  We don’t want to reckon with the fact that the people we admire are just as complicated as the rest of us, and even though we know, deep down, that they are—of course they are!—we cling to our illusions of perfection for as long as we possibly can.  And when it is suggested that these kings and queens of American culture are not just flawed, but criminally flawed, that’s when we stick our fingers in our ears and sing, “La, la, la, la, la!”

With Clinton, we have just enough reasonable doubt to keep our uneasiness at bay, plodding along as if everything is just fine.  Because, hey, maybe it is.

We had better hope so, for the sake of him, Broaddrick and the country at large.

But should we wake up one day and find that a certified liar and adulterer is also a sexual assailant—nearly two decades after the possibility was first floated—we would have no right to be surprised.

We have turned on backs on Cosby.  Are we prepared to do the same for Clinton?  Or do we need 34 more women to come forward before it dawns on us that something might be wrong?

Loving the Sinner

We have faced the question many times before:  Is it possible to appreciate a work of art knowing that its creator did a terrible thing?

Do the flaws of an artist detract from the greatness of his art?  When a person is found to have committed the most unforgivable crimes, should his work be publicly shunned along with him, or are we permitted—ethically and/or intellectually—to separate one from the other?

Generally speaking, I have long found that reconciliation is indeed possible, and probably necessary most of the time.  While circumstances vary, we just might need to accept that all humans are flawed and the search for great achievements will inevitably be fraught with some unsavory characters.

To wit:  I can marvel at Ty Cobb’s near-superhuman baseball playing abilities while acknowledging that Cobb was a racist buffoon.  I can admire Thomas Jefferson’s sentiments about freedom and equality knowing how violently and deliberately he violated those principles all through his life.  I’m not especially taken by the paintings of Adolph Hitler, but if I was, I wouldn’t allow the evils of their creator to prevent me from saying so.

Art is art, for better and for worse, and it ought to be considered on its own merits.

However, even if we take all of this to be true—and many people firmly do not—we are left with several essential unresolved issues.  Not least among these is the question of what to do with such undesirables while they’re still walking among us, and whether we ought to avoid going out of our way to honor them for their creative pursuits, both as a culture and in our own minds.

Which brings us to Woody Allen.

As many are now aware, the 78-year-old movie director stands accused of sexually assaulting the seven-year-old adopted daughter of Allen and his then-partner, Mia Farrow.

Dylan Farrow, the alleged victim, first leveled this charge of rape in 1992, and the whole nasty business was resurrected this past weekend when she submitted an open letter restating her case to the New York Times, apparently inspired by Allen’s receiving a life achievement award at last month’s Golden Globes.

Allen has never been formally prosecuted for the crime in question, let alone found guilty.  He has always denied the alleged incident ever occurred; Farrow has always maintained that it did.  There is no definitive evidence either way.  Unless and until further details come to light, it’s a good old “he said, she said” situation.  Considering that the would-be prosecutor now says the statute of limitations has elapsed, it will likely remain as such.

Officially, this is all old news.  However, I must admit that, until very recently, I was completely oblivious to the whole bloody thing.  I knew all about Allen’s unusual marriage to Soon-Yi Previn—some scandals are simply unavoidable—but somehow the Dylan Farrow accusation eluded me.  I’d like to think this cultural blind spot was simply a consequence of my general policy of not caring about the private lives of public figures, but I now suspect I was subconsciously suppressing any urge to seek out information about Allen that would reduce his standing in the cinematic hierarchy in my head.

You see, my admiration for Woody Allen as a filmmaker is not casual.  I was introduced to his best works at a fairly young age.  I can probably quote Annie Hall by heart.  On some days, his Hannah and Her Sisters is my favorite of all movies, and I could happily watch it every week for the remainder of my natural life.

Yet I am inclined to believe Dylan Farrow is telling the truth, which means I worship at the cinematic alter of a rapist.  What is more, a rapist who is still alive and making movies, and so every time I buy a ticket, some of that money goes directly into Allen’s pocket.

Under these circumstances, the obvious moral thing to do would be to take Farrow’s advice and turn my back on Allen with some sort of one-person boycott.  Stop watching his films, stop singing his praises, stop acting like his alleged personal behavior is not utterly abhorrent and can be somehow brushed aside.

And yet, at least on the first two points, I can’t.  Or rather, I won’t.

The films of Woody Allen mean too much to me.  I could not do without them any more than I could Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” or the music of rock ‘n’ rollers whose abuses of women and drugs were as bottomless as they were repugnant.

As is so often the case, I must perform a cop-out and simply live with the contradiction, accepting the ugly possibility that the provider of some of my life’s greatest pleasures is also responsible for inflicting on others the most unimaginable pain.