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Carol Platt Liebau - Columnist

Carol Platt Liebau is a senior member of the editorial board. She is an attorney, political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA, and has appeared on the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN, Orange County News Channel, Cox Cable and a variety of radio programs throughout the United States. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Carol Platt Liebau also served as the first female managing editor of the Harvard Law Review.


Grappling With Groping
Taking Sexual Impropriety Seriously
[Carol Platt Liebau] 11/10/03   

Like a Ghost of the Recall Past, allegations about Arnold Scharzenegger’s treatment of women have returned, threatening to cast a pall over the Governor-elect’s upcoming installation.

After Attorney General Bill Lockyer disclosed a conversation with Schwarzenegger in which he supposedly advised an investigation of the allegations, the incoming administration announced that it plans to hire a private investigator to probe the matter. Newspaper coverage has centered around whether that was a politically astute move – and there are plenty of reasons to believe that it wasn’t. After all, an electorate heavily composed of women handed Arnold Schwarzenegger an overwhelming victory even after the disclosures about his alleged behavior.

Even so, the topic was bound to surface again. Schwarzenegger’s political adversaries realize that they would be ill-advised to attack him on matters of state policy so soon after his sweeping win. Focusing on the sexual allegations represents a stealthy effort to undermine the new governor’s credibility and distract him from the many pressing problems at hand. So the resurrection of these distasteful allegations offers all of us the opportunity to revisit the topic of sexual impropriety claims, and their place in electoral politics.

Honorable people can differ in their assessments of how much such allegations should matter when deciding for whom to vote. USC law professor Susan Estrich, a Democrat, insisted that Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct was irrelevant to his fitness for public office; to her credit, she remained consistent when allegations of comparable misdeeds were leveled against Republican Arnold Scharzenegger.

If those of us who vigorously condemned Bill Clinton based on the claims of Juanita Broderick, Kathleen Willey, Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, Elizabeth Ward Grayson and the rest are remain similarly consistent, we cannot now blithely declare that sexually improper behavior by candidates doesn’t matter. It does. Adultery, in and of itself, is an evil; moreover, it has real political implications – if a man is willing to break his marriage vows and engage in the cheating and lying that adultery entails, how can members of the public believe that he will deal honestly with them? And though it doesn’t quite fall to the level of adultery, the kind of “frat boy” behavior of which Arnold Scharzenegger has been accused (and, to some degree, has admitted) does no credit to his character (although his admission of fault and apology at least suggest an honesty that was conspicuously lacking in the former president).

So Susan Estrich and people like me may disagree on the extent to which such behavior is relevant to one’s fitness for public office. But there is one thing upon which we do agree – that sexual misconduct is wrong. Because it is wrong, there is a larger moral and societal issue at stake – making sure that real instances of sexual impropriety are taken seriously, and that true grievances are redressed.

But if Americans are committed to treating real sexual misconduct seriously, we must be willing to speak honestly to the women who make these claims in the heat of the political spotlight, and to those who bring them forward. Straight talk about last-minute and long-after-the-fact allegations neither condones any sexual impropriety visited upon women in the workplace or anywhere else, nor does it involve “blaming the victim.” Instead, it betokens a commitment to truly meritorious claims being treated with the seriousness that they deserve.

From Anita Hill in 1991 to Rhonda Miller (who came forward to accuse Arnold Schwarzenegger the day before the election), there has been something deeply unsettling about watching women – after years or even decades of silence – come forward as “victims” at a time when the allegations will obviously inflict maximum political and personal damage upon the accused. It takes a lot of courage (or a lot of conviction) to lodge contemporaneous accusations of sexual impropriety against a powerful man without the assistance of his political adversaries or the spotlight of heavy media coverage. But coming forward at the urging of those with their own agendas, and in the middle of a political campaign, smacks of opportunism or manipulation, at the very least. When mixed motives for making a complaint exist, all of us know that they detract from the credibility of any allegation.

In the days immediately before the recall, we were told of the mental anguish suffered by those who had allegedly experienced an unpleasant experience with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let’s be clear -- no one’s entitled to even a single “free grope,” as Gloria Steinem argued on behalf of President Clinton. Any unwanted touching is absolutely wrong.

But whatever the “victims” and victimization-promoters like Gloria Allred may tell us, unless the improper conduct is (1) repetitive or (2) engaged in by an employer who explicitly or implicitly predicates a woman’s continued employment or promotion on acceptance of his advances or (3) is so severe in a single instance as constitute actual battery or rape, such behavior presents no real threat to any healthy woman’s well-being or self-respect, however infuriating or morally repugnant it might be. And so it’s hard to find a reason – outside of political or financial gain – that the reports of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s behavior must now be investigated, discussed and relived, long after the statute of limitations for any criminal or civil actions have expired and he himself has expressed contrition for his wrongdoing.

Schwarzenegger’s critics have suggested that, by conducting his own investigation, he may intend to look at the lives of the women accusing him. Of course, if he were just trying to unearth “dirt” in order to intimidate or silence them, it would be wrong – just as wrong as when the Clinton campaign allegedly hired investigators to threaten women who were thought to have information about the candidate’s sexual misconduct. But any accuser who steps forward with allegations years after the fact, and in the charged atmosphere of a political campaign, must expect to have her own behavior examined.

And that’s not necessarily unfair. At this point, no one knows who did what – or if anything happened at all. But all too often, the women who seem to find it acceptable, even “empowering,” to engage in bawdy banter and suggestive behavior are the first to swoon like Victorian-era virgins when such conduct is in turn directed at them. What they apparently fail to realize is that most men will base their conduct toward a woman on the woman’s own behavior. When females behave suggestively (or dare one even say “loosely”), men tend to take them seriously; when they suspect that a woman’s not “in the market” for flirtation or more, most tend to respect that, as well. Indeed, contrary to what radical feminists would have us believe, most men don’t enjoy humiliating women in their employ or elsewhere (and the sadists who do, generally enjoy humiliating men just as much).

In the end, if women want their allegations of sexual misconduct to be taken seriously, they must treat them seriously themselves. If a woman truly believes she is being treated illegally or outrageously, she has an obligation to herself, to other women with meritorious claims, and even to the accused to speak up in a timely fashion – not immediately, perhaps, but without waiting until the accused attains national prominence, or runs for high office, or earns enough money to make a civil suit worthwhile, or has enough enemies to ensure her a sympathetic hearing. And if she has something to say, certainly she can find time to do it well in advance of the day before a statewide election, and without the interference of handlers with political axes to grind.

Otherwise, she does nothing to advance the cause of a woman’s right to be free from sexual impropriety. Rather, she confirms suspicions that allegations of sexual misbehavior are nothing more than a partisan political tool, and becomes a pawn of the political partisans who bring the accusers forward.

And for their part, these partisan promoters only signal their own cynical allegiance to a political agenda – rather than a disinterested commitment to women’s rights or even to the well-being of the accusers themselves. By manipulating and using these supposedly “victimized” women only to serve their own ends, they finally force the rest of us to ask: Who are the victimizers now?

CRO columnist Carol Platt Liebau is a political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA.


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