Insulting woman is good for laughs at White House


May 03, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

Lisa Olson is a reporter who became nationally famous when she said she was sexually harassed in the locker room of the Boston Patriots last year.

To date, there have been more than 1,000 newspaper stories done on Lisa Olson and a lot of outrage expressed.

Donna Britt is a reporter who was grabbed by a member of the White House staff and tossed onto a tabletop at a public event last week and hardly anybody seems to care.

There has been no public outrage and almost no press coverage. The whole incident has been dismissed as boys-will-be-boys high jinks, as if White House staffers can do whatever they'd like, just as long as they are personal friends of the president.

The difference in the way the press has treated the two events is instructive:

Lisa Olson is a sportswriter at the Boston Herald who went into the locker room of the Patriots last September and was, she says, sexually harassed. She says that naked players walked up to her and said lewd things.

For this, the commissioner of football fined the Patriots $50,000, fined one football player $12,500 and fined two others $5,000.

Recently, Olson filed a civil suit against various members of the Patriots organization claiming that her civil rights have been violated.

According to Nexis, a news database, there have been at least 1,027 stories written about Lisa Olson and her troubles. (The Sun and The Evening Sun have printed more than 80 of them.)

The incident involving Donna Britt has resulted in no such news media avalanche.

Britt, 37, a Washington Post Style section reporter, attended the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner last Saturday in Washington.

The dinner is a huge bash, attended by more than a thousand journalists, politicians, military people, celebrities, etc. The president always attends and tells a few jokes from the podium. The dinner is meant to be a convivial, pleasant evening.

At this year's dinner, however, White House physician Burton Lee, 61, grabbed Britt, whom he did not know, and pulled her down onto a table in front of him.

Two days later, Washington Post Style writer Dana Thomas included 15 lines about the incident deep in her story on the dinner:

"This year, the indiscreet party guy was the president's physician, Burton Lee. Donna Britt of the Washington Post was chatting with a friend next to the Knight-Ridder table at which Lee was a guest when he unexpectedly threw out his arm, wrapped it firmly around her legs and pulled her down onto the table in front of him.

"Stunned, she blurted out: 'Do I know you?'

" 'Now you do,' he replied jovially.

"His hosts were equally stunned. Britt, not amused, went on her way."

And that was it. No big deal. Just a jovial, indiscreet, party guy having a good time by grabbing women and dragging them down onto tables.

The next day, USA Today (where Britt used to work) carried a story on page two of the front section, in which Britt was quoted as saying she did not want to make a "big deal" out of what happened, "But I don't want anyone to think this behavior is cute, amusing or justified. It was incredibly bad judgment."

The story also went on to say that Dr. Lee was in no trouble at the White House.

"I'm in no trouble, God almighty," Dr. Lee said. "The people who run the White House love to see me in that position, because it takes some heat off them."

Dr. Lee also said that around the White House: "The guys all think it's funny, that I'm basically a minor-league hero. The women are all concerned that I'll be labeled a bad guy. But it's not going to happen. I had a perfectly good time."

A Nexis search shows that only four stories have been done on the incident. It is seemingly a dead issue.

But why was so much written about Lisa Olson and so little written about Donna Britt?

Well, Olson's case involved professional sports celebrities and, therefore, had widespread appeal.

Donna Britt's case involves a powerful, but little-known, Washington bigwig. Dr. Lee is a personal friend of the president. Dr. Lee and and his wife go skeet shooting with the president. Dr. Lee went to the same college as the president. But his name rings no bells in Pittsburgh or Pensacola or Peoria.

And while sportswriters on papers throughout America were only too willing to write about Lisa Olson's case, how many Washington political writers really care about what happens to some feature writer at a party?

After all, grabbing a woman and tossing her onto a table is just the kind of normal "indiscreet party guy" behavior that makes you a "minor-league hero," right?

I spoke to Britt yesterday. "I felt this arm wrap around my thighs, and I was yanked backward until I fell on the table," she said.

She said that at the time she was "stunned and embarrassed" by what Dr. Lee had done. She also said Dr. Lee has not "in any way" apologized to her for his behavior.

"And now, when I read what he said afterward in the cold light of day, I see that he is pleased with himself over what he did," she said. "I don't want anyone to think I am being vengeful, but I expect a public apology. This kind of behavior is never justified."

But I guess the folks at White House think it is. Because Dr. Lee has yet to hear from President or Mrs. Bush on the subject.

"I'm sure," Dr. Lee said, however, "I will be getting some smart one-liners from them sooner or later."

But could they fit the proper response to Dr. Lee into a one-liner? Well, how about this:

"Call Donna Britt and apologize this instant, you little weasel, and then get professional counseling for whatever problems you have -- or find another job."

Yeah. That's one line.

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