Private lives, public affairs

Anna Quindlen

October 22, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

THE TROUBLE with Teddy is that he's like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. When he's good, he's better than anyone else, but when he's bad -- oh, boy!

When he finally opened his mouth during the Judiciary Committee hearings on Anita Hill's charges against Clarence Thomas, he tied it all up with a ribbon. He said with considerable ire that he hoped we would not be hearing any more about perjury or racism, that instead of trying to divert attention the committee should concentrate on sexual harassment. For just a moment he was what he was always meant to be: Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal conscience of the Senate. And then he lapsed back into a self-imposed silence, into the cat's cradle woven of the facts of Teddy's private life.

It was during the 1988 election that the great debate erupted over the impact of personal behavior on political fitness. Gary Hart. Donna Rice. Monkey Business. There were many who proclaimed that the private life of a public man is not the point and that the public had no need to know about behavior after hours.

I've never believed that. It is difficult for me to imagine the same dedication to women's rights on the part of the kind of man who lives in partnership with someone he likes and respects, and the kind of man who considers breast augmentation surgery self-improvement.

That was my argument in '88, that I had problems with the kind of guy who thundered against sex discrimination but couldn't keep his hands off women. And it continued to be my argument, as issues affecting the way we live moved to the forefront of national affairs.

Now I need not make the argument; all the world is making it. And one of the reasons they are making it is because of the trouble with Teddy, because one of the ablest members of the Senate was neutralized at the moment when he was needed most.

Everyone knew why the senior senator from Massachusetts turned into an inanimate object when the hearings turned to the subject of sexual harassment. It was because of the split between his public and private selves, because of accounts of his drinking and his exploits with women, because of his nephew in Palm Beach and his car in Chappaquiddick.

Even one of his close friends stooped to conquer. Criticizing a remark of Kennedy's, Orrin Hatch said, "Anybody who believes that, I know a bridge up in Massachusetts that I'll be happy to sell to them." Later Hatch apologized, saying he meant a bridge in Brooklyn.

And if you believe that, there is a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell.

This is not a plea for perfect men in public life, although if there are any hanging around we could use them. Nor is it an affirmation of those women who believe that because the Democrats let us down, we should cut them loose. I understand the disenchantment, but if I have a choice between zapping any Democrat on the Judiciary Committee or, say, Alan Simpson, whose idea of investigation is to say he has lots of dirt on the witness and then to refuse to make it public -- well, that's not a tough call.

But I do believe it is time for our elected officials to act like men and not overgrown fraternity boys who use political position as the ultimate pickup line. And it's time for us to be realistic about the inevitable nexus between the personal and the political, about the essential contradiction between voting on issues that empower women and seeing them as inflatable dolls in private.

Wanda Baucus, an anthropologist married to the Democratic senator from Montana, revealed in the Washington Post this past Friday that she has been sexually harassed by -- surprise! -- two members of the U.S. Senate: one Republican before she was married, one Democrat after. Asking such men to decide a question of sexual harassment is not exactly like having gun control decided by someone who's been known to enter a convenience store and spray the deli counter with bullets. But it's close.

Teddy Kennedy has, over the years, been the exception. Last week he proved the rule. Sex discrimination, family leave -- we feminists have always felt he was on our side. He let us down because he had to; he was muzzled by the facts of his life. And he proved once and for all that the private life of a politician casts an indelible shadow over public affairs, sometimes to the detriment of the public.

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