Celebrity Sinners

PETER JAY

November 04, 1993|By PETER JAY

Havre de Grace -- One of the sadder aspects of the Neil Solomon affair is that it wasn't what the doctor seems to have done that made it so newsworthy. It was his celebrity status.

Suppose Dr. Solomon hadn't been a flamboyant self-promoter whose political ambitions were openly showing. Suppose he hadn't been a former Maryland health secretary, or an author, or an appointee of William Donald Schaefer.

Suppose instead he had been a low-profile suburban practitioner whose name had never before appeared in the newspaper. Then, when some of his former patients started making lurid accusations about his sexual conduct and filing suit against him, can anyone imagine that it would have been big news? In a pig's eye. It would have been reported, but tersely, back inside the paper with the petty larcenies and the underwear ads. It would never have been Page One.

To make that assertion isn't to fault the judgment of the newspapers which gave it such dramatic treatment. They acted consistently with the time-honored journalistic principle that commonplace crimes are only interesting when they are committed by, or happen to, well-known people. Thus Earl Doodle's arrest for drunk driving isn't significant, but Earl Weaver's is.

Unfortunately, what Dr. Solomon is accused of doing is commonplace. He is said to have taken sexual advantage of women who, as his patients, were in a vulnerable state, and to whom he represented authority. This happens all the time. It may be sordid and contemptible, but it isn't unusual.

Authority leads to opportunity, and the world is full of opportunists. The sexual abuse of authority occurs in churches, in schools and universities, and sometimes in police cars. It happens in the offices of lawyers and psychiatrists. And as we're constantly reminded, it happens as well in the offices of important politicians. Ask people who worked in the White House for John Kennedy, or in the Senate for Bob Packwood.

Some ancient Camelotians may be offended by that comparison, and declare that they knew John Kennedy, and he was no Bob Packwood. But it's a distinction without a difference. Senator Packwood is now in trouble for, it is alleged, taking advantage of several women who worked for him. President Kennedy, who it is now generally agreed had the sexual scruples of a Norway rat, took advantage whenever and wherever he could. Like Warren Harding, with whom he had much in common, he just lived in a less belligerent time.

Ah, say the old New Frontiersmen, but the Kennedy women gave themselves to him freely because he had such great magnetism. Sure they did. And no doubt the two young nubilities on his staff with no visible clerical skills, known to the Secret Service as ''Fiddle'' and ''Faddle,'' would have been just as fond of him if he'd been a shoe salesman instead of president of the United States.

Except for the celebrity factor, what went on in the offices of John Kennedy and Robert Packwood, and in the offices of Neil Solomon, wasn't very different from what goes on in countless other offices. I don't know much about banks or insurance companies, but I do know that newspapers, with their fine editorial sensibilities, are hardly the places to go to find high moral standards.

Over the last 25 years there's been a great rush of young women into journalism, where they've commonly found themselves reporting to male editors and competing for their attention. Most such editors have presumably kept all such relationships absolutely professional. But there are plenty who have tried to turn them into something else.

As women increasingly take on positions of authority, forms of workplace sexual aggression will perhaps change and become more complex. There have already been a few instances in which male subordinates have complained of harassment by female superiors. Someday a female president may keep a couple of handsome Fiddles and Faddles hanging around the office with no apparent duties.

But no matter who has the authority, in public life or private, it'll be important to remember that with it comes responsibility. The rule is a simple one. Those who use their authority to gain what they couldn't get without it are acting unconscionably and probably illegally as well. If they're caught, their conduct shouldn't be tolerated.

We recognize that judges and police officers should not take bribes. It ought to be just as clear that employers should not

make advances to their employees, nor physicians to their patients, nor teachers to their students. Whether such advances were encouraged or openly solicited should make no difference at all.

If celebrity scandals like the ones currently keeping Dr. Solomon and Senator Packwood on the front pages can sharpen our moral focus on this subject, they might end up providing something more useful than a little temporary titillation.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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