Sex and smears

May 12, 1994|By Mona Charen

PERHAPS now that we are to be treated to the spectacle of a president of the United States defending himself against a sexual harassment lawsuit, we will at last come to re-evaluate our confused ideas about sex, character and smears.

The prevailing wisdom for the past few years has been roughly as follows: Sexual conduct is outrageous and usually illegal when it is engaged in by Republicans.

Thus, the late Sen. John Tower, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Sen. Bob Packwood were vilified (as was Gary Hart, the exception that proves the rule) -- while Sen. Daniel Inouye, Sen. Edward Kennedy and President Bill Clinton were given a pass (no pun intended) for similar alleged conduct.

It is almost funny to see feminists, who canonized Anita Hill, stressing how different the Jones case is from hers.

That's true. Part of the reason Paula Jones' charges are credible is that there is a pattern of similar behavior in Bill Clinton's past. The contrast with Justice Thomas, who had the fierce loyalty of every other female he worked with, is pronounced. Further, Ms. Jones seems to have mentioned the alleged incident to others at the time.

But do her salacious charges amount to harassment? Does the term, enshrined now in law and custom, have any meaning? If all of the allegations against Bob Packwood are true -- that he stepped on one woman's toes while attempting to kiss her; that he pushed himself on others without warning -- the verdict should declare "guilty of boorish behavior."

Is there a case to be made for not re-electing people whose conduct strikes us as unacceptable? Sure. But unacceptable and criminal are, or ought to be, different things.

One of the ludicrous aspects of sexual harassment dogma as it has been handed down from feminist central is its depiction of women as shaking leaves. We are supposed to be reduced to emotional wrecks by every groping roue. Come on. We've all had our laughs at the expense of such men. That isn't a defense of ungentlemanly conduct, but distinctions must be drawn between nerds and menaces.

If Paula Jones' charges against President Clinton are true, the verdict would be harsher than that against Senator Packwood -- it should read "guilty of repulsive behavior" -- but it is hard to see how it amounted to the infliction of "emotional distress" as charged in the suit.

Ms. Jones was not coerced or threatened. She was not denied a job or a promotion. What, exactly, were her damages?

The political implications of this go beyond the promiscuous use of sexual harassment claims. Too many conservatives and Republicans are smacking their lips over the Jones accusations, relishing the discomfort of the Democrats. Turnabout is fair play, goes the saying.

But is it? The Jones charges suffer from some of the same defects as Anita Hill's -- the long lag in filing a complaint for one, the odor of vindictiveness for another. If conservatives meant what they said during the Hill/Thomas farce -- that the late-arriving smear ought to be treated with contempt -- they have a duty to apply the same standards here. True, the Jones allegations have more surface plausibility, but there are reasons to be skeptical. Moreover, as William Kristol has cautioned, personal accusations cannot substitute for fighting the Clinton administration on the issues.

At the same time, some liberals have behaved like perfect hypocrites in all of this. The Washington Post has devoted thousands of words to analyzing why Bob Packwood was such a disaster as a human being, even scrutinizing his failed marriage. During the Hill/Thomas affair, the paper practically served as a press office for Anita Hill.

But when the Jones accusations surfaced, the editors were seized with pangs of conscience over how such stuff should be handled. "We didn't know what to make of the story," explained Post columnist Richard Cohen on C-SPAN. But when Ms. Hill made charges with even less substance, the Post knew what to make of them -- front-page news.

The time for de-escalation of the smear wars has come. It has long since been established that President Clinton is a man of uncertain character. No good can come of seeing him testify about it in open court.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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