I’m sorry, gentle reader. You’ve spent the week listening to terrible news on everything from flu to foreign affairs, and now we’ve got a story about how Hillary Clinton tolerated sexual harassment in her presidential campaign.
There are several ways to handle this, and one is definitely to consider moving to another country. Another is to say that you’re not going to listen to any of this as long as the country is run by a man whose track record on sexual issues is Cro-Magnon. Or to ask what would have happened to Hillary if she had been recorded bragging about how fame gives her the right to grab men by their private parts.
But let’s be tough-minded and think this new controversy through: According to a Times report by Maggie Haberman and Amy Chozick, during the 2008 presidential campaign, a senior Clinton aide named Burns Strider was accused of sexually harassing a woman who had the bad luck to be working in his office. Clinton’s campaign manager recommended he be fired. Instead, the candidate opted for sending him to counseling and docking him several weeks’ pay. The law firm that worked for the campaign said it had set up a process for handling sexual harassment complaints and this was “appropriate action.”
One of the deep, deep ironies of this story is Strider’s job, which was “faith adviser.” Among his duties was sending Clinton scriptural passages every morning.
“I don’t understand why any political campaign would have a ‘faith adviser’ on paid staff,” said Gloria Steinem, one of the multitudinous women who were poring over the story and trying to decide what it all meant.
Strider was a Mississippian with a good-old-boy affect. “He’d become kind of known as the faith guru for the Democrats,” recalled Sarah Posner of the Nation Institute, who reports on religion and politics. “Somebody who supposedly held the key to how Democrats could reach voters of faith.”
He was also a co-founder of the American Values Network, and we are going to stop here for just one second to note that “values” is beginning to be almost as overworked as “freedom” in American politics. Wordwise, values has lost its value.
In 2008, a woman who was working under Strider’s direction complained that he had been making her uncomfortable with shoulder rubs, a kiss on the forehead and some sexually suggestive emails. When Hillary vetoed the proposal that he be fired, the woman was moved to another job under the deputy campaign manager. That at least sounds as if it was as good a posting.
Still, Steinem noted, “she was the one removed. You have to remove the harasser.”
“It’s not that they didn’t do anything,” concluded Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney for the A.C.L.U. Women’s Rights Project. “But it’s always disappointing to hear that someone you admire for her stance on gender equality didn’t take the strongest position possible.”
The national uproar over sexual harassment has the entire country debating how to deal with these issues — particularly when it comes to more powerful men trying to take advantage of their underlings. That’s why stories like the one Haberman and Chozick reported are important. They’re a way of helping us figure this all out.
While we don’t know all the details, it doesn’t sound unreasonable that an employee with first-time charges of shoulder-rubbing and a forehead kiss should get a punishment less drastic than immediate dismissal. Except, as we keep needing to point out, there was that part about Strider being the values guy.
And he was a campaign gun-for-hire who, if he had been kicked out, would probably have moved to another political job. As he did when the campaign ended and Strider went on to a pro-Hillary group called Correct the Record, where he was fired for what Haberman and Chozick reported as “workplace issues, including allegations that he harassed a young female aide.”
Here’s where I’m coming down: Hillary Clinton was the first woman to run for president on a major party ticket, and when she did it, she won the popular vote. She’s broken a trillion barriers. She’s also done enormous good work to improve the lives of women in this country.
But she’s never been at her strongest when it comes to men on the prowl. While her faith adviser wasn’t anywhere near the level of a Harvey Weinstein, she did hang out with Weinstein, too, cherishing him as a beloved donor. And some women have never really gotten over the fact that she did not leave her husband when she discovered he was having an affair, in the White House, with a girl far too young and powerless to be a genuinely willing partner.
Because sexual harassment is so much on our national mind right now, we’d like her to be a heroine on that issue, too. But if there’s anything we’ve learned in all of our years with Hillary Clinton, it’s that you can be both great and deeply imperfect. It’s one of her gifts. Even if right now we really wish she’d fired the faith adviser.