Presidents may be immune, but sexual misconduct is not being overlooked

With the recent report that one President Trump accuser, Summer Zervos, a former contestant from The Apprentice television show, filed suit, Trump's political and legal challenges increase. They illustrate the trouble that past sexual incidents pose for current politicians. He's also facing accusations from former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels. But somehow the public seems not to care.

Sexual transgressions have long been a part of American history. President Lyndon Johnson was accused, as were presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. American presidents from even farther back were accused, too: Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland all had scandal in their backgrounds. Yet, none of their alleged "womanizing" brought down their presidencies. And it's unlikely that Donald Trump's accusers will successfully end his presidency, either.

Why? Because most Americans don't deem such scandals as failures, especially as long as the president performs his job adequately. Most Americans disapprove of presidential infidelity, but that could change where Trump is concerned. Modern media has such a distaste for him that his sexual proclivities will likely be highlighted as just another reason not to like him. He's being accused as the American culture changes, as Harvey Weinstein's and Bill Cosby's boorish behavior receives scrutiny. The #MeToo movement, where many women are fed up with past male sexual behavior, has taken hold as well.

Where does this leave male politicians? There's an intolerance for improper behavior, especially at levels below the presidency, no matter how remote or "in the past." A Harvard professor, Jorge Dominguez, was accused recently by 18 past colleagues, students and staff members of sexual harassment, prompting his resignation; Congressman Trent Franks, R-AZ, and Sen. Al Franken, D-MN, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment, representing a weeding out of unacceptable behavior, even at the highest levels of government. Politicians, no matter their political party affiliation, are not welcome to high-level decision making if they have scandals in their past.

Yet, American presidents seem immune from political consequences of their past sexual indiscretions. Perhaps presidents are not subject to the same scrutiny as members of Congress. Gallup polling has found recently that there's a higher intolerance among women, especially, for sexual harassment, whether in private business or public office, than there was in the 1990s. Some 69 percent believe sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem, up from 50 percent in the late 1990s. The American culture has changed so that harassers, both male and female, are frowned upon, though comprehensive studies of female harassers are lacking. Prominent male abusers such as Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose are much more common.

Replacing an American president for sexual harassment, particularly if allegations of it occurred before assuming office, is deemed less serious than for offenders whose accusers assert that the abuse occurred while the accused was in office. That's why President Trump will likely not resign or otherwise leave office over charges of harassment alone. Despite the boorish nature of his past conduct, especially as reiterated publicly by his accusers, such recitations will not stick, even as media portrayals highlight unacceptable actions previously alleged against him.

Voters do apply their distaste for credibly accused harassers at every other level of government. If a congressional candidate has sexual harassment charges in his or her past, they should not expect to win. Today's culture requires clean-living candidates. While presidential candidates may be excluded if their misconduct occurred in the past, the current American culture is intolerant of misbehavior, even for presidential candidates.

Sexual harassment has received congressional attention. Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-VA, has led the charge by introducing federal legislation, now the law, to require sexual harassment education and prevention training among congressional offices, requiring them to have an anti-harassment policy in place. Legislation to reform the system of reporting and acting on sexual harassment complaints was passed, too. It was a nonpartisan effort, supported by Democrats, Republicans, men and women, and would require a survey of staff every two years about attitudes on sexual harassment in the workplace, ensuring that every House office has anti-discrimination policies in place. It would also forbid taxpayer money from being used in congressional settlements, holding members personally responsible for their misdeeds and prohibiting sexual relationships between members and staff. Given that repeat offenders are often predators, the Congressional Women's Caucus will continue to hold hearings about harassment.

Intolerance by voters is the best way to stem the harassment tide. ♦

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About The Author

George Nethercutt

From 1995-2005, George Nethercutt was the Republican Congressman from Spokane. He contributes to the commentary section of the Inlander.