Saturday, 17 Apr 2021

Opinion | Politicians Behaving Badly

As the investigation continues into the allegations of sexual misconduct by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo — about whom tales of bad behavior are piling up like soiled wet wipes at a rib joint — a vaguely similar scandal has taken down one of his aspiring rivals.

Sunday evening, Republican Representative Tom Reed, who had been contemplating a challenge to Mr. Cuomo in 2022, announced that he would instead be retiring from public office at the end of his congressional term. This change of heart occurred just a few days after accusations surfaced that Mr. Reed sexually harassed a young woman on a political trip four years ago.

While on an ice-fishing retreat to Minnesota in January 2017, the then-45-year-old congressman got sloshed at a group dinner at a pub one night and groped a 25-year-old lobbyist, according to her account. Among other offenses, he is said to have unhooked the woman’s bra through her blouse and slid his hand up her thigh. Nicolette Davis, the woman in question, was on her first big schmoozing trip and was anxious for things to go smoothly. Horrified, she texted a co-worker, “A drunk congressman is rubbing my back.” And later, “HELP HELP.” Ms. Davis ultimately asked the person sitting on her other side to intervene, at which point the encroaching lawmaker was gently led from the pub.

Ms. Davis, who later left lobbying to join the Army, deserves major kudos for sharing her story — though it is disheartening that it took four years for her to feel comfortable enough to do so. Immediately after her close encounter with Mr. Reed, she told colleagues what had happened but declined to file an official complaint. “I was afraid I would become ‘that girl’ who made a mess of things for a member, and that no one would ever want to associate with me,” she told The Washington Post, which first reported the accusations.

When Ms. Davis’s accusations broke last Friday, Mr. Reed fired off a short, vague statement saying her account was “not accurate.” But by Sunday, he had reversed course. In a longer, more detailed statement, the lawmaker stopped short of confirming Ms. Davis’s account but said that, at the time of the trip, he was struggling with alcoholism and that he accepted “full responsibility” for his piggishness. “This is in no way an excuse for anything I’ve done,” he wrote. “Consistent with my recovery, I publicly take ownership of my past actions, offer this amends and humbly apologize again to Ms. Davis, my wife and kids, loved ones, and to all of you.” He further vowed “to help those wrestling with addiction.”

Clearly, the congressman’s behavior was gross and unacceptable. But in dealing with the fallout like an accountable grown-up, he now has the chance to redeem himself — possibly even serving as an example to other officials.

There is a sharp irony to Mr. Reed’s fall. A centrist Republican, he was first elected to Congress in 2010, in a special election to replace Democrat Eric Massa, who had resigned while the House ethics committee was investigating allegations that he had sexually harassed a junior male aide. Fast-forward to the Cuomo scandal: Mr. Reed was among the early voices calling for the governor to step down. Later, he was among those in favor of impeachment.

Thus New York politics has given us a reality-TV-worthy spectacle of a Republican lawmaker, elected to replace a Democrat accused of sexual harassment, leaving politics under his own sexual harassment cloud, thereby upsetting his plans to take on a Democratic governor beset by multiple accusations of sexual harassment.

Got it?

Obviously, elected officials behaving like entitled jerks is not a New York-specific problem, or even a politics-specific problem. Too many men in positions of power have come to believe that the rules of decent society do not apply to them, that they have a right to treat those around them like playthings.

In many ways, politicians are tailor-made for this kind of stupidity. It generally takes a fair amount of self-regard to elbow one’s way up the political ladder. Upon attaining a certain stature, politicians get treated like mini regents, surrounded by aides whose livelihoods depend on them and supplicants seeking to curry their favor. They get invited on TV. Voters and reporters show up at their events. Power and celebrity — even low-level political celebrity — act like drugs, warping officials’ sense of self and of reality.

If you want to dig into the science, there are all kinds of fascinating avenues to explore about how politicians may be affected by the things like the winner effect, in which it’s posited that success changes people’s brain chemistry in ways that cause them to behave more selfishly or aggressively. One 2018 study by scientists at the University of Cambridge found that merely the perception of having bested another man gives guys a testosterone boost, along with “an inflated sense of their own value as a sexual prospect.”

None of which excuses the spectacle of powerful men behaving badly, to which we are still frequently subjected, even in the age of #MeToo.

With this in mind, Mr. Reed deserves at least a sliver of credit for putting on his big-boy pants and owning up to the pain and damage he caused. He has expressed straight-up contrition rather than spout one of those dodgy, I’m-sorry-if-she-misinterpreted-my-actions nonapologies of which politicians are so fond. He did not paint himself as the “real” victim or — even more vile — attempt to smear and discredit his accuser. While this may not seem especially praiseworthy, such basic decency is still too rare.

Until voters consistently demand at least this much from their elected officials, entitled jerkiness will remain a bipartisan problem.

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