At the Courthouse News holiday party, in an outdoor patio with a chimney and a lit fireplace, small white lights strung overhead, I asked our accountant, an accomplished, professional woman, what she thought of the sex discrimination furor.
She stuck her arm out and pointed to no one in particular. “He’s a witch,” she said, moving her outstretched arm a few degrees to the right, “he’s a witch,” and repeated it a couple more times, as she shifted her aim.
I got her point.
She reflected the view of most women I talked to who thought hysteria had taken hold.
To be clear, I have always believed that using power to extract sexual favors is unequivocally wrong. It is a bright line, that does not get tested at Courthouse News. But in the zone where men advance and women rebuff, the great majority of women I talked to expressed some tolerance.
They were used to rebuffing.
One told of me about a recent incident where she was simply walking down the sidewalk in Pasadena, when a younger man started walking backwards in front of her, telling her how beautiful she was. She smiled, told him “nice try,” and walked on by.
So was that behavior “inappropriate.” Certainly. People walk forwards on the sidewalk. Was his advance “unwelcome.” Of course. She did not “welcome” a guy walking backwards and talking to her. In that zone of friction between the sexes, words like “inappropriate” and “unwelcome advance” become very elastic, subject to personal interpretation.
But at the long dinner table, with black tablecloths and white plates, one of our bureau chiefs, two seats down, did not think there was any hysteria at all.
In the millennial bracket, she said, “Franken had to go,” and when I asked why, she said his conduct was “inappropriate,” adding, “The Democrats are the women’s party.”
I answered that women vote just as much for Republicans. If there is anybody that as a group votes for Democratic candidates, it is minority voters and once upon a time, it was union members. The Democrats might consider getting working people back in the fold.
Another woman from Courthouse News, sitting across from us, with bottles of red wine as the centerpieces, said she voted for Trump and would do so again.
She is a white woman raising two children on her own, while working her tail off. In her community, she knows an addicted woman who collects a state stipend for herself and for a child that others are raising.
She is tired of the state’s support of those less deserving. She is aggrieved. She is the base.
But, as the wine flowed, she told me that if she thought Trump had betrayed his promises to the working people, she would vote for someone else.
The president, unbeknownst to her, has already betrayed her. But the Democrats are not trying to get her vote back. They are instead following Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, their Valkyrie, the “chooser of the slain,” flying over the battle field to pick the one of their own whose political life ends.
So with all these opinions, I thought a good article for our news page would be a story about the reaction of people in Minneapolis to their senator’s resignation.
After the reporter submitted her story, I asked her twice to go out again, in search of anyone who would express support for Sen. Al Franken in his home state.
She interviewed baristas, cafeteria workers, a man at a bus stop, women in coffees shops, and women on the University of Minnesota campus.
Not one was willing to say Franken had wrongly been hounded out for crassness years ago, captured in a photo. As my 90-year-old aunt put it, “His hands were where they shouldn’t have been. But nobody is going to get their jollies through a flak jacket.”
But in Franken’s home state, the reservoir of forgiveness was bone dry. Gone too was any thought of redemption. All the reporter could hear was the harsh wind of condemnation.
“I think there is a gray area between assault and harassment, absolutely,” said a woman in a coffee shop in Minneapolis. “However, unwanted sexual advances are unwanted sexual advances. That’s unacceptable at any level to me.”
So do you wear a sign, I wondered. “Sexual advances welcome!”
The woman, sitting with others in a coffee shop, said she had twice voted for Franken and he had done many good things in office. “It sucks because I think he was a good senator. He did a good job, he fought for things I wanted.”
But — here imagine the slight rushing sound of the executioner’s axe — “Do I want to stand next to a senator at the State Fair and risk having my ass grabbed? No!”
And thus did I realize that Franken’s political career was already a ghost, a page in political history, a casualty of his own party’s witch hunt.
A couple days ago, a French family that I am close to called to comment. They described the furor in the U.S. as “une affaire de moeurs,” a matter of morals.
So in Congress, as Republicans march on, accelerating the separation between the very rich and everyone else, tearing at our nation’s fabric, the confused souls who call themselves Democrats wander off into a matter of morals.
In the New Year, they need a new message and new messengers.