Time to End the “Nina Burleigh Rule” on Sexual Harassment?

With the attention of the entire nation focused on sexual assault and harassment, especially by powerful men in Hollywood, the media, and now Washington, it may be time to end the Nina Burleigh Rule.  Nina Burleigh famously declared to a Washington Post reporter in 1998, commenting in a particularly vulgar manner on his scandals, that she was so grateful to Clinton for keeping abortion legal that she was willing to perform a sexual act on him to thank him.  In fact, she said, “I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude….”

Burleigh’s quote was more provocative than most, but it was of a piece with the reaction from the left side of the aisle.  The dominant pattern was that Clinton’s commitment to progressive political goals was more important than the welfare of any single individual woman.  After the 2017 scandals broke about the piggish behavior of men like Harvey Weinstein, Leon Wieseltier, Mark Halperin, and many others ad nauseam, progressive writers have started to acknowledge the damage done by this approach.

The Bill Clinton Problem

In a recent article in Vanity Fair, Marjorie Williams chronicles some of the 1998 statements by feminists defending Clinton.  Eleanor Smeal, one of the most high-profile women’s rights activists at the time, said, “We’re trying to think of the bigger picture, think about what’s best for women.”

Susan Faludi, another leading feminist, said, “If anything, it sounds like she put the moves on him.”  Betty Friedan, Senator Carol Mosely-Braun, Nancy Pelosi, the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and on and on – all either defended Clinton, attacked the women he had assaulted,  or tried to invert the discussion for political advantage.


Gloria Steinem in 2011

Even Gloria Steinem, the most visible leader of the movement, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times to provide Bill Clinton her protection, like Athena deploying her invisible shield to protect a favored Greek warrior.  About Steinem’s op-ed, Caitlin Flanagan wrote this month in The Atlantic, “[It] must surely stand as one of the most regretted public actions of her life. It slut-shamed, victim-blamed, and age-shamed; it urged compassion for and gratitude to the man the women accused. Moreover … it characterized contemporary feminism as a weaponized auxiliary of the Democratic Party.”

Feminism as a weaponized auxiliary of the Democratic Party

That last bit – feminism as a weapon for the Democrats – hit home to Republicans and conservatives.  It is apparent to any but the most navel-gazing progressives that on this topic there has been a double standard among Democrats and the media for decades.  Donating to progressive causes erased all guilt.

Donating to progressive causes erased all guilt.

As soon as the first article about Weinstein was published, and before the second one came out, his response was that he was going to donate millions of dollars to fight the National Rifle Association – just as he had donated millions to Democrat and progressive causes throughout his career.  Commitment to those causes had always constituted more than “casualty insurance” to offenders like Weinstein – they were indulgences for past sins, and free passes to continue.

Compare the pre-October 2017 media coverage of Weinstein’s behavior – that “everybody knew” about – to the insensitive remarks of Todd Akin that brought down his campaign.  Akin’s remark received thousands of hours of media coverage.  Churlish and idiotic though it was, did it do more actual harm to actual women than Weinstein’s excesses?  But the only media coverage of Weinstein was a private joke at the Oscars.

Before October 2017, the only media coverage of Weinstein’s assaults was a private joke at the Oscars.

Compare also the media attention given to charges against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly to the coverage of charges against Mark Halperin, Leon Wieseltier, Lockhart Steele, and Michael Oreskes.  In fact, count the Republicans on this list and compare media coverage of them to coverage of anyone but Harvey Weinstein.

The Republican Corollary to the Nina Burleigh Rule

This double standard, and the weaponization of feminism, gave rise to the Republican corollary to the Nina Burleigh Rule.  If a conservative was accused of sexual harassment years after an alleged incident, his supporters reacted with suspicion and disbelief.  They had seen this pattern before, and saw that the new morality was enforced only against Republican men.

This explains why Alabama voters are slow to condemn Judge Roy Moore.  “The 10 Commandments Judge” is well known as a savvy culture warrior with strong national support.  His supporters saw accusers speak up 30 days before the election, after having been silent for 40 years, and assumed that it was another instance of weaponized feminism.

Al Franken and Sarah Silverman at 2016 Democrat National Convention

But we are now in a different era – the post-Weinstein, post-#MeToo moment – and the rules are changing.  Senator Al Franken found that out this morning.  It requires neither brains nor boldness to predict that Washington will be a target-rich environment for hunters of sexual predators, as the dam now begins to leak.  But will the punishment, the condemnations, and the media coverage be the same for all, or will it follow the familiar partisan pattern?  It would be nice to see a return to simple morality – nobody’s criticizing the Pence rule about dining companions any more.  But as an interim step, can we at least finally abandon the Nina Burleigh Rule?

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department.

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