The latest in the disturbingly endless reports of powerful men assaulting any woman they want brings us to Al Franken, who now stands accused of groping and forcibly kissing a female news anchor in 2006, two years before he became a senator. Rushing to his defense, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill, who is running for governor of the state on the Democratic ticket, decided to lampoon the accusation on Facebook with a status update that treated the revelations against Franken like an unwarranted, hysterically prudish pry into the irrelevant private lives of public figures. In what reads like at best a very poor attempt at satire, O’Neill took it upon himself to “speak up on behalf of all heterosexual males” by revealing his own sexual past as if it were some political mic drop. Instead, O’Neill inadvertently makes the opposite point about political transparency.
Here’s O’Neill’s post:
Now that the dogs of war are calling for the head of Senator Al Franken I believe it is time to speak up on behalf of all heterosexual males. As a candidate for Governor let me save my opponents some research time. In the last fifty years I was sexually intimate with approximately 50 very attractive females. It ranged from a gorgeous blonde who was my first true love and we made passionate love in the hayloft of her parents barn and ended with a drop dead gorgeous red head from Cleveland.
Now can we get back to discussing legalizing marijuana and opening the state hospital network to combat the opioid crisis. I am sooooo disappointed by this national feeding frenzy about sexual indiscretions decades ago.
O’Neill edited the original message. Rather than simply referring to one woman as a “gorgeous blonde,” an earlier version captured by Cleveland.com identified her as “a gorgeous personal secretary to Senator Bob Taft (Senior) who was my first true love.” Probably a good edit, since that woman likely never wanted such truth-telling to extend all the way to her actual identity.
But let’s make the glaringly obvious point here first: No one is prying into Al Franken’s consensual sexual past. There is no feeding frenzy swarming the bodies of perfectly consensual grody old sex had by politicians. We don’t need to know that he banged a gorgeous blonde any more than we need to know that he banged a drop-dead gorgeous redhead from Cleveland. We definitely don’t need to know it happened in a hayloft, which feels very fake Penthouse letter. And we definitely don’t need to know about any other of the 48 women (men tend to exaggerate their number of sexual partners — 10 women a year? For five decades?) who were, bewilderingly, actually willing to submit to a sexual experience with a guy who wears plaid cargo shorts in his downtime.
Unless you were raping 10 women a year for five decades, pipe down, Gramps. In other words, we only need to know if it wasn’t consensual or otherwise indicates a lapse in judgment that would affect his ability to hold office, something O’Neill — a man who arguably had to be pretty darn good at parsing nuance to become a Supreme Court Justice, after all — seems unable to grasp. In case it’s not clear, the public isn’t champing at the bit to expose you for being a George Clooney, or the sort of man who enjoys playing the field without any loss of honor, also known as a “stickman”; we’re chomping at the bit to make sure you’re not an Anthony Weiner who’s actually sexting 15-year-old girls.
But it does raise an interesting issue. Relevant transparency in politicians is a dicey move, but one that, done well, can actually be not just refreshing, but even politically savvy. Take Arizona Democrat and gubernatorial candidate Noah Dyer, who got out in front of the story of a skeleton-hunting background check by laying his cards on the table up front. On his website, he added a section on “Scandals and Controversy” that covered any indiscretions he felt should be public knowledge relating to sex, religion, personal finances, family and privacy. There we learned everything from the fact that Dyer is into open relationships, to that he has slept with married women, to that he carries $100,000 in student loan debt, to that he has fights with his ex-wife, and to the fact that he was homeless at one point. He admitted to sexting and recording sex (consensually), too.
The confessional went viral, and to Dyer, the reasoning was simple. “I knew that my life had been nontraditional,” he told MEL when we interviewed him back in May. “So while I didn’t know the exact form it was going to take, I knew I was going to do something in that regard. I didn’t want to go around, build up a political following, get people excited and then have something come out where people say, ‘You weren’t honest with me.’ Instead, I wanted every person who gets on board with my campaign to know exactly who I am, what I believe in and what I’ve done.”
That’s novel enough in an age where every politician must convey a spotless, God-fearing, family-values sort of life that withstands intense scrutiny. But Dyer’s thinking and its positive response may actually represent a more progressive, less Puritanical understanding of and preference for the type of people we want to lead us. Maybe we are sick of so-called pillars of society who turn out to be secret sleazeballs; maybe we just want them to be human, with accountability.
Of course, the “honest politician” is a bit of an oxymoron. Politicians must be deal-makers, which means pitching one thing and hashing out quite another in a back room. They might sometimes meet the note they promise, but that doesn’t always mean they’ll meet the spirit. The honest gambit can work as often as it can backfire.
Obama admitted to smoking pot before he ran for president in 2008, in a clear contrast to Bill Clinton, who claimed in 1992 that he had never inhaled. And it worked for Obama. But in 1984, when Walter Mondale said he’d raise taxes just like Ronald Reagan with the famous caveat “He won’t tell you. I just did,” he lost. Badly. As The Washington Post notes in an examination of Mondale’s losing truth strategy, the problem wasn’t with the truth; it was the way Republicans used it to teach a “no good deed goes unpunished” lesson, twisting it to make it look like the Democrats wouldn’t know what to do with the financial windfall more taxes would bring.
We may be moving toward an era where some disclosures are simply required because proof abounds. Dyer argues that in an age of ubiquitous technology, “what people think, do and have done throughout their lives is now going to be part of the record, and politicians are learning to adapt.”
That may be true. But even Dyer’s move, while admirable on some levels, also seems like a bit of a humble brag, kind of a standard male insistence that, just so you know, he’s definitely gotten laid a lot. It’s hard to imagine this working for any woman, and it’s easy to understand why most of us would rather not picture our potential leaders in the sack at all if possible.
Still, I’m willing to bet most of us would take that image any day if it’s in the interest of fair disclosure and values-establishment—as opposed to someone like would-be governor and current Supreme Court Justice O’Neill, who thinks bragging about getting laid a lot makes a point about the privacy of sexual pasts. In reality, he just comes off as an old dude well past any imaginable prime, trying to look fuckable — and only shows that truth is valuable only if it’s the right kind.
Proof his little truth bomb backfired is that public and potential voters had a field day with it, noting that his sad attempt at satire not only “trivializes sexual assault” but, as commenter Janine Dunmyre expertly slapped, just sounds tone-deaf and disgusting.
“What. The. Fuck. Is. Wrong. With. You,” she writes. “You are equivocating your consensual affairs with sexual harassment and assault. Also taking the opportunity to brag about yourself. Just gross. Asshole.”