I’ve never liked picking on old guys for being handsy, even if they are long-time civic leaders who liked to rub up against ladies on staff during office hours. I’m not saying that kind of behavior is appropriate, and I applaud the ladies that have come forward leveling those allegations against Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) if they turn out to be true. But, as a member of the chattering class, I stay away from writing about that stuff if I can. It’s almost too complicated for me to suss out, this interplay between men and women, and what happens to a man’s ideas about his own virility as he gets older, etc.
However there are some new allegations against Conyers that are easier to dissect and I think speak to what, to my mind, is actually going on when people say sexual harassment isn’t about sex but about power.
Melanie Sloan, who is a separate accuser from the 4 ladies who charged Conyers with inappropriate touching, says that Conyers didn’t exactly sexually harass her as much as he demeaned and humiliated her, devaluing her as an employee and behaving as if taking meetings in his underwear — which she said he did — was just a perk of being the great John Conyers, civil rights icon and longest serving House representative on The Hill.
Melanie Sloan, a well-known Washington lawyer who for three years in the 1990s worked as Democratic counsel on the House Judiciary Committee, where Conyers remains the ranking Democrat, told the Detroit Free Press that Conyers constantly berated her, screaming at her and firing her and then rehiring her several times.
She said he criticized her for not wearing stockings on at least one occasion. On another, she said he ordered her backstage from a committee field hearing on crime she had organized in New York City to babysit one of his children. Sloan made clear that she did not feel she had ever been sexually harassed, but that she felt “mistreated by this guy.”“I’m no shrinking violet,” said Sloan, who went on to become the executive director for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and later to open Triumph Strategy, a public affairs firm specializing in crisis response. “His constant stream of abuse was difficult to handle and it was certainly damaging to my self-respect and self-esteem.”
“It made me increasingly anxious and depressed about going to work every day. And there was no way to fix it. There was no mechanism I could use, no person I could go to,” she said.
Sloan’s story is interesting because it’s impossible to write her off as the “skintern” with an axe to grind after being rebuffed, or the bitter harpy who’s out for revenge for reporting bad behavior and being “smeared as unstable,” (which Sloan actually says she was). It’s hard to do that because Sloan went on to great success and only spoke up because the other women’s complaints were consistent with how she remembered being treated. “I thought, ‘This is what’s wrong in Washington. No one will ever say anything publicly,’ ” Sloan said of her decision to reveal her story.
And that’s compelling, and is more in line with what usually happens when people abuse power because they’ve been doing it so long they begin to think it’s simply the way things are done: employees under them begin to hate their work and quit, or become cynical and give in. And that’s why Washington is the way it is. The spark of satisfaction at an honest day’s work is berated and bullied out of people.
And of course it would be when a boss has so little respect for a colleague or underling that they call them into their office for a meeting and greet them in nothing but their underwear. It doesn’t have to be sexual in nature. It’s just downright disrespectful. (**UPDATE: a reader pointed me to this piece by Jim Geraghty over at National Review that suggests perhaps Conyers is suffering from an age-related ailment like dementia or Alzheimer’s. If so, as Jim notes, he should have been downgraded from committee assignments and possibly asked to resign long ago.**)
On one occasion, [Sloan] was called to Conyers’ office in the Rayburn House Office building for a meeting and, when she got there, he was in his underwear.
“He was just walking around in his office, not dressed,” she said. “He wasn’t doing it to hit on me. It was more like he could do what he wanted. I was quite shocked by it and left quickly.”
The hope is that with the ethics investigation into Conyers, including a look at the taxpayer money used to pay these ladies off, that the Detroit Representative — and Franken and Moore and anyone else who could potentially misunderstand that there should be a workplace policy of respect for all employees — will stop thinking they can just do what they want, when they want, and to whom they want.
Killing the God complex of some of these abusers is the first step.