Saturday, October 04, 2003

The October Surprise

This article by Susan Estrich (national campaign manager for Michael Dukakis in 1988, and hardly a Republican water-carrier) really says all there needs to be said about the disgusting ambush of Schwarzenegger laid out by the LA Times:

So this is the October surprise? The Los Angeles Times headline that Arnold Schwarzenegger groped and humiliated women?

None of the six women interviewed by The Times filed legal charges. Four of the six were quoted anonymously. Of the two who were named, one, a British television hostess, had told her story to Premiere magazine years ago, and it has been widely known and largely ignored. The other recounts an alleged incident of fondling at Gold's Gym nearly 30 years ago.

The anonymous incidents occurred on movie sets and consist of touching a woman's breast in the elevator, whispering vulgarities and pulling a woman onto his lap. Though emphasizing that not everything in the stories was accurate, the candidate responded Thursday with an apology: "Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful, but now I recognize that I offended people." And he pledged to treat women with respect if elected.

As a professor of sex discrimination law for two decades and an expert on sexual harassment, I certainly don't condone the unwanted touching of women that was apparently involved here. But these acts do not appear to constitute any crime, such as rape or sodomy or even assault or battery. As for civil law, sexual harassment requires more than a single case of unwelcome touching; there must be either a threat or promise of sex in exchange for a job benefit or demotion, or the hostile environment must be severe and pervasive.

But none of these women, as The Times emphasizes, ever came forward to complain. The newspaper went looking for them, and then waited until five days before the election to tell the fragments of the story.

What this story accomplishes is less an attack on Schwarzenegger than a smear on the press. It reaffirms everything that's wrong with the political process. Anonymous charges from years ago made in the closing days of a campaign undermine fair politics.

Facing these charges, a candidate has two choices. If he denies them, the story keeps building and overshadows everything else he does. Schwarzenegger's bold apology is a gamble to make the story go away. It may or may not work.

But here's my prediction, as a Californian: It's too late for the Los Angeles Times' charges to have much impact. People have made up their minds. This attack, coming as late as it does, from a newspaper that has been acting more like a cheerleader for Gray Davis than an objective source of information, will be dismissed by most people as more Davis-like dirty politics. Is this the worst they could come up with? Ho-hum. After what we've been through?

To his credit, Schwarzenegger apologized for "behaving badly." So should the Los Angeles Times.