In Washington and Hollywood, principle is sad matter of timing

In Washington and Hollywood, principle is sad matter of timing
© Greg Nash

In Washington and Hollywood, principle, like politics, is always a matter of timing. With a constantly growing list of politicians and celebrities accused of sexual harassment or assault, many long silent figures are suddenly calling for action. Democrats are now saying, more than 20 years too late, that they believe that Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWhy did it take so long for Trump to drain the swamp of Pruitt? An orthodox legal life and the case for Judge Kavanaugh Ex-CIA officer: Prosecution of Russians indicted for DNC hack 'ain't ever going to happen' MORE raped a woman and sexually assaulted others.

In Hollywood, celebrities and politicians who once fawned over producer Harvey Weinstein have come forward to say that they now stand with his accusers, after decades of his well-known abuse of women. In Alabama, numerous people are coming forward to discuss former Alabama chief justice and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore’s creepy and possibly criminal penchant for very young girls.

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Many in Washington put their ethics on layaway during the Clinton presidency and that bill is suddenly due. Despite his denials, Clinton did little to hide prowling for women throughout his career and, like Moore and Weinstein, multiple women accused him of a strikingly similar pattern of sexual assault and even rape. At the time, however, the White House and Congress was at stake and no one was prepared to believe anything that would threaten political control.

Now, a poll found 53 percent of those who voted for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE believe the allegations of sexual assault and rape against Bill Clinton, allegations that the former first lady herself once dismissed as just new “bimbo eruptions.” While it has become more and more difficult not to “believe” the many victims coming forward in the various scandals, there remain sharp differences in what believing means in a modern scandal.

Public figures often accept blame or cast blame when it no longer threatens personal costs for them to do so. The key is to suspend your belief in victims until your believing is beneficial. One of those proclaiming that she now believes Clinton’s accusers is Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth Gillibrand2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser Midterms will show voters are tired of taking back seat to Wall Street McConnell: I won't be intimidated by protesters MORE (D-N.Y.), a long Clinton defender and the person who took the seat in the Senate once occupied by Hillary Clinton, apologized and said that Bill Clinton should have resigned after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. She has been joined by some other reluctant Democrats who now say that they were wrong.

The sudden epiphany of ethics from long silent politicians and commentators has left Clinton diehards with only a type of transactional ethics. Former Hillary Clinton adviser Philippe Reines reminded everyone that, once bought, you are supposed to stay bought. Reines tweeted angrily in response to Gillibrand that for more than 20 years she “took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite.” Reines does not offer a denial of Bill Clinton’s conduct, only an objection to selling out and then trying to cash in.

It is also possible to believe victims while supporting the victimizer. Take Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who left many scratching their heads last week when she announced that she had “no reason to disbelieve” any of the women accusing Moore of acts ranging from sexual assault to sexual harassment to the pursuit of young girls at malls. But she still said that she would vote for Moore because “we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on the things like Supreme Court justices.”

The public admission that she would vote for a presumed sexual assaulter of young girls on a blind party basis is almost refreshing in its honesty, if it were not completely devoid of any moral foundation. Ivey is saying that she is willing to put a man in the Senate who was allegedly barred from malls as a danger to young girls because he is “our” alleged sexual predator. Few politicians are willing to be that honest in expressing a completely amoral viewpoint. It is particularly curious when you are saying that you will vote for a presumed immoral man who is fraudulently running on a moral platform because you want to support good morals.

Lena Dunham recently showed the flipside of calculated belief. Sometimes it is beneficial to believe even if you actually do not believe accusers. When Murray Miller, writer for the HBO series “Girls,” was accused of sexual assault by actress Aurora Perrineau, Dunham and executive producer Jenni Konner issued a statement in support of Miller. While noting other worthy claims of assault and harassment, they said this was the “wrong target” and that “our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.”

Despite revealing their “insider information” about the claims as the basis for their letter, they were quickly denounced for not standing by the accuser regardless of such information. Nevertheless, “What We Lose” author Zinzi Clemmons called Dunham a “hipster racist,” writing that she was quitting Dunham’s weekly online newsletter and that it is “time for women of color, black women in particular, to divest from Lena Dunham.”

Dunham quickly issued an apology and promised to believe the accuser despite saying that she did not believe there was an assault, tweeting, “I naively believed it was important to share my perspective on my friend’s situation as it has transpired behind the scenes over the last few months. I now understand it was absolutely the wrong time to come forward with such a statement and I am so sorry.”

Recently, the New Hampshire Democratic Party held its annual Kennedy Clinton Dinner. Faced with calls for the party to drop Bill Clinton’s name from the dinner due to the sexual assault allegation, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley used a classic Washington side step and said, “I think it would be an interesting conversation right after we see the resignation of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit MORE.”

In other words, you do not have an obligation to act ethically because it is right, but rather you can wait to act when others are acting ethically. It is akin to saying that you did nothing on sexual harassment because other people didn’t do anything. This is the same spin used by Hillary Clinton in refusing to release her Wall Street speeches until Trump released his taxes. The result is that both parties get to refuse to address ethical questions while waiting for the other do so.

Strangely, in this motley crew, Ivey’s approach of “I choose party over ethics” comes strangely the closest to a consistent ethical position. In American politics, that is what passes for principle. It is also why it is not the absence but the pretense of principle that is so maddening among our ethically challenged leaders.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. He testified in the Clinton impeachment hearings. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.