Sexual Harassment, Chapter 999

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Clinton, even before "fatigue" was attached to his name, had ruined many things for me: running shorts, McDonald's, whitewater, anything in navy from the Gap. Now he's gone and taken all the appeal out of that journalistic treasure house: a sexual-harassment charge against a prominent politician.

Last week my blood just didn't race in that Paula Jones way when Roll Call ran the story that Montana Senator Max Baucus, 57 and married, had fired his chief of staff, Christine Niedermeier, 47 and not married, under contested circumstances. He said it was because of staff complaints that she was a lousy manager who was causing staff defections. She said (and only reluctantly when she realized there was going to be a story critical of her) that it was because she had asked him to stop making sexual advances. He then said she was making that up to divert attention from her bad performance and that he had a petition signed by 36 staff members attesting to it. She then contended he had trumped up the management excuse--and produced the petition--after he got unjustifiably concerned that she was going to go public with her accusations. Baucus has denied making any such advances and says he wants her to present her case in court under oath. She hasn't decided whether to go further because Senate procedure requires that she first exhaust her administrative remedies on his playing field, where the Senate provides him with counsel.

As the statements and counterstatements piled ever higher, I wondered if there was a thong or late-night pizza in the stack somewhere, a grope in a private study while a head of state was arriving for dinner or, better yet, some tapes, preferably of phone sex. It's going to take a lot to engage a jaded, sated public in yet another one of these cases, exhausted as we are by years of Clinton scandals and the sexual-harassment suit of the century, which came to resemble an Italian opera. Everyone is dead at the end.

But the Jones case didn't just drain our collective attention span. It alerted us to just how much the law of sexual harassment had expanded over the past decade. We moved from a time when a boss asking a woman to get the coffee or meet him in the file closet was neither a cause nor a cause of action, to a time when one pass or one bad joke is enough for a lawsuit. Plaintiffs can go on fishing expeditions so extensive that consensual affairs are fair game and totally innocent bystanders can be subpoenaed to prove that they were promoted on merit and not because they slept with the boss. Many corporations are adopting protective policies designed to cleanse the workplace of any sex, in hopes of preventing the actionable kind. Power is presumed to contaminate all workplace relationships. That means someone in an inferior position is thought incapable of freely agreeing to one, and an executive who wants to get involved with an underling does so at his peril.

Since work is where we spend most of our time and where many of us meet our spouses, you have to wonder whether all this regulation isn't threatening the propagation of the species. Other freedoms, like speech and association, were getting shortchanged in the rush to protect women from sexual harassment. Almost everyone was alarmed when one guy was fired for repeating a Seinfeld joke at the water cooler.

Feminists did not realize how much the law had tilted in favor of the victims until they found themselves on the side of the accused. Many were in the disingenuous position of arguing that Paula Jones really didn't have anything to complain about when asked to "kiss it" but that Anita Hill just a few years earlier deserved our wholehearted concern.

I knew the public had just had it with the he-said, she-said battles when Juanita Broaddrick gave interviews last year in which she said that then Governor Bill Clinton had forced himself on her, and the controversy lasted barely 1 1/2 news cycles. But even as I see the word quagmire forming in my brain, I realize we can't abandon the field. As a former Connecticut state legislator and two-time Democratic nominee for Congress, Niedermeier can probably take care of herself. But there are plenty of women out there with fewer resources who can't. Just last week the women at two Ford Motor Co. plants finally got the firm to acknowledge that life for them had been hellish--that they should no longer be subjected to obscene graffiti, verbal and physical abuse and retaliation for complaining about it. In a settlement, Ford agreed to pay them nearly $8 million and to ensure that three years from now, 30% of its supervisors will be women. So just because we're tired of Clinton doesn't mean we should tire of the cause. Boredom shouldn't make us forget that bad things still happen to good women.