Judging the Past Today

by David A. Lehrer

The media firestorm surrounding Vice-President Joe Biden’s interactions with women is a stark reminder of the perils of public life. Public figures are especially subject to the sanctimonious and self-righteous imposition of today’s mores and values on actions of a prior time when different standards and norms applied.

Given our nation’s and our media’s profound lack of historic perspective, it is no surprise that actions of years ago are viewed as if they were of today. That myopia is partnered with a singular unwillingness by the media and pundits to take the time to explain how times have changed---in many cases, very rapidly.

As a caveat to this discussion, the changing ethos of America is not an explanation or justification for certain types of conduct. There is a vast distinction between marginally troublesome acts alleged to have been committed by Biden and those proudly described by President Trump in his Access Hollywood tape (as well as the allegations of several of Trump’s victims)—they are worlds apart.

First, Trump’s own words betrayed an intent to “grab ‘em by their pu**ies….” A lustful and sexual goal---conduct that is unacceptable now and has been since time immemorial. There is no expiration date on boorish and disgusting behavior.

On the other hand, in Biden’s case---at least so far---there is no allegation that he was animated to touch people by a lascivious desire to sexually engage with them. The complaints are about personal space and the tactile nature of his interactions (which, apparently, included men). That kind of conduct was acceptable, or more precisely, tolerable a few years ago; today it can get someone fired. 

Virtually anyone fifty or older has, during their career, probably encountered older gentlemen who had no compunction about hugging colleagues or acquaintances (especially younger women) without seeking prior approval; it was considered to be tolerable conduct. In the instances I witnessed involving older colleagues, it was avuncular, not predatory, behavior.

In addition to not distinguishing between insensitive and predatory behavior, there are many voices which claim that a man’s intention is irrelevant and the assertions of discomfort by the female must be accepted as genuine and legitimate, no matter the circumstances.

As one who has been active in the civil rights field for nearly half a century, my experience has taught me that it is a serious mistake to accept claims of “victims” of bigotry or untoward conduct without applying a reasonable person standard to

the allegations. There are too many people who see boogeymen and threats and dangers where non exist or where ambiguous conduct exists. I NEVER accepted a claim of discrimination as true without attempting to verify the claims AND also determine whether a reasonable person in similar circumstances would feel similarly aggrieved. This was not to denigrate the genuineness of the complainant’s feelings, it was to determine if there was a claim that merited pursuit and could be actionable.  

I had a good many complainants leave my office dissatisfied---their concerns were often heartfelt but made no sense in a rough and tumble world where behaviors can be perceived as potentially offensive and simultaneously benign and innocuous.  To accept every assertion of grievance at face value is a mistake, #MeToo notwithstanding.

The Biden piling on also reflects a longing by many in the punditry and the electorate to imagine a candidate who has led an error free life---no missteps, no insensitive comments, no actions that don’t comply with the latest rules of political correctness. Good luck!

Were modern standards of political toxicity applied to some of America’s greatest leaders of the past century---some historic heroes would never have impacted our history.

Justice Hugo Black, one of the great US Supreme Court justices of the twentieth century, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth in Alabama. By today’s standards he would never have had an opportunity to prove that joining the Klan was an act of youthful political expediency, not of beliefs. He would have been shunted aside and never would have been able to vote for desegregation in Brown v Board or called for the “immediate desegregation of schools” in 1969.

Harry Truman, the first president to commit the country to equality for all Americans since Reconstruction and who desegregated the armed forces, would have been discarded if his youthful (and not so youthful) racist letters referring to Blacks as “ni**ers” and “c**ns” were widely known. Ditto for Lyndon B. Johnson, the man responsible for the most important civil rights legislation in American history. He would frequently refer to Blacks as “ni**ers” and Asians as “barbaric yellow dwarves.”

Eleanor Roosevelt as a young woman wrote terribly disparaging comments about Jews. She described future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter as “an interesting little man but very Jew” and dismissed in bigoted terms a party thrown for financier Bernard Baruch (who was Jewish) “The Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels, and sables mentioned again….[it was the kind of party] I’d rather be hung [sic] than seen at.”

Unless a degree of discernment and sophistication enters the discussion of matters involving discrimination and insensitive conduct we will be writing off as public servants good people who may have made a mistake in their past or who---like most people---reflect the temper of their times and just need some help to catch up.