In some cases, the moral compromises weren’t ideological. When Marty fired Michael Kelly (who later became the editor of The Atlantic), in part because Kelly was critical of Marty’s friend and former student Al Gore, I considered resigning. But I feared I’d never find another job I enjoyed as much. Two years later, I was editor myself.
In ways I didn’t recognize at the time, those concessions created the template for my response to my former colleague Sarah Wildman when, in 2002, she told me about Leon’s inappropriate sexual advances. I believed her and grasped the seriousness of the charge. I also knew that I lacked authority over Leon. He had been literary editor since I was an intern and for decades enjoyed complete autonomy over the “back of the book.” The magazine had no sexual-harassment procedures. So I called Marty—who spent most of his time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York—and asked him to come to Washington to tell Leon that his behavior was unacceptable. (Marty has told Vox that I never reported the incident to him and that he doesn’t “remember Sarah Wildman.” Leon did not respond to my request for comment.)
Marty, Leon, and I met at the Willard Hotel. When I confronted him, Leon—who had a gift for intimidation—reacted ferociously. “Is this some kind of intervention?” he roared. Marty didn’t push back. That was it. Leon never admitted to having done anything wrong, and he received no punishment. Sarah, having incurred Leon’s wrath, felt isolated at the magazine and left.
I could have threatened to resign. Given the closeness of their relationship, and the degree to which Marty relied on Leon intellectually, it’s unlikely Marty would have fired Leon to placate me. I was more expendable. On the other hand, firing me over a sexual-harassment charge—even in 2002—would have made TNR look awful. Had I threatened to resign—or simply done so—I might have shifted the power dynamic and forced Marty into taking some action that punished Leon and validated Sarah, which might have begun to erode the impunity that made Leon’s behavior possible.
But I did not. By 2002, I had already made a series of moral compromises in order to stay at TNR, and in ways I didn’t fully realize, each laid the foundation for the next.
I don’t know whether my experience is typical of men who are complicit in institutions that tolerate sexual harassment. What I do know is that the affirmative action I enjoyed, and the sexual harassment Sarah suffered, were connected. I was given extraordinary opportunity at TNR, in large measure, because talented women like Sarah Wildman were not.
In this regard, I suspect, I have something in common with the supporters of Donald Trump. It’s not pleasant to realize that the bygone age you romanticize—the age when America was still great—was great for you, or people like you, because others were denied a fair shot. In the America of the 1950s, or even the 1980s, white, straight, native-born American men didn’t worry as much about competing with Salvadoran immigrants and Chinese factory workers and professional women and Joshua-generation African Americans.