Across the media and entertainment universe, powerful men—as of writing, Garrison Keillor is the latest; as of reading, who even knows?—are being felled quickly after allegations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
But inside politics, the repercussions have, so far, been softer. Minnesota Democratic Senator Al Franken, accused of groping several women and giving another an unwanted kiss, has offered a strange mix of contrition and defiance in saying he will stay in office. Roy Moore, the GOP Alabama U.S. Senate candidate, has bounced back in polls after multiple allegations against him that range from the creepy to the criminal. Behind them looms President Trump, who was even recorded boasting about sexual assaults. (Behind him looms Bill Clinton, who escaped impeachment and settled into elder-statesman status.)
But the case of Representative John Conyers, the otherwise venerable Michigan Democrat, is a particularly complex one. It demonstrates the way that a man’s stature can protect him, and how that stature plays into the backlash against him. It also shows how one generation’s pioneers often end up as the next generation’s impediments to progress.
While rumors of widespread hush-hush settlements in Congress abound, the only one that has been revealed so far is one that Conyers’s office reached with a woman in 2015. Conyers denies any wrongdoing, and has said he did not know about the agreement. This week, a second former staffer came forward with allegations of sexual harassment by Conyers. Another, the ethics expert Melanie Sloan, said she was harassed by Conyers while working for him and was once called into his office while he was wearing only underwear, though she did not characterize her experience as sexual harassment.