The Mighty Have Fallen — Some of Them

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Matt Lauer on the "Today" set in 2009. Photo by Chad McNeeley, U.S. Navy.

It wasn’t all that long ago that President Donald Trump, in another one of his almost daily Twitter tussles, was suggesting that Time magazine had said that he would be the national weekly’s “Person of the Year” (with some provisos), an honor he had already received last year for his startling election to the presidency of the United States.

Trump said he demurred, apparently preferring a certainty to a probability

But by yesterday, Nov. 29, when news came that Matt Lauer, the preeminent host of NBC’s “Today” show for the past 20 years, had been fired over an allegation of sexual misconduct, the only certainty was that President Trump would probably not be “Person of the Year.”

Time’s honoree could simply be a faceless, fistful woman, a composite for the increasing number of women who had come forward courageously with accusations of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault and even rape in some cases. Most of the complaints and charges came from the workplace, where powerful men ruled the roost and repeatedly put female employees in humiliating, unpleasant, often terrifying situations, where sex was often used as a form of barter and emotional and physical bullying.

The accused were powerful men, some of them prominent and famous — and sometimes that was the case for their accusers. The work arenas ranged from Hollywood — where the storm is threatening to become a tsunami — to Capitol Hill and the media.

It began back in October with accusations against Harvey Weinstein, the powerful producer of edgy, quality, Oscar-winning movies, whose accusers and storytellers included stars and starlets. It was like somebody had started a forest fire with a blowtorch. Tales about Weinsteins sexual proclivities (he apparently like to have women watch him nude or masturbating) piled into the mainstream media like stink bombs, and big names popped up: Paltrow, Jolie, Judd.

Soon enough, other accusers showed up, not just against Weinstein, who in short order lost his job, his executive position at Miramax and his membership in the Motion Picture Association of America. Stories came out about actors — Jeremy Pivin, Jeffrey Tambor, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman — comedians like Louis C.K. (with Bill Cosby as a kind of grandfathered forerunner), producers and so on.

The media was soon engulfed — anchor Charlie Rose, New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, NPR entertainer Garrison Keillor — and along the way, perhaps most egregiously, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore, was accused of trying to seduce a 14-year-old when he was in his 30s. Other accusers of Moore, most of them way too young, have appeared since.

Some of this is not exactly news. The press itself has ignored rampant practices among politicians and celebrities. Witness the sagas of JFK (and earlier presidents), when members of the press knew a lot but said nothing. And as for Hollywood, listening to some of the non-accused men and stars talking about how little they knew or how shocked they were is like a tourist being surprised to find a gator in the Everglades.

Lest we forget Mr. Trump (and how can we do that?), the president was famously the star of an “Access Hollywood” video in which he appeared to brag about being able to touch young women anytime he pleased. This and other revelations almost derailed his presidential campaign. Lately he has taken to suggesting that the voice in the video might not have been his.

An interesting aspect of this ongoing super-scandal is how private and political interests differed in their handling of it. When actors, anchors, stars, producers were accused, they tended to get fired, and fast, or their movies or series were closed down. When a politician was earmarked — not only Moore but Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and former comedian Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) — investigations ensued.

But with politicians, maybe it comes down to this: As Trump said, we can’t have a liberal Democrat senator in Alabama. Not all the mighty, in other words, have fallen … yet.

The sheer numbers of accused and accusers and the strength of the scandals — launching a #metoo wave on social media — seem to be having a hopeful and surprising result. They may lead to a sincere national conversation about work and sex and human rights and justice, a time when men and women start to look at each other with an eye toward real understanding. Even in Congress, where legislators are protected by laws that discourage if not prevent victims from speaking out and being heard, changes are afoot.

There is a danger in all of this of course — that people might not bother or be able to separate the trivial from the serious. What begins as an opportunity can be swamped by the opportunistic.

We’ve all thought that we’ve been living in the age of Trump this whole year. But the sex-in-the-workplace issue is here to stay and has, if not erased the Trump noise, certainly lowered its volume.

Not that Trump has kept his head down. The sexual harassment scandal is an obvious problem for him, since every time there’s a new name and a new accusation, Trump’s name comes up too.

And Trump has been busy. He may yet get his first win with the GOP tax plan. He completed a huge Asian trip which was a total triumph, according to him. He appeared gleeful with the Lauer story (except that he complained of NBC’s “fake news” practices). He predicted that the Russian scandal would be over by Christmas while leading a battle to preserve Christmas. He remained the nemesis of pro athletes who refuse to follow protocol during performances of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” And in a graceless act, he managed to insult Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) by once again calling her “Pocohantas” while honoring Navajo code talkers for their World War II service.

While that’s enough publicity to coast with, it probably won’t be enough for a “Person of the Year” award.

That just might go to #metoo. And #youtoo.

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