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Cokie Roberts On Politicians And Sexual Harassment


Let's ask Cokie about sexual harassment in Congress. The subject comes up now because of allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. And it turns out there is some history here. Let's listen to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, back in the 1980s, announcing the censure of two lawmakers for their sexual activity with congressional pages.


TIP O'NEILL: I have been instructed by the members of the House, your peers, to read to you the following result that Representative Daniel B. Crane be censured. Mr. Gerry Studds, I have been instructed by a vote of the Congress of the United States, your peers, that Representative Gerry E. Studds be censured.

INSKEEP: That recording is from a story by a congressional reporter active back in 1983, one Cokie B. Roberts who is now here to answer your questions about how Washington works. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. That was a dramatic day in Congress.

INSKEEP: It must have been one of many. And let's get a question from a listener about the past here.

ALYSSA GEISLER: My name is Alyssa Geisler (ph). And I live in Brooklyn, N.Y. What was the first prominent and publicly discussed incident of a U.S. politician being accused of sexual harassment and has there since been a shift in the rhetoric used in discussions on this topic?


ROBERTS: Well, there's a huge shift in the rhetoric. It's everywhere in the last few weeks, as you all know. People are ready to call out the act of harassment, if not, necessarily the harasser himself. That's a big difference from years and years of just putting up with it.

I mean, we all have stories of being chased around desk, of having hands on our knees at correspondent dinners. And then Strom Thurmond, Senator from South Carolina, was in the category of his own. He once kissed me on the mouth live on the air at a political convention.

INSKEEP: And there was nothing for you to do about this, except...

ROBERTS: No, no, we - there we were. Hi, Senator.

INSKEEP: OK. Now the other part of the question is, when were these incidents first discussed in public?

ROBERTS: Well, of course, there's a difference between sexual encounters - which go back to Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, which was made public in 1802, on up to powerful Congressman Wayne Hays hiring an unqualified woman as his mistress. But the first sighting of a member of Congress on harassment, per se, was Jim Bates in 1989. And his punishment, Steve - he was told to write a letter of apology to the woman he repeatedly harass.

INSKEEP: Well, times have changed. And along the way in that history, there was the case of Oregon Senator Bob Packwood who was accused of sexually assaulting at least 10 women, which is the subject of our next question.

BILL FANT: This is Bill Fant (ph) from Bethesda, Md. Did the Senate act admirably at the time of the Packwood scandal?

INSKEEP: Did the Senate act admirably?

ROBERTS: I actually do think so. The Ethics Committee led by one, Mitch McConnell, heard lots of testimony from these women and voted to expel Bob Packwood, a very senior member of the Senate liked by many of his colleagues. And Mitch McConnell led the charge.

The Democrats wanted to make everything public. The Republicans resisted that. And Packwood resigned, sparing his colleagues the pain of voting to expel him. That takes a two-thirds vote, Steve. But the ethics committee had voted unanimously to expel Bob Packwood. So it's some indication of where it would have gone had it gone to Senate vote.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the present day now because we have a question from John Balla (ph), who essentially asks, what recourse do people have if they feel they have been abused by a member of Congress today?

ROBERTS: Well, in the wake of the Packwood scandal, the Congressional Accountability Act was passed in 1995 to bring the legislative branch under all the laws they impose on everybody else - civil rights, workplace laws, et cetera.

But that sounds better than it is, Steve. It's very onerous for the accuser. There are long delays, including 30 days of counseling for the victim before a formal complaint can be filed. Women members of both the House and Senate are trying to change that law.

INSKEEP: Cokie, the Strom Thurmond story is still in my mind. It might be hard to get out. But I'm curious, overall, over many decades, has Congress been a harder place than any place else for a woman to work undisturbed, so to speak?

ROBERTS: Well, it's been a hard place to work undisturbed. But it's also been a good place to work when you want to get policy done because there are lots and lots of women making important decisions on Capitol Hill.

INSKEEP: Cokie, always a pleasure talking with you.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at askCokie@npr.org or tweeting us with the hashtag #askCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.