When I arrived in Washington in 2005, Mark Halperin and Leon Wieseltier occupied the commanding heights of political journalism. Halperin was the editor of ABC’s the Note, a daily political news digest that the New Yorker called “the most influential tip sheet in Washington.” Wieseltier was the philosopher-king editing the New Republic’s arts and culture section, but his influence extended deep into the rest of the magazine, and into liberal journalism broadly. As Halperin defined the conventional wisdom of the political elite, Wieseltier defined it for the liberal intelligentsia — he was, wrote Vanity Fair, Washington’s “aesthetic and moral arbiter.”
In recent days, Halperin and Wieseltier have been accused of serial sexual harassment and predation. Numerous women have come forward to accuse Halperin of behavior ranging from demanding they sit on his lap to discuss their reporting to rubbing his erections on them (Halperin denies the charges). Wieseltier’s behavior, meanwhile, was so known that ex-New Republic editor Michelle Cottle says it can’t even be described as an open secret — “it was simply out in the open.” Wieseltier was lecherous, objectifying, demeaning, and bullying. He leered at his female employees, groped and kissed them at work functions, left them thank-you notes for wearing miniskirts to the office, and humiliated them when they rejected his advances.
What does it mean that these men — and so many others liked them — held the power to literally shape America’s political narrative? What does it mean, as New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister noted on Twitter, that the story of, say, Hillary Clinton’s public career was told by these sorts of men?
One does not need to dig very deep into Halperin and Wieseltier’s work to find echoes of their private behavior in their public comments. “For Leon, women fell on a spectrum ranging from Humorless Prig to Game Girl, based on how much of his sexual banter, innuendo, and advances she would put up with,” writes Cottle. It’s an observation that sheds considerable light on Wieseltier’s oft-expressed contempt for Clinton. In 2007, Wieseltier told the New York Times that she was “like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won’t stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone.”
Halperin, for his part, dismissed reports that Donald Trump had groped, demeaned, and harassed women over the course of his long life in the public eye. “If that’s the best they got on these issues and Donald Trump, Donald Trump should be celebrating that story,” Halperin said on MSNBC. “There’s some troubling things in the piece, but there’s nothing illegal, there’s nothing even kind of, like, beyond boorish or politically incorrect.”
It’s 2017, and the United States of America has never elected a woman president. Congress is less than 20 percent female. Only three of Trump’s 16 Cabinet officials are women. Clinton, for her part, struggled with persistent claims that there was just something unlikable, something grating, something shrill about her. She was often told to smile more, to stop shouting. She ran against a lying boor who was, for all his faults, lauded for speaking from the gut and appearing to enjoy himself on the campaign trail, while she was criticized for appearing too diligent, too earnest, too calculated. Strikingly, the same claims made against Clinton are now being made against Elizabeth Warren.
We routinely underestimate what it means that our political system has been constructed and interpreted by men, that our expectations for politicians have been set by generations of male politicians and shaped by generations of male pundits. “Just the way that he talked about prominent women, it was clear they were second tier to male intellectuals,” one ex-New Republic staffer told Splinter of Wieseltier.
The most influential institutions in America have long had serial sexual abusers and deep misogynists at their apex. Those abusers didn’t just shape their workplaces or their industries; they shaped our politics, our culture, and our country.