Hillary Clinton personally protected a senior adviser on her 2008 campaign who was accused of repeated sexual harassment, according to a New York Times report on Friday. A 30-year-old campaign staffer told a higher-up in 2008 that Burns Strider, who consulted with the then-candidate on faith issues, “rubbed her shoulders inappropriately, kissed her on the forehead and sent her a string of suggestive emails, including at least one during the night,” the Times reported.* The accuser was reassigned to a new position. The accused, at Clinton’s own request, was kept on the payroll after forfeiting a few paychecks and agreeing to counseling.
These revelations are particularly damning because Clinton, who has been a conspicuous advocate for women’s rights for decades, reportedly ignored her campaign manager’s advice to fire Strider. Clinton not only knew about Strider’s alleged harassment—she took extra steps, against staff recommendations, to keep him on the team. On the continuum from bystander to accomplice, Clinton sits uncomfortably close to the latter end.
For the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, insofar as it exists, that’s a good thing. If interpreted correctly, this Clinton report will function much the same as “Your Fave Is Problematic,” the blog that launched a popular catchphrase for beloved celebrities doing and saying dastardly (usually racist, sexist, or homophobic) things. It is, in other words, evidence that sexual harassment can thrive even in a workplace that is the culture’s most on-the-nose symbol of women’s empowerment. It disproves the comforting and false idea that people can be easily sorted into piles of good and bad actors when, in fact, there are a thousand degrees in between. And it is a striking reminder that women, too—to protect their own careers, friends, or self-image—sometimes help male abusers keep up their abuse.
In Strider’s case, Clinton’s support in 2008 meant he got a cushy gig five years later leading pro-Clinton superPAC Correct the Record. The Times reports that he was soon fired for “workplace issues,” including (you guessed it!) alleged harassment of a young woman on staff. Had Clinton fired him after the first report of sexual harassment—which she and her staff members clearly believed to be credible, since they imposed financial penalties and mandatory counseling—Strider might have been stopped before harassing again.
There is value in this opportunity to evaluate the distance between Clinton’s words and actions. A culture-wide, generations-long epidemic of workplace sexual harassment and assault doesn’t persist without a broad network of complicity, composed of individuals with varying degrees of knowledge and culpability. For any movement against sexual misconduct to succeed, and for observers to fully grasp the machinations of abuse, that network must be scrutinized as thoroughly as the abusers themselves. The New York Times’ reporting on Harvey Weinstein revealed a slew of female executives willing to lure women to meet alone with Weinstein, in addition to a whole class of female assistants employed specifically to facilitate the producer’s bathrobe-and-hotel scheme. Some of those women might be considered victims themselves. That’s not the case with Clinton, who appears to have willingly put her friend’s career and her campaign’s immediate PR concerns above the safety of her female employees. Still, both Clinton and the likes of Weinstein’s assistants belong somewhere in the web of non-abusers who grease the wheels of abuse. We are only starting to understand how those wheels move.
This entry in the ongoing #MeToo saga may frustrate progressives, as did the assault allegations against former Minnesota senator Al Franken, for their illumination of the higher standards for left-leaning politicians. It would hardly be news if a Republican presidential candidate allowed a harasser to keep his job; it would be astonishing news if there wasn’t rampant harassment in, say, the ranks of the Donald Trump campaign. On Friday, the Republican National Committee was silent after its finance chair, Steve Wynn, was accused by dozens of women of sexual misconduct in a Wall Street Journal report. And few were surprised to hear the allegations against Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and the rest of the Fox News crew, because Fox News displayed just as much contempt for women on air as its male stars did behind the scenes.
But, as I argued when Franken resigned, holding Democrats to a higher standard is a good thing if it means fewer instances in which a woman who’s harassed by a higher-up gets reassigned while her harasser gets a slap on the wrist. According to the Times, in previous months, no former Clinton campaign staffers would speak about the 2008 incident. “That changed in the wake of the #MeToo movement,” the piece says. Today’s brighter spotlight on harassment and abuse is already encouraging progressives to point fingers at one of the most powerful figures on their side. The shame of this public showing of ethical dissonance should be enough to scare them into transforming their own workplaces, too.
Correction, Jan 28., 2018: This article originally misstated the first name of the faith adviser to Hillary Clinton. He is Burns Strider, not Burt Strider.