If there is one good thing to come out of the controversy surrounding Harvey Weinstein, it’s the general sense that women (and hopefully men) are no longer going to stay silent when it comes to the serious issue of sexual assault and harassment affecting women at every corner. This has led to a large number of women coming forth to accuse a multitude of powerful men of sexual harassment — including two actresses who recounted very similar stories of 93-year-old former President George HW Bush groping them from his wheelchair.
The first accusation came from actress Heather Lind, star of TV show Turn: Washington’s Spies, who claimed in a since-deleted Instagram post that , whilst they were posing for a photo op in 2014, George Bush Sr. “touched me from behind from his wheelchair” and then told a “dirty joke.” It seems that Lind had been encouraged by the outcry surrounding the reveal of Weinstein’s behavior to tell her story – using the much popularized #metoo hashtag that emerged in response – and by an image of Obama shaking his fellow former President’s hand during a hurricane fundraiser.
In response to this, Bush Sr.’s spokesperson Jim McGrath issued this statement to CNN: “President Bush would never — under any circumstance — intentionally cause anyone distress, and he most sincerely apologizes if his attempt at humor offended Ms. Lind,”
Since then, actress Jordana Grolnick has also come forward to outlet Deadline about a similar interaction with the former President. In the statement, Grolnick talks about how George HW Bush “reached his right hand around to my behind, and as we smiled for the photo he asked the group, ‘Do you want to know who my favorite magician is?’ As I felt his hand dig into my flesh, he said, ‘David Cop-a-Feel!’” causing others in the room to “laughed politely and out of discomfort” whilst former First Lady Barbara Bush “said something along the lines of, ‘He’s going to get himself put into jail!’” Previously, Grolnick dismissed the incident as Bush Sr being a “dirty old man” but she too felt encouraged by the #metoo movement to speak out, stating she “should have been a little more alarmed to be touched so inappropriately by a man who was once the leader of the free world.”
Another statement was then released by Jim McGrath: “To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”
This response to these accusation does not seem strong enough, whilst I understand that George Bush Sr is an elderly man, grounded in cultures and values of the past, that doesn’t excuse any of these incidents.
Plenty of old people manage to make it through the day without groping women or making inappropriate jokes, and to dismiss the actions of someone who is still a powerful man in the minds of most Americans as a ‘joke’ can only contribute to a culture that excuses and trivializes incidents like this daily, a culture that allowed men like Weinstein to operate unchallenged for so long.
If we accept that Bush Sr. ‘patt[ing] women’s rears’ is ‘good-natured’ then we have to extend that to other men too, when the reality is that being touched without consent can be a genuinely distressing and disturbing experience, regardless of whether it’s a stranger in an alley or an aging former President.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter if some have seen this invasion of their bodies as “innocent'” – as McGrath’s statement claims – because it contributes to a culture that is anything but innocent. So, no George Bush Sr., it is not ‘innocent’ to touch women without their consent or to joke about doing so, and it is definitely not ok just because he is old or used to be powerful.
Jordana Grolnick put it perfectly when she finished recounting the incident: “What I’ve come to realize is that if we tolerate these small comments and grazes from men on the street or former presidents, they might assume that it’s ok with us, and they may take it as permission to do who-knows-what-else. I realize that making light of the situation was the wrong move. It wasn’t ok for him to do that to me. He wasn’t able to give me a job or a movie deal, so I didn’t feel compromised or pressured to do anything more, but the comments and assumptions about our bodies must stop, at all levels.”