New York (AFP) – New York’s soon-to-be ex-governor Andrew Cuomo is the latest politician to blame inappropriate behavior on shifting cultural norms, a defense critics see as a tactic to shirk responsibility in the face of scandal.
Prior to his dramatic downfall and resignation, Cuomo was well-known for ruling with a mix of paternalism and pugnacity. He has insisted he always acted within bounds, even as women including former staffers began speaking out against him.
But on Tuesday, one week after the release of a bombshell report from the state attorney general’s office — allegations included inappropriate touching and intimidating accusers — the now politically ostracized 63-year-old said he now realized the boundaries had shifted.
“I have been too familiar with people. My sense of humor can be insensitive and off-putting,” the governor said in a lengthy address announcing he would step down.
“In my mind, I have never crossed the line with anyone,” said the nearly three-term state leader once tapped as a national political contender.
“But I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn. There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate.”
Cuomo — who frequently touted his own efforts to end workplace discrimination, including signing legislation to that effect — is far from the only powerful man accused of sexual misconduct to attribute his behavior to not knowing better.
Former senator Al Franken, who resigned from US Congress in 2017 after snowballing allegations of unwanted touching and kissing, said he “learned from recent stories” that “I crossed a line for some women.”
And President Joe Biden has faced a number of accusations of inappropriate physical contact, which he and his supporters attributed to his touchy-feely style.
“So I invaded your space. I’m sorry this happened,” Biden said, when asked to apologize during the 2020 race.
“I’m not sorry in the sense that I think I did anything that was intentionally designed to do anything wrong or be inappropriate.”
For Jean Sinzdak, an associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, such a defense is “a disingenuous argument and missing the point.”
“This behavior has always been inappropriate,” she told AFP. “There’s nothing new about the fact that it’s inappropriate.”
“It’s just now our society’s understanding that it’s inappropriate, that women have been suffering with this for so long, and it’s no longer acceptable that they suffer.”
Audrey Nelson, a Colorado-based expert in gender communication, called Cuomo’s blame on a generational disconnect “a scapegoat.”
“Personal space is personal space,” she told AFP. “It is not generational.”
And invading that space? “If you want to reduce it to one simple concept, it’s about power,” Nelson said.
She recalled the tenure of Bill Clinton — a former US president who multiple women in the 1990s accused of sexual harassment — who Nelson said “was known for pulling people in” when greeting them.
“You’d shake hands, then he’d grab your upper arm and pull you in,” Nelson said. “The power grab.”
The same was true in Cuomo’s case, she added: “It’s about conquering.”
Different political standards?
A number of the US politicians who’ve resigned in recent years in the face of harassment accusations have been Democrats, including Franken, one-time New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman, and now Cuomo.
Conversely many Republicans, including former president Donald Trump and Supreme Court judge Brett Kavanaugh, have declined to step down despite accusations of sexual assault. Alabama Republican Roy Moore ran twice for Senate office — both times unsuccessfully — despite claims he had sexually assaulted multiple women including several minors.
Sinzdak said the responses to sexual harassment allegations don’t necessarily fall along party lines — “every case is different,” she said — but that Democrats may “have a harder time looking away” given their frequent support of causes like anti-harassment laws.
“It would be hard for them as a party, with the platform that they have, to look the other way. In that sense, the Democrats are held to a higher standard,” she said.
Sinzdak praised the #MeToo movement for “putting a spotlight on the issues of harassment and abuse, and giving women a voice and a platform to share their stories.”
“It’s been the equivalent of a cultural earthquake in the political world, and we’re going to feel the reverberations for a long time,” she said.
Part of that earthquake for Nelson means “intentions” — which politicians including Cuomo have cited in explaining that they never meant harm — are no longer a valid excuse to justify bad behavior.
“Be aware. Pay attention,” she said. “Hell is full of people with good intentions.”