When I was a young lawyer I had a mentor who gave me a warning that I’ll never forget. He issued the warning in surprisingly stark and simple terms that could only have come after a third round of drinks during a working lunch. After a long slow swig on his scotch on the rocks he cocked an eye-brow and without looking in my direction sighed “Your dick can really weigh you down if you don’t carry it right. So be careful.”
I knew that was true because Bill Clinton was my guy at the time and we all know what was going on in the late 90’s. Still, I was shocked because I really didn’t know this guy like that. And as far as I could tell we weren’t even on track to EVER know each other to have a conversation like that. We were still in the initial “polite engagement stage” where men in law firms mainly talk about sports, pretend not to care about politics, and barely acknowledge that they even have that problematic dangling member. So this came out of left field. Then about a month later, the firm announced his pending departure at the mandatory Monday morning meeting. He was at the meeting- smiling and thanking everyone for their support over the years, promising not to be a stranger and telling everyone how excited he was to be pursuing some “new opportunities.” It was all bullshit. All he left out was the jive-ass line “I needed to spend more time with my family” because that boilerplate excuse had already been beaten to death.
But the whispers among the support staff had already stolen the thunder- spreading so far and wide that they had made it all the way down to my junior associate’s office a full week before the formal announcement. This partnership-track rising star- we’ll call him “Josh”- had gotten himself into a messy entanglement with the firm’s senior legal secretary- who was “Joan” from Mad Men almost a decade before that show even aired- so we’ll just call her by that name in this story. Like Christina Hendricks, our “Joan” was as impossible to miss as she would have been to resist in any kind of an intimate situation.
And by “messy entanglement” I mean the kind where Josh and Joan had very different accounts of events that clearly occurred but were hotly disputed. The only thing that could be verified beyond any dispute was that the time and place for the sexual encounter between Josh and Joan checked out. Others were present in the general vicinity but not positioned to bear witness for either party. Only Josh and Joan could possibly have known exactly what happened. Alcohol was involved so it is well within the realm of possibility that BOTH accounts given reflected the true recollections of the parties.
That is why it is a horrible idea for anybody of any gender or sexual persuasion to get shit-faced drunk. Because when you get shit-faced drunk you are the least reliable witness in the world. You cannot possibly advocate for yourself effectively because you don’t know what the hell you did or did not do. And that, my friends, is a TERRIBLE hand to play: desperately needing to deny something that you couldn’t possibly be certain of with your entire life on the line. That was the hand Josh had to play and he lost BIG. Josh didn’t just lose a job. He lost his career track and the lifeline it provided for his future with his wife and two young daughters. Last I heard, he knocked around for about a year and wound up leaving Atlanta altogether and relocating to Florida- without the wife and daughters. At that point Josh’s defeat was complete.
So Josh fucked up his whole life NOT because he and Joan had sex. Every man in that firm wanted to have sex with Joan so nobody could possibly have blamed him if that had gone down under normal circumstances. Josh fucked up his life because he was so drunk that he could not account for his conduct on the night in question.
And whatever happened, Joan did NOT feel good about it so from an objective standpoint it was fait accompli. That’s Latin for done goddamned deal because that fact pattern does NOT go over well in a room full of lawyers who have their own reputations to account for in how they deal with whatever you did. So Josh went down in flames and Joan, unfairly worse for the wear, eventually moved on from that firm on her own terms.
So what will become of Bret Kavanaugh? Looks like he’s now holding the same cards in his hand that Josh was holding. Just like Josh, he really cannot account for himself with any legitimate degree of certainty about the night that Dr. Kristine Blasey Ford reports that he attempted to rape her. Just like Josh, he is facing the word of an accuser who has taken serious personal risk in stepping forward and reporting an upsetting experience.
And just like Josh, Bret is going to be judged by a group of lawyers (i.e. Senators) who are themselves being judged by how they handle this matter. This looks like a losing proposition for Bret- just like it was for Josh. For the record, I have no sympathy for either of them. But that doesn’t mean I am prepared to ignore the valuable take-aways from their situations.
Beyond the obvious lessons to be learned from these scenarios- #1- don’t be a stumbling drunk and #2- for the millionth time “no means no”- there is a more subtle lesson that I would be remiss not to mention. And this subtle lesson circles back to Josh’s cryptic warning about “your dick weighing you down.” In this new era of social accountability for men we should take note of a pattern that has emerged: when a man reaches the pinnacle of his life that tends to be when his penis comes to light and gets its own day of reckoning. We’ve seen this happen more than once to men from all political persuasions and walks of life so it cannot be a coincidence. Regardless of the legal adjudications, men are paying a form of back taxes and penalties for inappropriate actions toward women regardless of when they may have occurred. In some ways, the longer it takes for the day of reckoning to arrive, the higher the cost. Like interest and penalties piling up. Just ask Bill Cosby. But just like Josh and Bret, these other men were just reaching the top rung of the ladders of their lives when their judgment day arrived- and they fell off. Smart men will pay attention and govern themselves accordingly.
Examples abound. Matt Patricia had been an assistant coach and defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots for over a decade but as soon as he was hired as the new head coach of the Detroit Lions, a twenty year-old rape allegation from a drunken college spring-break trip surfaced. He kept his job but his seat was scorching hot before he even got to sit down. Aziz Ansari had been working steadily as a supporting actor for years and worked his way up to starring in his own Netflix series Master of None. After two award winning seasons the big TV network deals were swirling around him and – BOOM– he was hit by “sexual misconduct” allegations. The claims were not particularly compelling but he was screwed just the same. All of his momentum stopped cold and he’s been in time-out ever since. The same narrative holds for actor/directors Nate Parker, and Louis CK. Time Magazine counts 400 chief executives of American companies that have lost their gigs as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct.
Clarence Thomas, for whom I have zero use and even less respect, was the very first leading man in these public dramas 27 years ago and it appears that we have finally come full circle. If men have learned anything at all since then maybe we can get it right this time: Bret will be sitting next to Josh down in Florida, and never sit next to Clarence in D.C.- and we can finally get a fresh start.