Judge Roy Moore, a candidate for US Senate, has been accused of dating women much younger than he was and initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was about 32–about 40 years ago.
I don’t know Judge Moore, but I do know this: Establishing a precedent whereby a candidate for public office can be destroyed publicly when no criminal charges were ever lodged against him and no civil suit alleging sexual abuse was ever (so far as we know) filed against him, is a terribly dangerous precedent. It would mean that, in this day of fake news and Facebook Folly, we are leaving it to the public to discern the decency of anyone accused of sexually abusive behavior several decades before declaring for office.
Whether or not the women accusing Judge Moore of such behavior are being truthful or not, they waited until a month before a US Senate election to make their claims public. They did not make them public when Moore was appointed to his judgeship. They did not make their claims public when he announced for U.S. Senate. And they did not make their claims public when he became the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. They made them public when it looked like he was going to win—and too late for any comprehensive assessment of him or of them to be completed.
That just can’t be our standard for dismissing a man from consideration for public office. Because then any man or woman accused of reprehensible behavior decades before an election—without real proof—is vulnerable not only to being defeated, but to being disgraced.
And that means we will almost certainly lose good and decent potential public servants to rumor and innuendo. Even the specter of the kind of personal devastation Roy Moore now faces will be enough to keep lots of talented people from pursuing politics, at all.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson once commented that if the IRS wanted to “get” anyone for breaking one of its myriad, incomprehensible rules, it could. His point was that democracy is at risk when our institutions can roil and ruin anyone among us. And I would argue that democracy is at risk when a candidate can be forced from a political race in the last days of that race, based on accusations he or she did something criminal, witnessed only by a 14-year-old, four decades earlier.
Whether or not Roy Moore’s accuser remembers her life accurately and whether or not she is telling the truth isn’t my point: The context of his accuser’s claims—just before a national election and 40 years later—is such a low bar for evidence that, by accepting and making political choices based on that evidence, we are setting our democracy up for a fall.
I would have credited Judge Moore’s accusers more if they had made their claims after the election had been held, had sat for a dozen polygraphs each (since one of the 12 might be in error, but certainly not 12 out of 12) and had publicly allowed for this other reality: Even if Judge Moore did the things he is accused of, he may not, 40 years later, be a reprehensible human being. Forty years can change a man. And if he did the things he is accused of and has not changed, where are all the accusers we would expect from 30 and 25 and 10 years ago?
We’ve got to have some standard. We can’t just invite everyone to the public stage to attack anyone seeking an elective office. Because now the cat is out of the bag. Now, it’s clear that sexual depravity is the new poison pill in politics. And there is plenty of time, from when a candidate declares for office, until the time of an election, to organize a small number of individuals to accuse that candidate of sexual misdeeds—and that means any candidate, in any election, whether he is guilty or not.
Keith Ablow, MD