Roy Moore and the art of the cow­ardly dodge

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - Ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com

Amere al­le­ga­tion. If true. White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, she who has en­coun­tered no ar­gu­ment too weak to em­brace, had this to say about al­le­ga­tions that Repub­li­can Se­nate can­di­date Roy Moore mo­lested a 14-yearold girl: “Like most Amer­i­cans, the pres­i­dent be­lieves we can­not al­low a mere al­le­ga­tion, in this case one from many years ago, to de­stroy a per­son’s life. How­ever, the pres­i­dent also be­lieves that if these al­le­ga­tions are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside.”

So many things to un­pack in these 46 words. Let’s start with the ele­phant in the quote, the un­com­fort­able fact that Pres­i­dent Trump was him­self the tar­get of such years-old “mere” al­le­ga­tions, more than a dozen, from women who claimed he sex­u­ally as­saulted them. These were, as then-can­di­date Trump as­sured us — and as San­ders, ever will­ing, re­asserted just last month — all “hor­ri­ble liars,” who would be duly sued af­ter the elec­tion. Still wait­ing, Mr. Pres­i­dent.

Trump’s con­ve­niently flex­i­ble stan­dard on ac­cu­sa­tions — and he is not alone — boils down to: If the ac­cuser points a fin­ger at a Demo­crat — Bill Clin­ton, Har­vey We­in­stein — her word is to be trusted, au­to­mat­i­cally. If she com­plains about a Repub­li­can, Trump’s other­wise dor­mant de­vo­tion to due process kicks in. How can claims from “many years ago” be al­lowed to “de­stroy a per­son’s life”?

Some an­swers: Be­cause they are en­tirely cred­i­ble. Be­cause the girl, now a wo­man, has no con­ceiv­able ax to grind — she is a long­time Repub­li­can, a Trump voter even — and noth­ing to gain from com­ing for­ward. Be­cause three other women re­lated sim­i­lar, although less dis­turb­ing sto­ries, un­der­scor­ing Moore’s in­ter­est in younger girls.

Be­cause the pre­sump­tion of in­no­cence, while es­sen­tial in the le­gal realm, does not mean the elim­i­na­tion of com­mon sense out­side it. (Thank you, Mitt Rom­ney, for say­ing that.) The will­ing sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief has its lim­its, or should.

Un­less, that is, you are a politi­cian deal­ing with a story you wish would go away. Then you turn in­stinc­tively to ifthen-ism. “If these al­le­ga­tions are true . . .” said Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (R-Ky.), lead­ing — or not — his prove-it cau­cus. Dis­ap­point­ingly, among them were women se­na­tors who ought to know bet­ter. “If it’s true . . .” said Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. “If the al­le­ga­tions . . .” said West Vir­ginia’s Shel­ley Moore Capito. “If there is any truth at all to these hor­rific al­le­ga­tions . . .” said Maine’s Su­san Collins. Se­ri­ously, have you read this ar­ti­cle? How can you think about serv­ing along­side this man?

The cor­rect re­sponse came from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who — with­out hedg­ing — termed the al­le­ga­tions “deeply dis­turb­ing and dis­qual­i­fy­ing” and called on Moore to with­draw.

If-then-ism is the rhetor­i­cal cousin of what-about-ism, a bid to de­flect at­ten­tion by ques­tion­ing whether those com­plain­ing about “x” were equally in­flamed by “y,” when “y” in­volved some­one on their side. If-then-ism rep­re­sents a sim­i­lar ef­fort to avoid cast­ing a po­lit­i­cally in­con­ve­nient judg­ment.

It is bet­ter, sure, than the jaw-drop­ping al­ter­na­tive: so-what-ism, re­mark­ably fla­grant among Alabami­ans in re­sponse to the Moore re­port. “Much ado about noth­ing,” State Au­di­tor Jim Zei­gler told the Wash­ing­ton Ex­am­iner. Joseph did it with Mary, he ob­served. Ex­cept, um, mi­nor the­o­log­i­cal point here — did he?

Still, there is some­thing clar­i­fy­ing in the bru­tal hon­esty of so-what-ism. A 32-year-old Moore could put a 14-year-old girl’s hand on his erect pe­nis and touch her over her bra and un­der­pants. Trump could shoot some­one in the mid­dle of Fifth Av­enue. It would not de­ter their sup­port­ers. Okay, at least we know where you’re com­ing from. Your moral pa­ram­e­ters are clear in their ab­sence.

If-then-ism, by con­trast, is pure cow­ardly dodge. There are some sit­u­a­tions where the fact pat­tern may be too murky to pass judg­ment. Not here. What more in­for­ma­tion do the if-then-ers want? What would be the fo­rum for this fac­tual dis­cov­ery to take place?

One last strat­egy — blame the mes­sen­ger — has come into play here, de­ployed by Moore and sup­port­ers such as for­mer Trump ad­viser Stephen K. Ban­non. “The Be­zos Ama­zon Wash­ing­ton Post that dropped that dime on Don­ald Trump is the same Be­zos Ama­zon Wash­ing­ton Post that dropped the dime this af­ter­noon on Judge Roy Moore,” Ban­non said, re­fer­ring to Post owner and Ama­zon chief ex­ec­u­tive Jef­frey P. Be­zos and the “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” tape. “Now is that a co­in­ci­dence?”

No, it’s not. Good re­port­ing breeds good re­port­ing. My news­room col­leagues did an in­cred­i­ble job with those sto­ries, as they did in help­ing break the Mon­ica Lewin­sky story two decades ago.

Blam­ing the mes­sen­ger is al­ways eas­ier than hear­ing an un­wel­come mes­sage. It does not make that mes­sage any less true.

BRYNN AN­DER­SON/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Roy Moore at his pri­mary elec­tion party in Mont­gomery, Ala., in Septem­ber.

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