A good rule is that when you realize you’re wrong, you should say so—and say you’re sorry. The highest-ranking woman in U.S. politics appears to need a reminder.
On Monday night, about 36 hours after a train-wreck of an appearance on Meet the Press, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement after meeting with a former employee of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) named Melanie Sloan.
Sloan says Conyers physically and verbally abused her while she worked for him in the 1990s. As of Tuesday evening, six other women have, either anonymously or publicly said Conyers sexually harassed them when they worked for him, and although Sloan says she does not feel like Conyers sexually harassed her, she has also described a time when Conyers called her into his office, where he was wearing only his underwear. “I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing,” Pelosi said in a statement Monday. “I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me.”
But the first female speaker of the House did not say the words “I’m sorry.”
Pelosi needed to apologize for the hole she had started digging on Sunday morning’s Meet the Press, when she sang from the grim old hymnal that has always protected powerful men from consequences. “We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused—and was it one accusation? Is it two?—I think there has to be [due process],” Pelosi said Sunday morning.
She added, “John Conyers is an icon in our country.” And just like that, the first woman speaker of the House tossed aside serious accusations made by women she’d never met in order to protect “an icon.”
After host Chuck Todd spent his seven minutes with Pelosi asking about Conyers and other powerful politicians who are facing sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct allegations, Pelosi lashed out. “You mean we’re not even going to talk about taxes?” Pelosi asked Todd as the interview came to an end. “That has a big impact on the individual lives of all Americans.”
She went on, saying, “Look, as a woman, mother of four daughters, I think [the allegations] are enormously important, but we have to have a balance in how we go forward. This is giving them cover. There are so many reasons we should be concerned about the Republican majority in Congress… That is disappointing.”
Pelosi realized quickly that the interview was as disaster, releasing a statement on Twitter Sunday afternoon supporting Conyers’ decision to step aside as a ranking member on the ethics committee.
“Zero tolerance means consequences,” she tweeted hours after the disastrous interview. “I have asked for an ethics investigation, and as that investigation continues, @RepJohnConyers has agreed to step aside as Ranking Member. No matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment.”
The walk back continued Monday with her meeting with Sloan.
While responses like Pelosi’s have always been wrong, they haven’t, until recently, been politically dicey. So now Pelosi is singing a new, more convoluted tune: believe women, her no-apology walk-back says, but only after you meet them and find them credible face to face.
The statement was damage control, not a real, sincere apology, but Pelosi is guilty of more than just bad optics. Her rhetorical retreat actively props up a status quo where women who accuse powerful men of assault are assumed to be slandering them rather than risking their careers and reputations to sound the alarm.
Neither her comments Sunday nor her statement Monday grappled with the impact of the highest-ranking woman in U.S. political history turning her back on more junior women in the arena.
The Democratic leader’s statement also failed to grapple with the implications of her Sunday invocation of due process for Conyers. By wielding the presumption of innocence to protect a man who isn’t facing criminal charges—a colleague she likes and would rather not see go—Pelosi cheapens the process for those who are.
The invocation also made the Democratic leader sound a lot like the Republicans she so often rightly criticizes: Her answer, in part, sounded like defenders of Alabama Senate Candidate and alleged sexual child molester Roy Moore. Moore’s defenders, including President Trump, have defended Moore with arguments along the lines of “just because someone is accused…”
That wasn’t the only time Pelosi sounded like her rivals, who feel the need to flash the phrase “as a father of daughters” like some kind of empathy badge.
But political damage control, so often an insult to its audience’s intelligence, can backfire. Pelosi’s meeting and subsequent statements about Sloan’s credibility do not help the cause that so many feminists are fighting for, the one that asks people to believe women when they come forward, even when the man in question is a friend—or an icon.
Pelosi’s new tune is the sound of a person protecting power, not values.
We are in the midst of a flood of allegations made against powerful men, some of whom are finally facing consequences after years of misbehaving, being fired from networks and pulled from films. The tide is changing.
But Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, the highest-ranking woman in politics, a leader of the party purportedly dedicated to comforting the afflicted, went on Meet the Press and swam against it.
And then, in choosing damage control over a sincere apology, she somehow found a way to make it even worse.