The young man who wrote earlier this week to talk at length about how rising conservative Christian politician Wes Goodman hit on him sexually has written back. I had asked him in one of our exchanges to offer his opinion on why Tony Perkins only chastised Goodman for running for public office without having resolved his sexual confusion and predatory behavior, but did not put a stop to it, though he could have done so with the information he had.
The reader responded. I am going to publish most of his letter, though I am going to edit it to protect the privacy of the people and organizations he talks about. What he provides is a fascinating account of the culture and system within which sexual predators operate in Washington. That is what is most useful about this e-mail.
The reader begins by saying that as a pro-life, socially conservative Christian (though a Democrat because of his economic views), he is no fan of Perkins or the Family Research Council. Then:
Nonetheless, I think it very likely that Perkins only confronted Goodman privately for the simple reason that he didn’t want Goodman to be too badly hurt. Furthermore, until just a few days ago, hardly anyone knew who Goodman was, so I think most of the silence was due less to him being too big a fish to fry than it was due to him being too small. That was one of the ways I managed to rationalize my silence. Publish his messages? Publish where? Goodman is hardly even a public figure.
However, I think that Perkins’s situation is different. He knew about an event which was arguably sexual assault but seems to have washed his hands of it once he had dismissed Goodman from his circles. I say “seems” because that is all I know at this point. He may very well have offered to call the police on behalf of the victim’s family; he may have offered to testify against Goodman in court; he may have called the Ohio Republican Party and told them that they should not have anything to do with Goodman. But if he had solid evidence that Goodman was a predator, he should have used it to keep Goodman from office. However, while Perkins had more information, he also did more than me to confront Goodman, so I am probably not in a good position to criticize.
To answer the second question—how sexual predators operate—I want to begin by talking a bit about the kind of place Washington was when I lived there in the early 2010s. Washington is a city that turns over a large sector of its workforce every four months. Roughly corresponding with the academic year, thousands of interns — for the branches of government, for the non-profits, for the consulting firms, for the startups — arrive, sometimes by plane with a single suitcase and sometimes in their parents’ SUVs with the back seats covered with cardboard boxes. Many of these young people come with no intention to leave.
I certainly didn’t want to leave. I had just finished a year-long graduate program and was beginning to realize that, even as a conservative Democrat, my chances of working in academia were slim. Like so many other early twenty-something interns, when I set foot in Washington I was determined that my internship would only be a stepping stone to a lengthy career in the Beltway. I was excited to be in America’s capital again. My housing, on Capitol Hill no less, was guaranteed at a lower rate as part of my internship. I was paid less than the current minimum wage, but it didn’t matter. The museums were free and my primary expense was the occasional late-night meal with the fellow interns.
There was only one thing that gave me pause: My internship was, in part, due to the endorsement of a man named Robert Ballston [Note: The author says this is not the man’s real name (which he provided to me, along with a reference to check it out). The author uses this pseudonym to protect the reputation of “Robert Ballston,” who has since died, and cannot defend himself. — RD]. The internship coordinator at my institution even told me, on my first day, that Mr. Ballston had called them more than once to recommend me in unequivocal terms. While I was grateful for the opportunity, I felt slightly guilty because I disliked Mr. Ballston. I did not hate him, but to me he simply seemed an old and curmudgeonly bore.
We had met at a conference for conservatives a few months earlier. I was there because of a loose affiliation with conservative campus organizations while an undergraduate. The conference had paid for my travel through a micro-scholarship program for students. I had introduced myself to him in the same way I tended to introduce myself to everyone when I attended conferences. Nevertheless, over the course of the weekend, he seemed to have taken an interest in me. While I did not wish to be impolite, I didn’t enjoy his company. He was a grotesque figure. He was a former professor, but seemed to have no intellectual curiosity. And he had a habit of falling asleep and snoring loudly during the panels so that I would have to kick him slightly to wake him up. Nonetheless, he recommended something which would change the course of my life: Why not seek employment on Capitol Hill? He had served as a mentor to numerous young men and women who were now gainfully employed in Washington and I certainly looked like a staffer to him, he said.
I spent the summer scrabbling together my master’s thesis in my parents’ basement, but somewhere in between I found time to submit the not-so-small applications required for the various public policy foundations I was interested in. After a few weeks, I received a rejection. It was disappointing and, having nowhere else to go, I decided to enroll in school again, this time with hardly any motivation to succeed. It was then that everything changed: I received a phone call from one of the foundations on my second day of the semester, telling me that they had had an intern withdraw at the last moment and asking if I would like to come fill the slot. That was where my Washington misadventures began.
But, to return to the mentor, who he was and what he wanted would have been blatantly obvious to anyone who was watching him disinterestedly from a distance. To me, right in the middle of his attention, blind spots were everywhere. First, I wanted to believe that someone other than my professors thought that I could be successful; having spent my entire life around the academy (I had even grown up on a university campus), seeking a career made me empathize with Plato’s cave dwellers after they realized that the world was more than just shadows.
Second, I actually did benefit from knowing him; my internship was testament to that, and to believe that he had only helped me because I was handsome would have been to flirt with the uncomfortable notion that I was a gigolo.
Third, he did not correspond to the profile of sexual predators that I had known. Those sexual predators were pathetic figures with shabby clothes and purple skin sagging under their eyes—like the man who opened his zipper in my direction and asked me if I wanted to engage in oral sex. (I said no which was enough for him to back off; after that, I called the police. At the time, I was sixteen.)
Fourth, he never actually propositioned me for anything. He sometimes, in fact, seemed apologetic, as though daring me to see him for who he was. He would usually say something like, “I like helping young people out. I don’t have my own children, ya know. I wanted to get married once, but she turned me down …”
I suspect, though, that his grooming of me was disappointing. It fell flat after I agreed to spend one weekend at the guest bedroom of his house. While he didn’t grope me in a way that would be considered sexual, I began to feel his wandering hands on my shoulder, pinching my cheek, nudging my rib, in ways that made me uncomfortable and I asked him to keep his hands to himself. This wasn’t strange he insisted. It was simply what he and his friends always did. I said that it might not be strange here, but it was certainly strange where I came from. That was the end of his attempts to move beyond the “friend zone”, if you will. We occasionally would have lunch in the presence of other Washingtonians and, truth be told, I probably manipulated him more than he manipulated me. He never got anything from me, but I got more than one free lunch.
(Years later, after I had ceased speaking with him, a friend of mine who also knew him told me that our suspicions were true. Mr. Ballston was part of a lavender mafia in the Republican Party of the 1980s. I had not imagined it.)
By the time I got back to Washington, however, the season was changing, and I needed to start thinking seriously about finding employment in Washington if I were to stay there. And it is in this way that Washington fosters a climate which is fertile for sexual predators to arise. Foundations, such as [redacted], hold sessions for thousands of aspiring Washingtonians every year which are meant to bring them into the fold of the capital’s institutions. The key to finding employment, the session leaders will tell you, is networking. Don’t waste nights at home watching the latest episodes of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead; spend them going out to events at the American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute or any other place that job-offering conservatives are likely to frequent.
The problem is that predators know of these events too. And they know that they can go to these events if they want to find a naive 18-to-24-year-old to seduce.
To consider why it works, one needs to empathize with the thought process of these young people. They may be frustrated, having printed their own business cards and found absolutely no one interested in reading them. But then, suddenly, arrives a blazer-wearing legislative aid of that congressman on C-SPAN just last night. This aide is not from the Acela Corridor or the San Francisco Bay Area, but is from Middle America, the same as their best friends are. And, more to the point, this legislative aide wants to hear their story. Predation is not the only way that you, as the intern, can rationalize the aide’s interest. After all, isn’t this the sort of “cool” attentive adult that you intend to be after you are an established Washington entity? You can sympathize with yourself, and, at some point, this staffer was just like you. Why doesn’t it make sense that they are simply you plus six years?
(Note: This isn’t the way that it works; I used to always tell myself that I wouldn’t be the a**hole sergeant back when I was a junior enlisted Soldier; then I got my stripes and began to understand my a**hole sergeants’ perspectives.)
At first, when the legislative aide begins to feel you out (figuratively rather than literally in my case), he starts innocuously. He talks about his girlfriend, asks you if you’re dating, maybe gives a bit of dating advice. (I say this because I seem to remember knowing, when I first met Wes Goodman that he was involved long-term with the same girl that he would eventually marry; hence, early on he was established in my mind as a heterosexual man.)
Following this, he might friend you on Facebook. Or you might friend him. You might ask him if he knows of any Congressman looking for work and he will ask you what you are doing up so late at night. You haven’t been getting a response to your other applications. You see this as a hopeful sign. He believes in you. As the season turns cold (or hot), he knows that your internship is about to end. He asks you if you if your lease is about to expire and you say “Yes,” and he says that he has a sofa at his place; you can crash there for a few days if you want to keep going to interviews. And your answer to that is what makes their operation successful or a failure. That, I think, is how they operate.
No doubt it operates in a similar way with heterosexual predators working the same system.
The reader ended his e-mail by saying that despite his unhappy experiences with Ballston and Goodman, he had a number of good mentors in college and in DC. He names them, but I’m leaving them out at his request. He concludes:
And what can I not say of all of those who have served as my mentors in the United States military? I would go into it, but I no longer can stay up so late as I once did so, in brief: The primary reason I joined the military was because, after having worked in politics, I felt I would have difficulty respecting myself if I did not share the burdens of those whose lives I saw affected every day by the Robert Ballstons and Wes Goodmans of Capitol Hill. I didn’t take it all that seriously; I thought that in the military I would be the patron saint of mediocrity. And yet, the military turned out to be the mentor that believed in me and gave me back the motivation to aspire to something more than a day’s wages. If nothing else, I should hope that that can serve as a moderately happy ending.
Any other readers have experiences like this reader’s that you’d care to talk about? The story the reader relates here sounds very casting-couchy, doesn’t it? Maybe the joke is right: Washington really is Hollywood for ugly people. I looked up the real Mr. Ballston, and his photo, along with the reader’s story about the weekend house, made me think of Uncle Monty from Withnail & I: