Since at least the dawn of the silent film era, the United States has been remarkably chill about rich, powerful, famous men getting it on with teenagers. Contrary to popular belief, the age of consent in most of the country is 16, not 18, but as long as the girl is old enough to menstruate — and the man is rich, powerful, and/or famous enough to rank — we tend, as a society, to let it go, especially if man and teen become man and wife. We don’t, literally or figuratively, make a federal case out of it. We make remarks akin to what Donald Trump said about Jeffrey Epstein in 2002: “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
Charlie Chaplin, far and away the most beloved celebrity of his era, married several teenagers. The last, his fourth wife Oona O’Neill, was the daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill — and the former love interest of another beloved American artist with a yen for paramours “on the younger side,” J.D. Salinger. Chaplin was the model for Clare Quilty, the hebephile matinee idol in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; the novel’s eponymous “nymphet” is 12 years old, but, crucially, sexually active, not a virgin, when the narrator Humbert Humbert falls for her. Lolita is widely considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. It is not the only Nabokov work to explore this taboo, but then, Epstein’s private jet was not called the Laughter in the Dark Express.
“Great Balls of Fire” rocker Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin, which damaged his career — she was perhaps a year or two too young, and also a close blood relation. On the other hand, Elvis Presley couldn’t help falling in love with the precocious Priscilla Wagner when she was 14, and he remained the most popular entertainer of his day. More recently, Vanessa Bryant began dating Kobe when she was 17 and he was 22; Romeo & Juliet, Alan Dershowitz would say; no one batted an eye. In all of the above cases, the famous man would up marrying the not-famous teen, so the details of her wooing were “walled off in the mausoleum of marriage,” in Ian McEwan’s elegant phrase.
Woody Allen made a movie called Manhattan in which his character is dating a much younger woman. His ulterior motive in making such a film, it seems, was to normalize “May-September” relationships. Allen took heat from his eventual marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, his longtime partner adopted daughter, but more because she was Mia Farrow’s daughter than the age difference.
Would it matter if the teens adored by the rich and famous were boys rather than girls? One need only stream Leaving Neverland to answer the question: Nope. Rumors of Michael Jackson being sexually attracted to boys were rampant even when Thriller dropped, and I was in that demographic. The kid is not his son, Billie Jean; the kid is his sexual fantasy. And yet his fans made apologies for his pedophilia until he died, and continue to do so today.
This is nothing less than shameful, but it remains true: When you’re famous, they just let you do it.
The Republican base doesn’t care about sex crimes — unless they involve the Clintons, that is. Serial rapist Donald Trump is their standard-bearer. They have proudly run Roy Moore, a grown man who was barred from his local mall for accosting middle-school girls. They have rallied around Brett “Devil’s Triangle” Kavanaugh. Not only do they not believe women, they actively seek to destroy them, as state legislatures have demonstrated in George, Alabama, Ohio, Missouri, and elsewhere. It is unlikely that these rank misogynists will be swayed by the dalliances of the late Jeffrey Epstein, however deplorable, unless they somehow implicate Bill Clinton. When the subject of Donald Trump’s history of sexual assault is brought up, the 20+ credible accusers, the “grab ’em by the pussy,” MAGA invariably responds with: Bill Clinton was worse — as if the shameful misbehavior of one rich, famous, powerful man somehow absolves that of another.
Trump may not be able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it, as he famously quipped, but, as I’m not the first to point out, he could certainly rape someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. In fact, he really did sexually assault the writer E. Jean Carroll, in 1995, in the dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, which is on Fifth Avenue. Nothing will come of this, of course. Trump responded to the charge by insulting Carroll’s looks, and MAGA by attacking the victim.
As horrible as it is to relate, the fact is that as long as the focus is on sex crimes, Trump — and his undearly-departed chum Jeffrey Epstein — will not be damaged. Again: his base does not care.
To illustrate my point, let’s look at the Brett Kavanaugh brouhaha. If the objective was to appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court, it made more tactical sense for Trump to put forward Amy Coney Barrett — a woman, a well-regarded jurist, and a darling of the right — than a shrill, privileged white man with a background in ugly partisan politics. Indeed, Brett Kavanaugh was not even on Trump’s original list of potential SCOTUS nominees. And yet Trump picked him anyway — and stuck with him even after it became clear he was compromised.
At the time of the hearing, I wrote extensively about the red flags in Kavanaugh’s background. How could he afford the down payment on his $1.2 million home? What happened to his sizable debt? What was the deal with him buying baseball tickets for his friends? I started the #WhoOwnsKavanaugh hashtag to encourage investigative reporters to focus on his murky finances. Someone was underwriting his activities. Whether that someone was his parents, Leonard Leo, or some oleaginous Russian oligarch, the American people, I argued, deserved to know to whom our Supreme Court Justices are beholden.
Then Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. Her accusation — credible, horrible, terrifying — became the focus of the hearing. Kavanaugh’s finances were ignored. We wound up with a sham 24-hour FBI investigation, in which the only key witness — Mark Judge — was on the lam; the spittle-flecked indignation of Lindsey Graham; the tepid assurances of the useless Susan Collins; the specter of Jeff Flake locating, for one shining moment, his spine. “I believe Dr. Ford,” they all said, “but I also believe Judge Kavanaugh,” as if those two things were mutually exclusive. When it was all over, we had installed another sexual predator on the Supreme Court, because Long Dong Silver needed company.
Republicans don’t care about sex crimes. Repeat: Republicans don’t care about sex crimes.
The Democrats, with their finger on the pulse as usual, have put forward as one of the three viable candidates for president one Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, who presided over the testimony of Thomas’s accuser Anita Hill. Saturday Night Live has already begun to poke fun at Biden for his handsiness with women. His early lead in the polls reflects the widespread belief — or, more accurately, the misguided resignation — that, just as the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, the surest way to beat an old white man is with another old white man.
Kamala Harris kneecapped Biden in the first debate. Confused Democrats reacted in either horror (“That was so mean!”) or jubilation (“Hell yeah! A Democrat is actually going on the offensive!”) at this unanticipated demonstration of badassery. The Democratic Party has been the GOP’s piñata for so long, its rank and file don’t know what it looks like when one of their own picks up the baseball bat and has at it.
Women are angry. How can they not be? One of the two political parties has all but declared war on them — and “centrist” candidates like Biden have pledged to put differences aside and work with his colleagues in the rape-apology party. For all her woo-woo, Marianne Williamson is right about one thing: love, not fear, is the way to unite the Democrats and defeat the President. Joe Biden is a panic nominee — and if this is an election about fear, Trump will prevail.
Trump wants us to be afraid. Fear creates panic, which impairs judgment. Trump also wants to exhaust our sense of outrage. The Hitlerian policy of separating refugee children from their parents, and detaining all in cages, is intended, first and foremost, to tire us all out to the point of lethargy, resignation, inactivity. There are limits to how much moral outrage a people can summon. On Twitter, one sees occasional calls for protests, for “people in the streets.” There may come a point when that happens, but for now, everyone is too tired, and too able to see the futility of such an endeavor: Fox News won’t show it, and the House Democrats keep firing off impotent letter after impotent letter as Trump’s minions snub subpoenas and he brings his feckless, hapless grifter daughter to world leader summits. Yes, I know, Pelosi and Nadler are playing the long game with the courts, as Mueller did before them, but the hourglass is running out of red-white-and-blue sand. As Roberto Bolaño writes in The Savage Detectives, a novel about renegade Mexican poets, “There’s a time for reciting poems, and there’s a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter.”
As odious as Epstein’s sex crimes were, they are not, tactically speaking, a compelling argument to win over GOP hearts and minds. Trump’s, even more so. What the last two years have taught us is that most people do not care what’s happening in the country as long as they are unaffected personally. They don’t give a shit. The buoyant stock market (buoyant until this week, that is) and the low unemployment rate suggest that, for better or worse, business is continuing as usual. For all Trump’s efforts to infiltrate safe spaces — the NFL, reality TV, hip hop— it is still too easy to bury one’s head in the sand. The sad reality is that the plight of a Honduran asylum-seeker does not impact most of our lives one iota. Nor will people care that Epstein paid scores of underage girls to “massage” him and his creeper buddies (whatever actually went on in his manse and on his sex island, that is the watered-down narrative that will ultimately prevail).
GOP voters are cheap. They care mostly about low taxes. “Socialism” to them means “tax increase,” which is why that idiotic canard has teeth. The only way to get selfish people to hop to is to demonstrate that Trump and his cronies are ripping off — stealing from — the American people. From them. It’s all about the money. A focus on money may have had a better result in the Kavanaugh confirmation. A focus on money will have a better result in the Epstein investigation, too.
Yes, Epstein sex-trafficked underage girls. Yes, he allegedly involved all manner of rich and powerful people in his debauchery: Alan Dershowitz and Prince Andrew, Bill Richardson and George Mitchell, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Yes, the details of his untimely demise don’t pass the smell test, making his death the ultimate “Choose Your Own Adventure” tale. It all reads like a very good novel.
More important: He lived in a Manhattan mansion worth $77 million, and we don’t know how exactly he made his millions. Was he a money launderer, like Trump? A blackmail specialist extraordinaire? Was he part of a Russian mob operation to gather kompromat on influential figures? Is that why his longtime partner was Ghislaine Maxwell, daughter of fraudster Robert Maxwell, business partner of the Russian mob head Semion Mogilevich?
Whenever news breaks of Trump’s finances, the President does or says something provocative to distract us, to get us off the scent. We need to stay focused on the bottom line. As I wrote on November 20, 2016, in a piece called “How to Get Rid of Donald Trump: An Action Plan”:
All we should be talking about is the conflicts of interest he’s exposed to by not liquidating his financial empire. That’s all. Everyone in the country needs to understand a) that Trump is in an ethically untenable position, b) why it’s bad for the country that he has so many conflicts of interest, especially with respect to China and Russia, and c) that he needs to liquidate all his assets before he places his short fingers on the Bible on January 20.
That did not happen. The supine media covered his every well-timed gaffe, going from dumb tweet to dumb tweet like a cat chasing after a laser pointer, Trump was dutifully sworn in before what he strategically claimed was the largest inauguration crowd of all time, and most Americans to this day have no clue about the DC hotel he owns and profits from.
Lust will not finish Donald Trump, because most people have no vested interest in who or what he does in the bedroom. Greed will. With the fishy suicide to consider, the already-lurid Epstein case has any number of fascinating distractions. Most of them will lead nowhere. In the meantime, we have set our weary dogs, yet again, to bark up the wrong tree.
If this is Stupid Watergate, we need to follow the money.