Milbank: How could I have been so stupid?

Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank
Dana Milbank


WASHINGTON — I was amazed by the #MeToo outpouring by women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. So many women I know have been victims, and yet, I marveled, I had spent my career in charmed workplaces where such things didn't happen.

But this week I learned that, earlier in my career, I worked in a place that was the very definition of a hostile work environment — a place that is now one of the most visible examples of the Harvey Weinstein fallout. Worse, one of my dearest friends was a victim — indeed, the one who first went public.

Michelle Cottle and I worked together at the New Republic in the late 1990s, as did Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's brilliant literary editor who Friday was fired by The Atlantic after apologizing for past "offenses" against female colleagues. Cottle published a brave and devastating account in The Atlantic on Friday quoting, on the record, many women Wieseltier had harassed.

Cottle wrote of the couple of occasions in which "he hit me with an abrupt, decidedly nonplatonic kiss" with "a hint of tongue."

She quoted Vox's Sarah Wildman, with whom I also worked at TNR, saying: "Leon cornered me by the bathroom and kissed me. I clapped my hand over my mouth and he said, 'I've always known you'd do that.'"

Cottle reports about many women being touched and kissed by Wieseltier. And then there was the blackmail: that if Cottle divulged something he had told her, he would (falsely) "tell people we're -----ing."

How could I possibly have missed all of this?

Cottle, when we spoke Friday, was generous in offering absolution. She didn't tell me about it. She didn't file a complaint. Even she didn't know until recently how pervasive the behavior was.

That's awfully charitable of her, but undeserved. No, I didn't know Wieseltier was doing these things to my friend and other women (and, in fairness to Wieseltier, he is accused of nothing like what Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein are). But we all knew that Wieseltier was a flirt and a bit of a playboy and that he had a strong if vague reputation for being lecherous. Like many, I figured he was a harmless scamp.

But here's what I did know:

I knew that Wieseltier could be a bully. At editorial meetings, he would harshly cut down those he didn't like. I was advised before I took the job that if I wanted to get ahead at TNR, I needed to be on his good side. He would protect those he held in favor and sink those he didn't. I was one of those he protected. I think he liked me. I liked and greatly admired him.

I also knew the magazine was a boys' club and most top editors were men. The real power was Wieseltier, by virtue of his close relationship with the absentee owner; no editor could remain in place without his blessing.

Did that mean we should have known what he was doing? Not necessarily. But there were clues — not just the occasional lewd comment but mean and bullying behavior in editorial meetings.

I didn't get it at the time, but sexual harassment and sexual predation are, at core, about the abuse of power. Not all bullies are sexual predators or sexual harassers. But most sexual harassers and predators are bullies.

I met Mark Halperin around the time I met Wieseltier. Halperin, too, had a reputation for mistreating women. Until now, I hadn't heard specifics. But I could see with my own eyes that he was a bully who, lacking Wieseltier's charm, enjoyed power plays over colleagues and other journalists. Our president, likewise, routinely attempts to humiliate aides and opponents alike; is it any wonder that he has also boasted of assaulting women?

I and many other male alumni of TNR, feminists all, are shaken by what we've learned this week. We weren't a conspiracy of silence, but we were in a cone of ignorance. My friend Franklin Foer, a former editor, recalls being uncomfortable with Wieseltier's lewd comments when he first arrived at the magazine. But "they just seemed accepted. I said nothing — and certainly didn't think hard enough about how those remarks would be suggestive of private behavior or created a hostile environment."

Maybe this is because Foer and I were both members in good standing of the same boys' club. "One of the byproducts of benefiting from male privilege is that it blinds you to the costs of the system," Foer continues. "I abstractly understood this and even tried to combat it. But the toll wasn't evident to me until now."

Me, too.