The New York Times has sussed out the identity of the senator who once squeezed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York and called her “chubby.” It was the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, a legend in Hawaii politics who served 48 years in the Senate and passed away in 2012, the Times reported, citing sources familiar with the incident.
Somehow, that’s not terribly surprising. Senator Inouye was from a different generation, where the norms for interaction between men and women were much more lopsided. It might be akin to one’s grandparents, back in the 1970s, referring to “colored” people or using unflattering terms for people of certain religious or ethnic groups. Grandma and Grandpa weren’t bad people – they were just using the vernacular of the day, at least for people of their generation.
When Senator Gillibrand refused to identify Inouye as the culprit on “chubby,” and others who made inappropriate comments, she told Time magazine, "It’s less important who they are than what they said.”
In her new book “Off the Sidelines,” where she revealed the “chubby” remark, she identified the perpetrator only as “one of my favorite older members of the Senate.”
Basically, he was a grandpa who didn’t mean any harm. And as any woman knows, it’s much easier to laugh off a sexist comment than to make a federal case out of it. Had it been a younger member teasing her, someone closer to her age, the uproar over Gillibrand’s book revelation – and the pressure to name names – would have been greater.
But there’s more to the story of Inouye and women. In 1992, his hairdresser accused him of forcing her to have sex with him.
“Her accusations exploded into a campaign issue that year, and one Hawaii state senator announced that she had heard from nine other women who said they had been sexually harassed by Mr. Inouye,” the Times recalls. “But the women did not want to go forward with their claims.”
Some say, let sleeping dogs lie. Inouye is no longer alive, and let’s remember him for his service. He was a decorated World War II veteran; he lost an arm in the war. He was the first Japanese-American to serve in Congress. He was a champion of civil rights and supporter of women’s rights.
When the elderly Inouye grabbed Gillibrand’s waist and said, “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!” Gillibrand was in the classic bind. Older man, younger woman, don’t make waves. She was also new to the Senate, having just been appointed to fill the seat of the new secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. But clearly Inouye’s comment stuck with her.
And, it turns out, Inouye apparently had a history of inappropriate behavior toward women, which, back in the day, wasn’t exactly unique. Vice President Biden’s recent comment on Bob Packwood has brought back the story of the Oregon Republican senator’s political demise in 1995. He was drummed out of the Senate after 10 women accused him of sexual abuse and assault.
In Sunday’s New York Times, Matt Bai’s piece on Gary Hart chronicles the moment in history when the downfall of a rising Democratic star over marital infidelity “forever changed American politics.”
Now the memory of Daniel Inouye has also been changed forever, if only slightly. But the larger point is clear: The norms of male behavior toward women have changed, both inside the Senate and outside. Gillibrand’s story is just the latest reminder.