Joe Barton retires over leaked nudes as Democrats fail to handle their own predatory men

A study in depressing contrasts.

Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX), left, with Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), right. Barton has decided to retire following a leaked nude photo scandal. (CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX), left, with Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), right. Barton has decided to retire following a leaked nude photo scandal. (CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) will retire at the end of his 17th term, the oil industry favorite announced Thursday afternoon, after the leak of salacious but consensual correspondence with a former sex partner.

Barton’s decision marks the downfall of a long-significant figure within the GOP caucus. The seat he’s held since 1985 is almost certain to stay in Republican hands, though candidates to replace him have only about two weeks to file paperwork to run next year.

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Barton was hostile to most values progressives care about, both in his legislative work and his political grandstanding. But his plan to exit elected life is flat-out graceful in contrast to how Democrats are handling two of his contemporaries who stand accused of harassing or assaulting multiple women over a period of years.

Neither Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) nor Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) appear willing to resign their posts, despite each being accused by five or more individual women of harassment or physically assaultive behavior.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) finally called on Conyers to resign Thursday, after initially casting doubt on his accusers’ claims. Earlier on Sunday, Pelosi had suggested Conyers’ reputation as a civil rights icon should shield him from the cleansing #MeToo wave that has just begun to sweep predatory men out of positions of power in entertainment, media, and politics alike. She offered a thinly-veiled walk-back of that gaffe days later, but in a way that only further undermined the cause.

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Barton’s story is strikingly different from those of Franken and Conyers. Although he pursued sexual relationships with multiple adult women during a period of separation from one of his ex-wives — and though at least one of those women has told reporters she was initially taken aback when the famous Republican took their interactions in a sexual direction — “none of Barton’s accusers have said he engaged in sexual harassment or abuse of power,” the Dallas Morning News reports.

Barton’s proclivity for striking up sexual relationships with women who contacted him in his capacity as a public official is not entirely benign. But where Franken’s political fortunes have been rocked in large part by a picture where he is doing something gross to another human being, Barton’s tumult stems from images of him alone, in the nude, and masturbating. He sent the images to at least one of what Barton said last week were multiple women with whom he had a sexual relationship during his divorce.

The woman to whom he had sent the images corroborated Barton’s claims to the Washington Post, though she cast them in a somewhat murkier ethical light in the process.

“Barton was not abusive or coercive in his interactions, the woman said, but said she felt he was ‘manipulative and dishonest and misleading’ in his dealings with her and other women,” the Post reported.

A non-abusive manipulator stepping out on his then-wife with women he met over Facebook is one thing. Men who serially violate the bodily integrity of women who either work for them (as Conyers allegedly did) or come into contact with them because of their fame (as in Franken’s case) stand in a separate ethical category.

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Yet Barton’s scandal — made far more salacious by the publication of his sexts and nudes — is apparently enough to end a career.

Joe Barton built his legacy on climate change denial, stick-in-the-mud stances on moderate gun control policies, and empty-headed positioning on questions of what the United States government should and should not provide to its citizens. John Conyers founded the Congressional Black Caucus, helped make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday, and used his clout on the House Judiciary Committee to press the George W. Bush administration for accountability on the Iraq War and voter suppression in the 2004 election. Al Franken’s tenure in office is far shorter, but he’s proven himself an eloquent and passionate advocate for progressive policies.

There is, for progressives, no comparing Barton’s role in shaping the nation to that played by Conyers or even Franken.

But as the modern moment of somehow-revolutionary intolerance toward men who use their power to take advantage of women and violate their rights is hitting its stride, it is destructive to the cause of gender equality and public accountability for the most powerful members of the Democratic Party to twiddle their thumbs on their own. The behavior alleged by Franken and Conyers chases women out of public life in quiet, invisible ways that make our systems of power more male and more malevolent than they might otherwise be. Sexual harassment is a violation of women’s civil rights, even if it is not accompanied with criminal violations of their bodies.

Pelosi and others have now made Joe Barton the epitome of class, even as pictures of his nude body are distributed across the internet without his consent.