We're in violent agreement: What Mayor Sam Adams did was wrong.
What we still can't agree on, however, is how it was wrong. For some, it was the idea of a 42-year-old man bedding an 18-year-old. For others it was about the ensuing cover-up. And for others still, it was about betrayal of public trust. Throw in power dynamics, ageism, sexism, homophobia, and gay vs. hetero culture, and it's little wonder why this issue has grown so overwhelmingly confusing.
It's a story of multiple threads that have rolled and twisted into an impossible knot, pitting morality against logic, forgiveness against retribution. And there's no easy way to undo the knot. Each thread will have to be painstakingly separated and examined to finally bring closure to what has been, we can all agree, an inconceivably distressing week.
That being said (and don't kill me), I'd like to add another thread to this knot. Not because I'm interested in seeing this cluster-kerfluffle last indefinitely—but because the kerfluffle isn't going to stop. Not anytime soon. And when it does stop, don't we want our scars to mean something?
So, here's the question: How much responsibility should we, as Portlanders, bear for bringing this scandal into existence? Again, I am in no mood to defend Sam Adams: His lies extend past "I didn't sleep with that kid," coming dangerously close to permanently ruining at least three people's reputations. However, these situations don't happen in a vacuum, and people lie for very specific reasons. So let's pause to examine a very basic question: Why didn't Sam trust us?
Sam certainly had the opportunity not to lie. The scandal started in the summer of 2007, when then political rival/developer Bob Ball leaked an overheard rumor about Adams having an inappropriate relationship with 17-year-old Beau Breedlove.
"If this had come from the right wing—and it probably will now—that would have been one thing," Adams told the Mercury at the time. "But to come from another gay man is something more hurtful. It plays into the worst deep-seated fears society has about gay men: You can't trust them with your young."
Because there are those who automatically link homosexuality to pedophilia, Sam knew he had huge misconceptions to overcome. He was on track to become Portland's first gay mayor—the first gay mayor of any major US city. Like President Obama, Sam was poised to make history—and if history is any indication, Americans prefer their historical figures squeaky clean.
For years, trust has been in short supply when it comes to public figures, and especially politicians. Years of lies from the Bush administration (and Clinton before that) do not come without a price. Sure, Sam could have simply said, "You know what? As long as I haven't broken any laws—and I haven't—my private life is none of your business." But take it from someone who works in the newspaper industry: To a modern reader who distrusts practically everything, "no comment" can be just as damning as a full confession.
Sam spelled it out pretty clearly in his recent public apology/press conference of January 20: "I lied at the time because I was concerned that untrue rumors being circulated by an undeclared campaign opponent said I had broken the law involving sexual relations with a minor—but that is not a good excuse."
He didn't trust us. He didn't trust that we'd accept "mind your own business" as an acceptable answer. And he certainly didn't trust that we'd be cool with the idea of a 42-year-old man having a brief sexual relationship with an 18-year-old.
And after this past week's public reaction, should we be surprised?
NOT THAT INNOCENT
So Sam chose to lie, and on that lie a house of cards was built. Each card represents a different person who came in contact with the lie—and like Sam, no one is completely innocent. The three people who so far seem most directly affected by Sam's actions (we're not including people like myself who only have "hurt feelings") are Bob Ball, former Mercury News Editor (now Sam's staffer) Amy J. Ruiz, and of course, Beau Breedlove.
It's been said that Bob Ball's reputation has been permanently tainted by Sam's lies. However, while Bob Ball may have felt it was his duty (as a reserve police officer, no less) to relay these rumors—which at that time were clearly just hearsay—it's doubtful he would have done so had he not been gearing up for a mayoral race. (And if you want to be technical about it, the rumors he passed on—that Adams had been in a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old—have yet to be proven true.)
As stated in the Willamette Week's story by Nigel Jaquiss, who first broke the scandal, Amy J. Ruiz was a member of the Mercury's news team that, between late 2007 and mid-2008, confronted Sam with allegations that he had lied about his relationship with Beau—allegations he denied. After exhausting all possible leads, the story—though still considered an "open case"—was relegated to our "unsolved mysteries" pile. By year's end, Amy had applied for and accepted a job as "Sustainability Policy Adviser" with Sam's administration. Within two weeks of employment, the WW's Jaquiss wrote a report strongly insinuating Sam bought her off in an effort to take her off the story.
Let's set aside the fact that Sam never offered a cushy government job to any of our other reporters who knew just as much about the case (or more importantly, to Jaquiss himself). After Nigel's story broke, the Mercury's news reporter, Matt Davis, did exhaustive research into Amy's hiring process (which you can read for yourself in the Mercury's Blogtown entry "The Ruiz Questions: Part 3," Jan 20), and found that Amy was not technically hired by Sam—she had actually been screened and interviewed by Sam's Senior Policy Director Lisa Libby and Chief of Staff Tom Miller.
"Sam was enthusiastic about [the hiring of Amy] but the decision to [hire] her was mine and mine alone," Miller told the Mercury.
Did Nigel interview Tom Miller or Lisa Libby for his original story? Did he ask them for an actual job description to determine if Amy was qualified for the position? If so, it wasn't included in his investigative report. (Note: The Pulitzer committee usually frowns on these types of omissions.)
On the other hand, Amy hasn't made things easy on herself or her defenders. She applied for her current position in early November, without telling the Mercury, and continued to write her city hall column, Hall Monitor. She was also aware that the Mercury's ongoing investigation was (and remains) "open"—and while Amy stated she believed Sam's claims of innocence, she didn't have any real facts to prove or disprove the allegations.
Regardless, Sam could've easily predicted the trouble Amy was getting herself into, and scuttled her application for any number of reasons, while protecting his secret. But he didn't. He watched as she was hired, and blithely swam into shark-infested waters. Thanks, boss!
In defense of Beau Breedlove, well... he was young—but he was old enough to have heard of Monica Lewinsky.
[For more on how one should behave when having a sexual relationship with an older politician, please see Dan Savage's piece, "The Tea and Sympathy Rule"
UNTANGLING THE KNOT
So Sam's not innocent, the people directly involved are not entirely innocent—and guess what? We're not innocent either.
Portlanders have gone out of their way to protect Sam over the years, and often for good reason: His transportation and environmental policies line up almost exactly with what a modern progressive city should be striving to attain. And though the "Support Sam" rallies struggled with their message, their basic idea was sound: What goes on in Sam's pants and inside his head are two separate things. Portland hired him for his head. (Thank god.)
But make no mistake—those days of protection are over. While his lies may not be as dastardly as the Oregonian editorial board would have you believe (seriously, the only thing they left out was a picture of Sam as Snidely Whiplash, twirling his mustache and tying Beau to the railroad tracks), his untruths still hold the power to do an incredible amount of damage to many people's lives—and he knew it. He knew it all along, and yet woke up every morning determined to lie again.
We now know Sam much better than most politicians. We know what he's capable of, which means we no longer have the luxury of sitting back and letting our government run unattended. And while the events of the past weeks may have temporarily shattered our confidence, this is our opportunity to do the hardest thing of all: change.
When our new president talks of change, he almost always adds that the change in question doesn't come from him—it comes from us. If we choose to do so, we can accept our responsibility in this situation. We can accept that we, as a culture, often rush to judgment. We can accept that we often judge people for their sexuality (both positively and negatively), rather than what they have to offer to society. We can admit that we often lump morality and sexuality into the same simplistic basket. And we should admit we sometimes overprotect certain minorities solely out of guilt.
And our local media is just as complicit. We—Mercury included—are often more preoccupied with taking people down, rather than building them up; more interested in scandal than illuminating our readership with information that can change and augment their lives.
Where does our responsibility for the success of our leaders start and end? How much longer will we hold them to a moral code higher than what we're willing to take on ourselves?
In the end, "we the people" is all we have—and it's time to look inside ourselves and pursue what that really means. The answer lies inside that tangled, tangled knot. And just like Sam, it's time for us to get to work on it.