Bauer is reborn -- as a feminist!

The Christian rightist's presidential candidacy was going nowhere fast until he discovered that everyone likes a little sex thrown into the mix -- everyone, that is, except his uptight top aides.

Published October 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It was strange enough that presidential aspirant Gary Bauer held a press conference Wednesday to denounce the little-reported rumors that he was having an affair with an attractive young aide -- thus granting the rumors national play they never would have achieved on their own.

Now, in an even weirder twist, Bauer is emerging from the controversy as an out-and-out women's libber.

Gary Bauer, über-feminist? Until Wednesday, that would have seemed an oxymoron, but the worldview the deeply conservative Christian activist articulated when he appeared at his press conference was straight out of the Mia Hammish millennial zeitgeist:

Women can be anything they want to be.

When Bauer said that he couldn't "imagine that anybody on the campaign would object to me having meetings behind closed doors with professional women," he emerged as nothing less than a sensitive New Age man.

Despite the fact that his homemaker wife of 27 years was by his side, standing by her man, Bauer came off as every bit the modern male, indignantly insisting that he is completely at ease with women in the workforce, where they have every right to be.

"Such meetings take place all over Washington, D.C., every day with congressmen, senators, other presidential candidates," Bauer said. "Both of my daughters intend to be professional women" -- perhaps not unlike the attractive female 26-year-old aide whose company he has been keeping.

After all, as Bauer pointed out, "this isn't 1899."

In response to a question about whether aides told him that the fact that he was seen too often with the aide was causing an "appearance" problem, Bauer made like Alan Alda.

"How are you 'seen' with somebody on your campaign 'too frequently'?!" he sneered. "I am seen with 25 people on my campaign every day. It's a relatively small campaign headquarters. My daughter sits a couple doors down from me. Every day I'm with all the people on that campaign. We're walking through the halls, we have meetings."

There were several questions about the nature of these meetings. Were they closed-door sessions? Bauer's response: "I think that there are standards in American politics that I have followed in 25 years in Washington, D.C. ... At the previous organization I worked at, there were professional women that I met with, that I asked for advice, that were part of my senior staff. I have done nothing different than I've done in 25 years ..."

Sounds awfully progressive for a man who has spent his public life trying to overturn Roe vs. Wade -- especially when you consider the views of his one-time colleagues.

Charles Jarvis, Bauer's former national campaign chairman, and Tim McDonald, his former chief of advance operations -- both of whom jumped ship recently and joined Steve Forbes' campaign -- went public after Bauer's press conference with the real reasons behind their recent exodus.

They said they just couldn't stomach all the time Bauer was spending with this woman. It violated their Christian sensibility -- as well as several other evangelical leaders' personal policies toward woman staffers.

Never mind that so far no one has come forward with any evidence that an affair took place. (That is why is not reporting the woman's name.)

One female conservative Christian activist says that Jarvis has a reputation for being "one of these guys who has a real problem with women in the workforce."

Unlike Bauer.

But Jarvis' extreme reaction isn't just a 1950s throwback to the mentality that a woman's place is in the kitchen. It reflects the idea held by many that these guys can't trust themselves to control their own sexual desires. For 40 years, the Rev. Billy Graham has abstained from meeting with women alone, for example.

Apparently, Graham has lots of company in Washington. The Washington Post reported Thursday that Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., won't meet alone with a woman, and that Senate candidate John Ensign won't even ride alone in a car with one. Largent's spokesman Brad Keena clarified that policy to say that it's not a hard-and-fast rule, but that the congressman uses "common sense."

All of this temperance may seem benign on the surface. "Don't let there be an appearance of evil -- that's our guiding principle," says Wendy Wright, spokesperson for the conservative women's group Concerned Women of America. "We have to acknowledge that temptation is real and available to all people, even the strongest among us. There are what I would call prudent measures that can be taken."

For example, Wright says a pastor friend of hers had a window built into the door of his office to avoid both an appearance and a temptation problem.

Still, for plenty of female Christian conservatives, it's a bit disheartening to know that women are still viewed as bewitching apple-bearing Eves and men as easy-prey Adams who crumble at the slightest provocation.

Even more dangerous are the other obvious yet unspoken personnel implications. Will politicians not hire a woman -- not to mention an attractive woman -- just to avoid the mess it may cause down the road?

This would amount to a particularly insidious kind of discrimination, one that often goes undetected. Lately, nerves are so raw about workplace relations, who knows how many qualified women have been turned down for jobs just because men are afraid they can't trust themselves around them?

If this keeps up, attractive young women may eventually need quotas!

It's easy to blame Neanderthal men for the belief system that created this climate of paranoia, but as the Lewinsky scandal proved, feminists have played a role as well. Danielle Crittenden, author of "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman," and an advisory board member of the conservative Washington-based Independent Women's Forum, blames feminists for the current climate of hysteria.

"This [type of discrimination] is not just happening among Christian conservatives. This is taking place all over corporate America," she says. "Corporate men don't meet behind closed doors with women, they don't go on business trips alone with them. And we can thank feminists, the sexual harassment law, and the climate of fear it created for that."

In the post-Anita Hill world, it seems, there's plenty of blame to go around. Bauer is only the latest man to stand behind the microphones and defend his family and his reputation. And the foundation of his indignation is built from the complete and utter acceptance of attractive young women in the workplace, working side by side with men, as equals.

Bauer, in fact, complained that his two daughters were having to divert from their own paths toward professional womanhood by attending his press conference Wednesday. Bauer said that he "would prefer my [younger] daughter to be back at college" and "my oldest daughter to be with me at a meeting right now at campaign headquarters."

Clearly, Bauer "gets" it. Sisters are doing it for themselves. Even the Bauer sisters.

By Susan Crabtree

Susan Crabtree writes for Roll Call.

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