In the wake of the scandal that claimed Rep. Katie Hill’s brief career as a congresswoman, some observers have suggested that her downfall was a sign of things to come as more members of the selfie-obsessed millennial generation take office. Others have complained of some form of partisan foul — that Hill was treated worse than others in Congress because of her gender or her party.
The fear of the congressional selfie apocalypse to come may be warranted. And there’s much to regret about the looming resignation of Hill, a bright and seemingly talented young lawmaker (she’s only 32). But the idea that Hill’s treatment is somehow unusual or unprecedented is just wrong. For proof, recall what happened in recent years to Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.)
I mean, how could we forget them?
Barton’s scandal broke in November 2017, when a graphic selfie of Barton surfaced online through an anonymous Twitter account. The baby boomer was 68 at the time, serving in his 16th term in Congress. According to The Washington Post, Barton admitted to sending the photo to a woman with whom he was having a consensual affair while separated from his second wife; when they broke up in 2015, Barton said, she threatened to make, er, personal memorabilia of their affair public.
That’s Barton’s version; the woman told the Post that Barton threatened her with a Capitol Police investigation unless she remained silent. Laws in Texas and the District of Columbia bar the release of intimate photos or videos without the consent of the people depicted — better known as revenge porn. Nevertheless, Barton decided not to fight to keep his seat and retired after his term ended in 2018.
In that sense, and only in that sense, his story is very much like that of Hill, who blames the "abusive" husband she is divorcing for publicizing her private photos (along with "hateful political operatives who seem to happily provide a platform to a monster who is driving a smear campaign built around cyber exploitation").
Weiner had only himself to blame for the public release of the distinctively male photo that made him a global punchline in 2011. He eventually admitted to inadvertently posting the photo to his public profile instead of sending it privately to a woman he was trying to strike up an online relationship with, something he admitted to doing with a half-dozen women through the internet in the previous three years. A week later, after more of Weiner’s online escapades came to light— including his private messages to a 17-year-old female high school student who followed him on Twitter — Weiner resigned under pressure from his fellow lawmakers and President Barack Obama.
In other words, gender and party don’t matter if a member of Congress becomes the focus of a sex scandal. What matters is if there are images the public can see (and then can’t unsee).
By the way, that’s something that distinguishes Hill from President Donald Trump, who has been accused of (among other things) multiple incidents of sexual harassment and extramarital affairs, two of them with women who were paid during the campaign not to go public with their allegations. We even have the infamous "Access Hollywood" video from 2005, which features Trump bragging about his ability to grope women at will because "when you’re a star, they let you do it." But as yet, there are no photos of a naked Trump circulating.
Trump once claimed that his backers were so loyal, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters." Based on what’s happened to Hill, Barton and Weiner, I doubt he could make the same claim about naked selfies.
Jon Healey is the Los Angeles Times deputy editorial page editor.