Rep. Cawthorne And The Cross-Dressing Future Congressman Principle Question

Yes, this is a funny controversy, but not entirely trivial. And you knew Ethics Alarms would be on it like hound on a hock of ham, because examining the Naked Teacher Principle [NTP]and its real or proposed extensions, sisters, cousins and aunts, have been a periodic obsession of both Ethics Alarms and its predecessor, The Ethics Scoreboard. Add to that the fact that that Madison Cawthorn (R-NC.), is both a Christian values-spouting politician and a mega-jerk, and the photo above, showing him cavorting in lingerie, cannot be ignored (or, once seen, unseen).

The Principle states that a secondary school teacher or administrator (or other role model for children) who allows pictures of himself or herself to be widely publicized, as on the web, showing the teacher naked or engaging in sexually provocative poses, cannot complain when he or she is dismissed by the school as a result.

It is important to remember that even the Naked Teacher Principle does not hold that teachers necessarily should be dismissed if old photos surface of them online that show more of them than parents and schools want students to see, but that it is their own carelessness that created their career crisis, and that the decision to dismiss them is ethically defensible. Most recent posts on the topic involve whether the NTP can be applied to other professions.The last time it was discussed, in 2012, involved a nurse who made money on the side by posing provocatively on a sexually themed website. The conclusion here was was that there was no “Naked Nurse Principle,” and that her firing was unjust.  The previous NTP-related post involved, almost a year before that one,  rebutting the argument that there are similar principles regarding police and firefighters. Some of the more interesting versions that have been explored on Ethics Alarms include The Female Bodybuilder Firefighter Principle, The Drag Queen Principal Principle, The Online Porn Star Teacher Principle, Naked Naval War College Professor Principle, and more.

So now we must ask, “Is there a Cross-Dressing Future Congressman Principle”? Politico, always happy to embarrass a Republican, dug up the photos above (“They were provided to POLITICO by a person formerly close to Cawthorn and his campaign,” meaning that someone he trusted set out to hurt him) and published them as an “exclusive.”

Ethics Alarms has already ruled that there is a “Naked Congresswoman  Principle,” whatever a “woman” is,  and it applies to male members as well. That was in the case of Democrat Katie Hill, who had to resign her seat when she was found to have violated House ethics rules by having a sexual relationship with a staffer and an aide, and had photos of her in flagrante delicto become public. I wrote that the NCP was activated when

…one has a job that requires respect, an image of dignity, the perception of good judgment and role model status, allowing naked, semi-naked, sexually provocative or otherwise compromising photos to be created, and they eventually find themselves online and available to those the individual thus exposed is responsible for leading, teaching, or guiding, the individual cannot reasonably protest if this results in their losing their job.

There is a material distinction, however: Hill’s photos depicted her in the undignified state while she was in Congress. Cawthorne’s do not. His situation, therefore involves two earlier and more relevant precedents.

I reviewed them in this post, after a newly-elected Virginia House of Delegates member warned his constituents that there were probably embarrassing photos of him lurking on web, and they shouldn’t be held against him:

The issue at hand is whether in this “smartphone era” an elected official should be able to maintain that his (or her) explicit photos or videos in no way reflect on fitness to serve.

Back in 2010, when Scott Brown was running for his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, his Democratic opponent and others tried to make an issue of the fact that he had posed for a semi-nude  Cosmo fold-out  when he was young, hot, and needed cash. This was before the Brett Kavanaugh theory became popular among Democrats, which is that anything a Republican does as a student, or ever, can be dredged up and used to condemn him. Massachusetts voters reasonably saw no character deficiencies or lack of responsibility in Brown’s youthful vanity, and I doubt it lost him a single vote….

On the other side of the issue, we had the misadventures of the ridiculously named Krystal Ball. In 2010, she was a 28-year old, almost credential- and experience-free Democratic Party nominee for United States Congress in Virginia’s 1st Congressional district who eventually lost to Republican incumbent Rob Wittman. During the campaign, old photographs surfaced of Ball and her then-husband at a college Christmas party, showing her dressed as “bad Santa,” leading her husband, dressed as a reindeer, around S and M style by a leash, and sucking on his long, fake, phallic red nose.  Like this:

Krystal Ball 5

Krystal Ball 1

Because one never gets a second chance to make a first impression, this almost certainly DID lose Krystal votes, though she would have lost anyway. Thereafter, she complained that she was subjected to a double standard, and cited Brown’ fold-out as evidence:

“He had pictures from the same age as those pictures of me, only he was completely naked, in the centerfold of a national magazine, and it was not even a bump in his campaign; in fact he has even said that it helped him a little bit in his campaign. And I’m not holding anything against Senator Scott Brown… that’s as it should be, in my view, because those kinds of things to me are not relevant to the campaign trail. And I do think there’s a double standard.”

As I pointed out at the time, there are explicit photos and there are explicit photos, and context is everything (her stripper-like name also didn’t help):

“When a candidate has nothing positive to run on but her gender, is only 28 and has to convince voters that she is wise, responsible and mature beyond her resume and years, yes, a photo of her acting ridiculous and salacious, whatever it is, will hurt….A photo of a male Congressional candidate sucking a phallus at a Christmas party would hurt an equivalent male candidate just as much, arguably more. Scott Brown’s fold-out for pay is not comparable in any way. When he ran for the Senate and his modeling career surfaced, he was a veteran, a lawyer and had served six terms in the Massachusetts State Legislature: he had credentials besides his man-things.  Using a modeling gig when he was 22 to discredit him looked and was silly and desperate.

There are many double standards, but the “Candidate For Congress Who Is Photographed Sucking The Phallic Red Nose Worn By Her Reindeer Attired Husband At A Christmas Party Principle,” or the CFCWIPSTPRNWBHRAHAACPP for short (a distant cousin of the “Naked Teacher Principle”), which holds that if a candidate for Congress has photos depicting the candidate sucking phallic reindeer noses and leering turn up on the web, that candidate cannot credibly protest when the public concludes that said candidate’s judgment may be faulty, is gender neutral.

Cawthorne’s photos are something of a hybrid between Brown’s and Ball’s. Like Ball’s, they were obviously meant to be amusing (Masculine males cross-dressing is an old, old comic trope, though its humor has always escaped me. from Milton Berle and “Some Like It Hot” to “Bosom Buddies” and Monty Python). Do they reasonably reflect on his judgment as a Congressman?

I have to conclude no, because a man dressing in women’s attire as a joke is well-established in the culture, though some voters might see it as otherwise. (Cawthorne’s problem also has some whiffs of the Ralph Northam scandal, when old college photos of Virginia’s last governor surfaced showing him in blackface.) However, anyone who anticipates seeking any job requiring judgement and trust today, when everyone has a camera, is advised to avoid any public display that might call their judgment and trust into question. In Cawthorne’s case, it isn’t the conduct that suggests disqualifying traits in a Congressman, but his careless willingness to be photographed engaged in it.

For Cawthorne there is another factor at work. He has already proven that he has wretched judgment and is untrustworthy. He called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy a thug, suggested the Speaker of the House was a drunk, and will soon stand trial for speeding, driving with expired tags and driving with a revoked license. Most recently, he tweeted about attending “orgies” with fellow members of Congress, and then confessed that he had “exaggerated.”

Compared to those far more troubling examples of poor judgment and character while serving in Congress, the gag photos taken on a cruise ship before he was elected are irrelevant. If he loses his seat, it won’t be because of them.

5 thoughts on “Rep. Cawthorne And The Cross-Dressing Future Congressman Principle Question

  1. He called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy a thug, suggested the Speaker of the House was a drunk, and will soon stand trial for speeding, driving with expired tags and driving with a revoked license.

    The other stuff is problematic, but calling Zelenskyy a thug is no more problematic that Vietnam War protesters calling Ngo Dinh Diem a thug, nor anyone calling Joseph Stalin a thug from 1941-1945.

  2. Masculine males cross-dressing is an old, old comic trope, though its humor has always escaped me.

    Me too! I don’t think it has anything to do with transgenderism, formerly known as cross dressing. But I can’t help thinking if Cawthorn were a Democrat, he’d be praised to the heavens for being gender fluid. He’d be the toast of the town. Crazy.

    He certainly seems to have successfully established himself as an odd duck. Until now, I was never sure whether he was a Republican or a Democrat. A very confusing guy.

    • I don’t think it has anything to do with transgenderism, formerly known as cross dressing.

      Nope. Transvestitism == cross dressing. Transgender is something quite different.

      Whatever.

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