Susan Estrich is the odd sort of political player that could only exist in America. A feminist trailblazer since her days at Harvard Law School, where she beat out a young Merrick Garland to become the first woman to head the Harvard Law Review, Estrich went on to become one of the bright lights of legal academia. Her scholarship has helped shape our understanding of rape and its punishment for decades. And though solidly on the left, she says of herself that she “lean[s] libertarian, and […] believe[s] in smaller government.”
And now the woman who wrote a book entitled “Real Rape: How the Legal System Victimizes Women Who Say No” is grabbing headlines for her role in the PR conflagration that is the Fox News sexual harassment scandal. She is not, as you might expect, representing Gretchen Carlson, the network’s former anchor, but rather embattled Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, against whom Carlson and other employees have alleged a long string of unwanted advances.
Estrich and Ailes are old friends, having first met back in 1988 when Estrich was managing Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign (she was one of the first national female political operatives) and Ailes was advising George H. W. Bush on media strategy. Estrich has appeared on Fox News many times over nearly two decades, and speaks warmly of Ailes as a boss and an individual. Close friends note Estrich’s indefatigable sense of loyalty, and she herself notes her lawyerly duties: “The last thing any client needs is a lawyer sitting in judgment,” she told the New York Times. She also points, reasonably enough, to the bedrock presumption of innocence at the heart of our legal system.
But not all feminists are letting her off the hook. Gloria Allred, another feminist legal icon, boldly declared that, “If Mr. Ailes had approached me, there’s no amount of money I would accept to represent him […] My credibility is not for sale.” Washington Post’s Paul Farhi quotes professor emeritus of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois Louise Fitzgerald expressing her ambivalence: “When I was coming along as a researcher, [Estrich] was one of my goddesses. […] I’m concerned about the impact on public perception and on how it might affect women who have been victims [of sexual harassment or rape].”
Pundits will pick their fights, of course. Now that Carlson’s accusations against Ailes seem to have done their damage, Estrich’s main strategy seems to be to move the case out of the public spotlight and into private arbitration. This is a good move for her client, of course, but also perhaps useful for heading off the often overheated climate that tends to accompany the most public sexual harassment suits. It does no good to Ailes’ alleged victims to drive them through the crucible of constant media scrutiny, and perhaps Estrich realizes this because of—not in spite of—her sterling feminist pedigree. (Nora Caplan-Bricker comes to a very similar conclusion over at Slate.) What's more, Ailes, even if guilty, is entitled to a good lawyer.
Interestingly, this case shows how private friendships, such as the one between Ailes and Estrich, can sometimes play central roles in our collective social consciousness. Estrich's current gig as the would-be sexual predator's happy warrior may not suit the narrative we've written for her, but it's a valuable reminder that our celebrities, big-wigs, and, yes, even our public intellectuals are actually people, with their own pasts and relationships.
(On an unrelated note but of considerable interest to readers of this publication, Estrich has some very good ideas about small-government, community-based solutions to urban homelessness, which she unpacks in a report from a few months ago. A main part of any effective solution, she says, is to empower and encourage charitable non-profits and faith-based organizations, which “can do things government institutions cannot.” Read the whole thing here.)