Column: How could we have ever believed Les Moonves deserved the power to lord it over people?

Leslie Moonves attends the CBS Network 2015 Programming Upfront at The Tent at Lincoln Center in New York on May 13, 2015.
(Evan Agostini / Invision/Associated Press)

The last time I saw Les Moonves was a decade ago at the television upfronts. He was lordly and tiresome.

As the president and chief executive of CBS, Moonves boasted monotonously about “Everybody Loves Raymond” to the journalists there to publicize his stupid sitcoms. The show might be a comedic wasteland, he said, but “you couldn’t kill it with a stick.” (Later, he’d say of Donald Trump’s moral-wasteland candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”)

Because I wanted to put Moonves off his game, in hopes of better copy, I asked him about David Ben-Gurion, his great-uncle (by marriage) and the founder of the state of Israel. He didn’t say much, just flashed a look of rage before essentially telling me to shut up.

The French droit du seigneur refers to the right of medieval lords to rape their subordinates. But since, strictly translated, the phrase is more open-ended — “right of the lord” — it jumped to mind even on that day. Now Moonves has been accused of actual sexual assault — forcing his penis into the mouth of TV executive Phyllis Golden-Gottlieb in 1986, when she was in charge of sitcoms at Lorimar Productions.


What was Moonves’ job again? Shepherding Ray Romano vehicles into 22-minute time slots?

Golden-Gottlieb also says Moonves threw her against a wall. What happened next? Put it this way: Golden-Gottlieb — who was then known for her sharp eye for comedy — didn’t go on to run Viacom or CBS Corp. She left the television business, and we’ll never know by how much she would have bested “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

“He took my whole career,” she says now.

When this heartbreaking news surfaced last week, no one seemed surprised. Moonves denied almost everything — also pro forma. He then resigned, which was refreshing, if not much of a sacrifice. As of Friday, observers were calling his exit package with CBS singularly “face-saving,” since it included a temporary non-disparagement clause and confidentiality in the matter of CBS’ internal investigation. It’s even possible — though highly unlikely — that he could receive a portion of his eye-popping $180-million severance package.


Of course, this most recent assault allegation comes on the heels of at least six other accusations of harassment and intimidation by Moonves. But even when Moonves wasn’t being allegedly lecherous and perhaps violent, he had a reputation for nastiness. He was known for stagy savagery with his enemies (notably NBC), but also with his employees, and even with the courtier-reporters at the upfronts.

What was Moonves’ job again? Shepherding Ray Romano vehicles into 22-minute time slots? Pushing middlebrow comedies and political candidates that even he despised onto mass audiences? Why did grownups — such as the CBS board and the journalists at that long-ago news conference — believe Moonves was so mighty that he deserved deference, genuflection and truckling? And possibly even, to some degree, women’s submission to his harassment and abuse?

It should go without saying. No professional position — chief line cook, head of the Old Vic theater, regional manager for a log homes company — licenses anyone to assault, abuse or harass his or her employees or colleagues. Americans once shared a fantasy of egalitarianism and a resolution to take off our hats to no man — much less a mere TV exec. And yet because Moonves has what? — money? control over something to do with network television shows? — some among us came to believe he had the right to lord it over people.

In Hannah Gadsby’s immensely provocative one-woman Netflix performance, “Nanette,” the Australian comedian radically reevaluates a powerful man with maybe a slightly better claim to greatness than Les Moonves: Pablo Picasso.


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First she reviews Picasso’s history of misogyny and abuse of women. And then she gets into the darkest part of his cruelty. It was in the way the culture — especially the art world and academia — conspired to enable and empower it. The most brilliant part of Gadsby’s routine is by far the way she pronounces the goofy word that was Picasso’s blank check: Cubism.

“Aren’t we grateful that we live in a post-Cubism world? Isn’t that the first thing we write in our gratitude journals?” Gadsby asks.

Like much of “Nanette,” this isn’t a joke. “Cubism” is something many or most of us who went to college wrote dutifully in our notebooks. We were given to understand it was one of those man-invented concepts (or was it a practice?) that “changed everything.”


Before Gadsby’s routine, I had never doubted the absolute holiness of Cubism. But she got me wondering: What if “Cubism,” “CBS hitmaker” and other esoteric labels are not world-historical paradigm shifts but magic words that let a band of men, with Picasso- or Moonves-types on lead guitar, abuse people while they inflate the value of paintings and sitcoms?

With #MeToo, Americans are collectively deconstructing the fictions that have sustained the hostile systems that devastate some of us and impoverish all of us. Am I grateful to live in a #MeToo world? Yes. And if I had a gratitude journal, that might actually be the first thing I’d write in it.

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