The number of women accusing former President George H.W. Bush of groping them has grown to five, with two of them saying he did so during photo shoots in Maine.
The women include two actresses, a Pennsylvania journalist, a best-selling author raised in Bangor and a former Maine Senate candidate.
Amanda Staples, a former Republican state Senate candidate from Standish, wrote in an Instagram post that Bush fondled her in 2006. Staples, who was 29 at the time and running for the Kennebunkport area’s Senate seat, visited the former president at Walker’s Point when he “grabbed my butt and joked saying ‘Oh, I’m not THAT President,’ ” Staples wrote alongside a picture of her standing next to Bush.
“I can only imagine how many women have had their butt grabbed in a photo op,” she added in the post, noting that if she had a daughter “I’d never tell her to shrug it off because he was president.”
The allegations – which come amid a wave of sexual harassment and assault scandals that have ensnared movie producer Harvey Weinstein, Fox host Bill O’Reilly, MSNBC political analyst Mark Halperin and other powerful men – threaten to tarnish the legacy of the 41st president, who spends summers at the family estate in Kennebunkport and has enjoyed a family-man image since leaving the White House in 1993.
Best-selling author Christina Baker Kline on Thursday night posted on Slate an account of being groped by Bush in 2014, and an actress who witnessed Bush groping her roommate during a photo shoot at the Ogunquit Playhouse in 2016 said the former president had earned a reputation among the staff and recurring crew for grabbing women’s rears during his visits to the theater.
“A lot of backstage people – stage hands and wardrobe people – warned us that last time he’d come in he was a little creepy,” Emma Sohlberg, part of the cast of last summer’s production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” told the Portland Press Herald in an interview. “I got the impression that every time he sees a show, the same thing happens.”
Kline told the Press Herald that since the Slate story came out, numerous women had reached out to her sharing similar experiences with Bush. “They are understandably reluctant to step forward because it is not fun to be in this place,” Kline, who grew up in Bangor, said Friday from her home outside New York City. “It’s a very uncomfortable experience.”
Bush – who is 93, has a Parkinson’s-like condition and uses a wheelchair – has not publicly addressed the allegations, but his spokesman acknowledged the behavior in a prepared statement after the first two women spoke out.
“To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke – and on occasion, he has patted women’s rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner,” James McGrath said. “Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely.”
McGrath declined to comment on the latest allegation from Staples and instead referred to his earlier statement.
In three of the accounts, when the women stood next to him for photographs, Bush told the same joke: that his favorite book or magician was “David Cop-a-Feel” and then grabbed their rears as the pictures were being taken.
The initial account by actress Heather Lind on her Instagram page Tuesday said Bush had done that to her in 2014 as they posed with Barbara Bush during a promotional event for the AMC cable network show she stars in.
“He touched me from behind with his wife Barbara Bush at his side,” Lind wrote. “He told me a dirty joke. And then, all the while being photographed, touched me again.”
A second actress, Jordana Grolnik, told Deadspin on Wednesday that the president had done the same thing to her in Maine during a backstage photo shoot for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Before the incident, backstage at the Ogunquit Playhouse in August 2016, Grolnik said other actors had told her Bush had a reputation for fondling, but she didn’t take it seriously. Then, with Barbara Bush standing behind him “he reached his right hand around to my behind, and as we smiled for the photo he asked the group, ‘Do you want to know who my favorite magician is?’” Grolnik said. “As I felt his hand dig into my flesh, he said, ‘David Cop-a-Feel!’ ”
Grolnik said others in the room laughed in discomfort and Barbara Bush said something along the lines of, “He’s going to get himself in jail.”
Sohlberg, who was standing next to Grolnik in the group photograph, corroborated Grolnik’s account of what had happened.
“Jordana and I shared a room, and we talked about it the rest of the summer,” she recalled. “We called our moms and said, ‘This crazy thing happened, and there wasn’t anything we could do.’ ”
Sohlberg said what she found most disturbing was the apparent enabling by Bush’s handlers. “I by no means hold the theater at fault or accountable, and I don’t think they were putting us in danger,” she said. “But the fact that Barbara was in there making jokes with him – it was sort of set up knowing this would happen to us.”
Kline, the third woman to come forward, is a 1982 graduate of Bangor High School and bestselling author whose novels include “Orphan Train.” In an article posted on Slate, Kline revealed she was groped by Bush in April 2014 while in Houston for a Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy fund-raiser.
“You want to know my favorite book?” Kline said Bush whispered to her as they prepared to have their picture taken. “David Cop-a-Feel,” he answered and then “squeezed my butt hard, just as the photographer snapped the photo.”
She told the Press Herald that the interaction was particularly cruel because she had thought he was engaging her in a conversation about literature, something she cared about, only to have him turn it “into a joke where he squeezed my butt. It was a shock.”
The most awful part, she said, came when a friend of the Bush family drove her and her husband back to their hotel from the event, heard them discussing what had happened, and coolly asked them to be “discreet” about the incident, Kline said. “That was a sort of the chilling moment when both of us realized that this is something that had happened before, that everyone knew it was happening, and they weren’t surprised and were doing damage control.”
Kline also said that until this week she never thought she’d come forward with her story, both because she didn’t want to court publicity and “be known for this,” but also because she supports – and continues to support – Barbara Bush’s literacy efforts.
“But when those two women came forward and the Bush response was that he was trying to put people at ease because of this joke, or that that was where his hands fell (from his wheelchair level), I knew because of what had happened to me, with exactly the same line, that this was such a distortion of what actually happened and was such a callous refutation of their testimony that I ultimately felt I had to say something,” she said. “If we want to try to change the dominant culture, this feels like a moment for people to step forward and say, ‘We’re not OK with this anymore.’”
A fifth woman, former Erie Times-News editorial page editor Liz Allen, posted on Facebook on Thursday that Bush had touched her behind inappropriately during a local business association event he spoke at in June 2004, that paper reported. “It was cool to be in a photo with a former president,” wrote Allen, who is now the Democratic nominee for an Erie city council seat. “But I remember feeling uncomfortable with that pat or touch on my behind.”
She also pointed out that Bush was not in a wheelchair at that time.