It is hard not to feel at least some empathy for all the parties involved in the ongoing Herman Cain sexual harassment case. Cain, the current co-front runner – at least according to national polls – for the Republican nomination, held a press conference late this afternoon in an effort to change a media narrative that for more than a week has focused almost exclusively on allegations that he sexually harassed at least three women while heading the National Restaurant Association more than a decade ago. At least two of those women negotiated financial settlements – or personnel agreements, as Cain prefers to call them – with the restaurant association that reportedly amounted to about a year’s salary (a total that was either significantly large or ridiculously small depending on which “expert” one consulted). Until yesterday, it appeared that the story might lose some steam because the three initial accusers refused to be identified. However, the story gained new legs yesterday when a fourth person, Sharon Bialek, went public via a media blitz orchestrated by celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, who charitably contributed a made-to-order tabloid headline to go with an actual victim’s face; Allred said that Cain offered Bialek his version of a “stimulus package”. In Bialek’s telling, that meant groping her genitals and attempting to push her head down for oral sex.
Even prior to Bialek’s charges, the Republican Party “establishment” had been orchestrating a not-so-veiled media campaign designed to force Cain from the race by portraying him as inexperienced and unprepared for the presidency. That effort, however, had run into a very big obstacle: a strong portion of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, as I discussed in this Washington Post editorial sees Cain’s lack of political experience as a virtue. Despite the three different accusers – or perhaps because of them – Cain’s support among this conservative bloc remained strong, and by some indications, such as fundraising, he actually benefited from the charges, as they rallied around him. The latest accusation, with its public face, escalated the stakes, and so Cain changed tactics from saying this was a nonstory and instead decided to hold a press conference. Alas for the Herminator, I think the effort largely failed; this story is not going away any time soon, and in fact is likely to end badly for all parties.
This is not to say that Cain made a mistake in trying to confront the story head on, although I was mildly surprised his wife wasn’t by his side as he did so, standing by her man in true Hillary Wynette fashion. In contrast to some of the instant post-mortems of today’s conference, I actually thought his opening statement at least clarified some of the issues, and that he handled himself quite well in the question and answer period. I admit I thought he went overboard in suggesting that Bialek was “troubled” and implicitly suggesting that she might be motivated by money. Far better to stay out of the muck – there will be plenty of surrogates on both sides who will love to wade into it on their principals’ behalf. He also did not provide much elaboration regarding his assertion that the charges from the second accuser who has now been identified were “found baseless”. That woman is Karen Kraushaar, a communications director for the Treasury Department’s inspector general. She had been reluctant to come forward prior to yesterday, when she was “outed” by an online media source. What Cain did not clarify, however, is who it was that concluded the charges were “baseless” and why was a settlement, er, personnel agreement negotiated nonetheless? Cain did not say. Instead, he suggested that the “Democratic Machine” – shades of Hillary’s “vast right-wing conspiracy”! – might be behind the accusations, motivated by a desire to prevent “Herman Cain” from winning the nomination and becoming president. Cain stopped short of suggesting the effort was racially motivated, but the thought, although unspoken, was nonetheless clear for all to infer. In this context, it is worth noting that both of his accusers who have been publicly identified are white woman.
Kraushaar has yet to tell her side of events, but until she does nothing Cain says will make this story go away. If she is deemed credible, his candidacy may be mortally wounded. But even if she is not, or cannot provide supporting details, Cain will still be hurt if for no other reason than this ongoing narrative detracts from more substantive issues. And there’s not much he can do about it, particularly during the “invisible primary” when there’s scarcely any other electoral news that might overshadow this story. In effect, he is being asked to prove a negative – it’s hard to provide corroborating detail for a defense that in a nutshell comes down to “none of this ever happened.” And that’s why these stories prove so damaging to all parties. With the lack of corroborating evidence, who one believes inevitably becomes a litmus test for one’s political views. Questions of evidence and facts become irrelevant, drowned out by escalating rhetoric as each side attempts to frame the issue in ways that evoke more fundamental issues. In this drama, the lead actors become symbols in a larger morality play. This is what happened in the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy when, during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings she accused him of sexual harassment. To his supporters, Thomas was the “uppity black man” suffering a high-tech lynching for daring to step off the white man’s plantation. Hill’s defenders portrayed her as every woman who endured the “boys will be boys” sexual harassment that too often characterizes the American workplace. Today, decades after Thomas was barely confirmed for the Supreme Court, both sides are convinced that they were in the right.
And so it will go here. Expect the rhetoric to escalate – and for the race and gender cards to play prominently in the ensuing debate. Although Cain did not say it – his defenders almost certainly will: this is but the latest manifestation of a racial stereotype in which the oversexed black man tries to despoil the chaste white woman. The difference today is that Cain’s “lynching” comes not at the hands from the good ‘ol boys, but from the media, handmaidens of the largely white power structure. And the accusers? Women’s advocates will note that they will become victims all over again, but this time it will be their motives that get questioned. Why bring these charges up now? What’s in it for them? As such, they will become, as Hill did before them, symbols of the type of workforce harassment that too many women suffer – and the difficulties they face in trying to end this gender-based discrimination.
Is this an overly dramatic scenario? Perhaps. But mark my word, this is going to get ugly before it gets resolved. It always does.