Friday, November 11, 2011

The Herman Cain sexual harassment controversy

I haven't posted on the sexual harassment charges against Herman Cain because there seems to be no clear evidence of the accusations. And whether the underlying story is true should actually matter.

Sexual harassment is a serious problem. Nevertheless, individual cases have to be considered as individual cases. The fact that many businesses understand that for legal reasons they have to take such accusations seriously and investigate them properly is a very good thing. In politics, public accusations of sexual harassment are trickier for the public to judge, especially with the state of our Beltway Village media figures who love such stories and are obviously excited by them.

Cenk Uygur of Current TV's The Young Turks did a good report in this 11/09/2011 segment, Herman Cain Accuser Name Leaked:



Charlotte Observer cartoonist Kevin Siers doesn't seem to be impressed with Cain's explanations in this 11/09/2011 cartoon:



The conventional media and political wisdom on this kind of scandal is that the response is typically more important than the scandalous accusations. Jules Witcover, still one of the best commentators in the business, gives his version of the conventional wisdom in Scandal in Presidential Politics Tribune Media Services 11/04/2011:

In more recent years, the political problem with such "scandals" has not been so much a question of morality as it has been of willful deception. What has harmed politicians caught up in allegations of sexual harassment or abuse has been the attempted cover-up, when candor at the outset may have taken much of the sting out of the accusations.

That was a key lesson of the botched Watergate affair. Richard Nixon was undone not only by the plot to break into the Democratic National Committee and the hush money payoffs to the burglars hired by the Nixon re-election committee. His aggressive efforts to cover up the whole mess was what nailed him in the end.

Nixon may be remembered by many Americans for having blurted out in an appearance at, of all places, Disney World in Florida, "I'm not a crook." And Clinton's dodges -- "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" and "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" -- will live long after him.
In his subsequent column, he takes up the same issue, Sex and Politics Again 11/08/2011.

I'm actually not comfortable with the conventional formulation that the coverup is worse than the scandal. Because what if the allegations were just made up, as most of the Whitewater allegations against Bill Clinton were? And, for that matter, most of the non-Monica sex stories about Clinton? As far as run-of-them-mill adultery with consenting adults goes, I don't think it actually deters most people from voting for their preferred candidate. Gene Lyons wrote of the Whitewater scandal in Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater (1996):

Given literacy levels among the lowest in the United States, what this adds up to is a populist brand of political warfare that often descends to the level of professional wrestling. In a small, largely rural state with only one real city, it also makes for fantastic - and highly entertaining - gossip. Almost everybody, it seems, has a neighbor whose second cousin knows an old boy who worked on the governor's dentist's car, and he says ...

During the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial primaries, for example, lurid tales of lust and fornication were widely circulated about three of the four serious candidates—both Republicans, and, of course, Governor Bill Clinton. Only Clinton's Democratic opponent, an earnest good-government type perceived to have no chance, escaped suspicion. There was talk of whores, drunken orgies at duck-hunting clubs, illegitimate children, hush money, even suicides. One Arkansas politician was rumored to have had carnal knowledge of a convicted murderess inside her jail cell. Interracial sex, of course, is a topic of perennial interest. Indeed, it takes some effort to think of an Arkansas politician of note about whom scurrilous rumors haven't circulated.

For most Arkansas voters, evaluating this avalanche of smut has always been simple: your candidate is innocent, his or her opponents are probably guilty. The fact that political fault lines here tend to coincide with religious differences - hard-shell denominations to the right, "mainstream" churches to the left - makes it easy to caricature one's enemies as pious hypocrites. Otherwise, it would be tempting to suspect that many Arkansans harbor the secret belief that any politician—or TV evangelist, for that matter - who didn't have some rooster in him couldn't be much of a man.

But who would have dreamed that this stuff could be exported?
But, right or wrong, Witcover is probably also correct in the later column linked above when he suggests that a candidate with whom the electorate is not so familiar may be more vulnerable than ones who are:

... both [Bill] Clinton and Gingrich have had major political experience to justify the credibility each has managed to sustain through their less admirable behavior of the past. Herman Cain lacks a similar record of political accomplishment as he seeks to wade through the current allegations of personal misconduct, heightening the hill he must climb to achieve credibility as potentially the next president.
But even that is not an absolute rule, as Clinton showed in his 1992 campaign when the national public was not yet so familiar with him and he overcame the early Gennifer Flowers accusations.

Still, the sometimes thuggish-sounding responses from Republicans who are supporting Cain on this issue are pretty ugly. And people should pay attention to that aspect of the story, for sure.

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