Twenty years ago, last week, Clarence Thomas took his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court although, as I have suggested on this page before, he was not at that time, qualified to do so. The hearings on the matter of his qualification had been derailed by allegations of sexual harassment. Instead of focusing on the candidate’s substantive qualifications, the Senate Judiciary Committee had found itself talking about pubic hair and pornographic movies. The nominee had successfully accused the senators of conducting a high tech lynching.
Now, in the context of presidential politics, we face the same sordid situation – a choice between the important question of a candidate’s qualification to hold the office he seeks and allegations of sexual harassment. This time, of course, the candidate is Herman Cain and the office is the presidency of the United States. The charges surfaced Sunday and the comparison to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill affair are flying fast and furiously; already I have heard or read the phrase “high tech lynching” at least fifty times.
Herman Cain is certainly not the first political figure to face allegations of sexual impropriety since the Hill allegations surfaced two decades ago; but the analogues to Thomas/Hill are nearly palpable: The two men are both black. The alleged victims are reluctant (remember that Hill did not come forward willingly; a private report of Hill’s interview with the FBI leaked out to the press).
The allegations date back to careers held by each candidate in a previous professional life. And the issue is sexual harassment in the workplace rather than an extramarital affair (Arnold Schwarzenegger); sexually inappropriate Internet activity (Anthony Weiner); or illegal activity with a prostitute (Eliot Spitzer). I won’t even mention presidential impeachment (well, I guess I just did).
Most significantly, the allegations have been timed, in both cases, to derail each man’s candidacy, before he secured the office sought. In Thomas’ case, the hearings were nearly completed, with Thomas’ good character being presented as a primary qualification for the Supreme Court, because he had only been a judge for slightly more than one year. There had been little organized opposition to Thomas’s nomination and his confirmation seemed assured, until the report of the Hill interview surfaced. The hearings were then essentially reopened, and Professor Hill was called to publicly testify.
Many on the right suggest the intent in publishing these kinds of allegations is to undermine strong black male aspirants to higher office. True or not, the immediate effect of such allegations is clear: Damage.
Let us consider the secondary effect, however. Where forty-hours ago we were talking about the validity (what many would call absurdity) of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 flat tax plan, we are now entirely focused on whether the candidate was guilty of sexual harassment when he was President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.
Instead of discussing whether Cain is ready to lead our country during one of the most difficult periods in our history, we are now focused on who his accusers are and whether they were telling the truth when they filed claims against him back in 1990s. Instead of discussing the relative merits of the candidate’s position on abortion, an issue he was discussing on “Face the Nation,” moments before he was accosted with the sexual harassment allegations, we are instead parsing Cain’s non-denial denials made on the sidewalk outside the CBS News DC bureau, last Sunday morning when confronted with those charges.
Politico, which reported the story for several weeks, before confronting Cain, asked “Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?”
According to Politico, Cain breathed audibly, glared at the reporter and stayed silent for several seconds. After the question was reportedly repeated three times, Cain responded by asking, “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?”
Cain was President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association from late 1996 to mid-1999. Politico says it learned of the allegations against him and gathered accounts of what happened from former board members, current and past staffers and others familiar with the workings of the trade group at the time Cain was there.
Politico has reportedly seen documentation describing the allegations and showing that the Restaurant Association formally resolved at least one of the cases. Both women reportedly received separation packages that were in the five-figure range.
Today, Politico is reporting that The National Restaurant Association was considering endorsing Cain’s presidential campaign just weeks before Politico reported the story. But in response to the surfacing of these allegations, the Restaurant Association is reportedly trying to tamp down on any discussion of Cain and his tenure.
The rest of the country, of course, is focusing on the details of Cain’s allegedly inappropriate behavior with the two women. And don’t get me wrong. What happened is appropriately part of the character question especially for a candidate who is he is running first or second in most polls for the Republican presidential nomination.
Let us not make the same mistake we made twenty years ago with now Justice Clarence Thomas, however. How close Herman Cain stood next to these two women, in the 1990s, should not crowd out a larger and, frankly more important conversation about where Herman Cain stands on the issues.
So let’s start with abortion, the topic Cain was addressing on “Face the Nation,” immediately prior to facing these allegations on the sidewalk outside. Cain originally claimed abortion should be the individual’s choice – then said he misunderstood the ground rules of the conversation. On Guantanamo Bay, Herman Cain has said he would negotiate a swap of terrorists at Gitmo; then he claimed he misunderstood the question. When asked about energy policy, Cain told British reporters he’d get to it on Day Two of his administration. “Day One, I’m going to take a nap.”
Cain wants to privatize Social Security. But has little more to say on the subject. When asked about his signature policy proposal 9-9-9, he fares little better:
“How did we come up with 9-9-9? Why not 10-10-10, why not 8-8-8?), he mused at the National Press Club, yesterday. He went on to suggest (as he does often) that life imitates the pizza business. “The way we renewed Godfather’s Pizza as a company is the same approach I will use to renew America.” Sounds good, but when one reporter asked Cain to go beyond slogans, Cain used the game show stunt of calling a friend; he asked campaign advisor Rich Lowrie to answer the question for him.
Reporters, being reporters, (and because Cain really wasn’t answering any of the other questions) did ask Cain about the new allegations.
“I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he insisted. If the trade group paid a settlement, “I hope it wasn’t for much.” (Later in the day, at another event, Cain did remember one of the settlements.)
Would he ask for records of the investigation to be released in order to shoot down the allegations? “No, there’s nothing to shoot down,” he rebuffed, and “the policies of the Restaurant Association is not to divulge that information.”
Fine. Fine. But what about foreign policy?
He believes that “extensive foreign policy experience” is not something a president needs, since when he was named chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, “I had never made a pizza — but I learned.”
Cain has proposed an electrified border fence to kill immigrants coming from Mexico – then said he’d just been joking. But this is a presidential election. It’s not a joke.
No woman should be harassed in the work place and, in this day and age, no sexual deviant should sit in the Oval Office. But with Herman Cain we should never have to reach the question of whether he fits that definition. He has not even come close to proving he is qualified to sit there, in the first place.
Cain’s policy proposals (to the extent he has them) range from ignorant to absolutely unworkable. He brags about his complete lack of government experience. He trumpets his ignorance of foreign policy. These are supposed to be a selling point; but if through he were actually elected president, the real result would surely be disaster. And the American people would learn that, like his now famous campaign manager in the political advertisement that has gone viral, Herman Cain is blowing nothing more than smoke.
Jami Floyd is the Managing Editor of The Global Game World Report. She is an attorney and award winning legal journalist and has covered the Supreme Court for ABC News and Court TV, as well as the nomination and confirmation process. During her political work for the Clinton administration in Washington DC, she had the good fortune to become acquainted with most of the sitting and retired Supreme Court justices, but has never had the pleasure of meeting Justice Thomas.