Herman Cain: “Guilty by Accusation”

Since the beginning of his meteoric rise to political stardom, Herman Cain has worn his lack of political experience like a badge of honor.  That same lack of experience, however, likely accounts for Mr. Cain’s rather inept response to allegations that he was the subject of complaints of sexual harassment while CEO of the National Restaurant Association.  The GOP presidential hopeful is learning the hard way that, in politics, living life as a frontrunner means living life under the microscope.

Cain, who has been married for 43 years, is alleged to have made sexually inappropriate comments and gestures towards at least three women during his time at CEO of the National Restaurant Association.  At this point all anyone knows for certain is that allegations were made and settlements were reached; but, specific details as to the nature of the purported harassment, the veracity of the claims, and the credibility of the accusers remain unknown.  Though the National Restaurant Association has waived the confidentiality agreement governing the settlement with the primary accuser, she has yet to speak publicly about the details of the allegations (her lawyer is purportedly organizing a joint press conference in which all the accusers will together present their stories to the public, but this hasn’t happened yet).

With nothing concrete to go on, the media has made hay for over a week, essentially recycling the same story over and over.  Cain, for his part, has run out of patience with the media for continuing its probe.  He’s denied any inappropriate behavior and claimed that he was not part of any settlement reached with any of the women, and having devoted one press conference to “putting the issue to bed” he’s refusing to discuss the matter further.

This is only the most recent example of the media’s “guilt by accusation” modus operandi.  Accusations are made, and immediately the burden of proof falls on the accused to disprove them.  Facts quickly become irrelevant.  This is wrong.  Just as our courts of law presume innocence until guilt is proved, so too should the court of public opinion refrain from judgment until all the facts are known.  Anyone can make an accusation after all, and the unique “he said, she said” nature of sexual harassment allegations make it particularly difficult to prove guilt or innocence with any level of certainty.  The architects of this smear campaign – if that’s indeed what this is – know this, and are milking the situation for all it’s worth.  They lit the fire of scandal knowing full well that the media would mindless fan the flames and reflexively jump on the bandwagon of the “victimized women” in this case.

Where was this righteous indignation, one wonders, when Bill Clinton was being accused right and left of much worse sexual offenses while governor and president, when he was committing adultery in the Oval Office and subsequently obstructing justice and committing perjury?  Back then the media had no problem extending the charity of presumed innocence.  After all, the women who accused Slick Willy clearly weren’t credible, and even if they were, it really wasn’t America’s business what happened behind closed doors.  Only uptight, puritanical conservatives get their dander up about such things, after all.  Progressive, open-minded Americans understand that a person’s private conduct and character really have no bearing on their ability to lead.  This is true, of course, unless the accused happens to be a Republican.

The voting public should hold themselves to a higher standard and refrain from judgment in this matter until the full facts are fully known.  Very soon Republicans will have the weighty responsibility of deciding who will represent their party in the contest to render Barack Obama a one-term president.  This decision should be based on who they feel is the man or woman best suited for this not inconsequential task.  This means separating the factual wheat from the hearsay chaff, focusing on the real issues, and not becoming distracted by politics as usual.

Mr. Cain, for his part, must drop his defensive, dismissive posture and address these allegations head-on.  Assuming he has truly nothing to hide or be ashamed of, he should come clean about exactly what happened.  This will require more than blanket denials.  He is, after all, asking the American people to make him the next President of the United States, and like it or not when he threw his hat in the ring, he threw his privacy out the window.

Up until now, Mr. Cain has engendered the admiration of the American people precisely because he has been plain-spoken and shown an aversion for the artificial political correctness that pervades so much of American civic discourse.  He’s proven that he has the resilience to survive this ordeal and continue to build support, but only if he stays true to form and addresses this issue with the same kind of straight talk that has characterized the rest of his campaign.

This is only the first of many political challenges that lie ahead for Herman Cain.  Only time will tell whether he has the mettle to withstand the scrutiny front runners inevitably undergo.

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Ken Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society. An esteemed attorney, Connor is affiliated with the law firm of Marks, Balette, & Giessel, a firm nationally known for its successful representation of victims of nursing home abuse and neglect.

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