The Wrong Cain Sex Scandal

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 29 2011 12:32 PM

The Wrong Cain Sex Scandal

US businessman Herman Cain (R)
US businessman Herman Cain (R) listens as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (L) makes a point during the Republican presidential debate on November 22, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Bob Costa breaks the news: Herman Cain is "reassessing" whether he should keep on his book tour running for president. "We have to do an assessment as to whether or not this is going to create too much of a cloud," Cain said in a conference call, "in some people’s minds, as to whether or not they would be able to support us going forth."

The reason for the rethink: The story that Fox 5 ran last night, an exclusive interview with Ginger White -- one of the perfect scandal names, really -- about what she says was a 13-year affair with Herman Cain. Her key evidence is a phone record that reveals 61 calls from a number that she claims (and he has not denied) to be Cain's. The last call was made in September, which isn't conclusive in itself, and White has filed for bankruptcy or been evicted multiple times. If you want to break her on credibility, you can try. But the drip, drip, drip is just too much. Conservatives who had started to sharpen knives for Cain are sticking them in. Sean Hannity -- Sean Hannity! -- says the story "created doubt in people’s mind whether or not, quote, another shoe will drop." It's not the scandal and its particulars as much as it is this sense that Cain lied when he told grassroots supporters that he had no "skeletons in my closet."

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Before we put this in the books (spoiler: if Cain drops out it's bad for Romney!), let's ask a question: What happened to Cain's defenders? The reason White says she came out was that women who accused Cain of sexual harassment or assault were being demonized. That wasn't all: As my colleague Dahlia Lithwick wrote, some of Cain's defenders dismissed those scandals on the grounds that sexual harassment wasn't actually a legitimate charge.

"If this turns out to be another racially-motivated attack on an African American conservative that is unfounded, unfair, uncorroborated, and in this instance, based on anonymous sources," said Sen. Mike Lee, "I think that's going to rally people around him, in Congress and elsewhere."

"In the eyes of the liberal media, Herman Cain is just another uppity black American who has had the audacity to leave the liberal plantation," said Media Research Center president Brent Bozell. "So they must destroy him, just as they tried destroying Clarence Thomas." The media was running stories based on "unnamed sources" about scandals that Bozell, naturally, compared unfavorably to Bill Clinton's.

Lee and Bozell were factually wrong, because the charges weren't anonymous. They came from settlements that had paid out cash to women who accused Cain of harassment. Sexual harassment isn't consensual; Ginger White says her affair was consensual. What would have happened if the White story broke before the sexual harassment story? We don't know -- let's imagine some combination of "high tech lynching" bellowing and attacks on White's credibility -- but I doubt you would have heard many conservatives argue that affairs weren't actually big problems, or that women regularly lied about having them. (Alleged) consensual sex is a bigger scandal than (alleged) abuse of power to harass women sexually. That's odd, isn't it?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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