This is why it’s bad to not be a politician when you’re running for president.
Herman Cain’s presidential campaign has been a compelling story. He’s a businessman who’s never run for office before, an African-American from the south who came from political nowhere to become the frontrunner in the race for the GOP nomination. Wonks and pseudo-wonks (hi, that’s me) have noted with fascination his ability to gain ground and raise money despite a near-universally panned financial policy, uneven performances at debates and questionable statements at public appearances and interviews. People like him. He’s regular folks. And they’re willing to cut him some slack because he doesn’t have the slickness of a typical politician, so sure, some of his ways of handling things are going to be a little rough around the edges.
Herman Cain’s handling of this sexual harassment fiasco is a damned wad of steel wool.
He went from saying he’d been accused twice, but the claims were baseless and there had been no settlements… to saying he didn’t even remember one claim… to saying there may have been an agreement… to admitting there had been a settlement in one case. That evolution was in the course of one day: Monday. He went from being “delighted” to “clear up” the matter on several news shows and interviews to angrily refusing to answer questions and even ducking out a back door at a DC-area appearance, after converting what was supposed to be a press conference into a three-minute speech after which, “unfortunately,” there was no time for Q&A.
The settlements – two of them – were confirmed. And then a third woman came forward, saying she’d considered filing a complaint against Cain back in the ’90s when the other two women filed theirs, but decided against it because they had already taken action. She says he commented on how attractive he thought she was and invited her to a corporate apartment during off-hours. But she has been reluctant to say anything else. Another wanted to talk, but she has changed her mind; she doesn’t want to be the next Anita Hill. Well, who can blame her?
One or two of these women might be out for fame or (more) money. Or, they might be telling the truth.
Herman Cain’s spokesperson says he “never acted in the way alleged by inside-the-Beltway media, and his distinguished record over 40 years spent climbing the corporate ladder speaks for itself.” Well, here’s the funny thing about a record of decades spent climbing the corporate ladder: it leaves a lot of things out.
I’m certainly not saying Cain is guilty of sexual harassment. I couldn’t possibly know. And I believe some people will look for ways to capitalize off a public figure’s sudden fame and misfortune. But the way Cain and his people have handled this whole debacle smacks of two things: at least the possibility of guilt, and inexperience.
The first rule of public relations in situations like this is pretty clear: tell the truth, and get out in front of it. If you know a story like this is going to break, you release the information first, or you do it simultaneously. You tell the closest approximation to the whole story as you possibly can without violating laws, contracts and your right to the Fifth Amendment, if applicable.
And then you stick to your story.
The easiest way to stick to your story, obviously, is to see rule #1: tell the truth. I’m not calling Mr. Cain a liar, but boy, has the story changed. Settlements in workplace complaints of sexual harassment are pretty standard. They happen all the time. But when you say they never did, you make yourself look far more guilty when the world learns they were, in fact, paid out. If Cain had just said from the beginning, “Yes, there were two complaints, they were found to be baseless, and they were settled, which is very common in the business arena. I’m a businessman. These are the things that happen so that people can move on,” it would have made things much better. Instead, he’s had his campaign manager (the guy who showed up blowing smoke in the ad that leaked a short time ago) go on TV and indignantly insist that Politico was wrong to publish the story in the first place because “it wasn’t true.” And it’s the media’s fault. They’re coming after him because he’s a frontrunner. They’re coming after him because he’s African-American.
Look. Complaints happened. Settlements happened. It was true. Politico was not wrong to publish it. It is newsworthy. He’s running for president and he’s been formally accused at least twice of sexual harassment. Not found guilty; sexual harassment can be handled internally or in courts, and, as we can all concede in our maturity, is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. While the beholder has the right to his or her feelings or senses, in a legal forum they can be difficult to substantiate. So why did Politico publish the story when they did? When Cain was a frontrunner? Because that’s when they found out about it. Media outlets don’t get news like that and sit on it, waiting for the off-chance (and it was an off-chance) that Cain would become the frontrunner so they could hit him when he was at his peak. The reason it came out when it did has nothing to do with the media. It has to do with who gave Politico the information.
We don’t know who that was, but there’s a pretty good bet it’s one of Cain’s political opponents.
Because that is what politicians do in campaigns.
Now, the reason the rest of the media jumped on the story is because it’s sexy, it’s a talker, it’s an attention-getter, and news is a business; nobody wants to be beaten. They’re not trying to take Cain down. They don’t care. He’s a good story anyway, so why try to shorten the political narrative they have to keep rewriting for the next 12 months? The stories haven’t continued because of the initial accusations. What has been newsworthy in the aftermath of these revelations is how Cain has handled them.
Politico gave Cain ten days before they broke the story (not unusual in political circles).
They told him they had it, and they wanted to publish it, and they gave him ten days to get his response and his strategy together. Ten days is usually enough for a campaign to wrangle itself into cohesion and a clear, consistent story, dependent only on the demeanor of the candidate under pressure in front of a camera. But Cain’s campaign couldn’t even get close to that.
This flap doesn’t have to end Cain’s campaign; President Bill Clinton was accused of arguably worse sexual harassment or indiscretions and survived it to win the office. (I’m not talking about what happened once he was there.) What endangers Cain is exactly what he thought would help: he’s not a politician. “Slick Willy” didn’t get his nickname just because of the sexual innuendo behind the moniker; it was also because he knew how to slide out of tight spots (I thought about avoiding that wording, but what the hell). Like it or not, that’s one of the things a good politician learns to do well, for a lot of reasons. Cain – and his campaign honchos – are still stuck.