Cain, Unable

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.

Struggling to find the story

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).

Under pressure in front of a camera

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.


13 thoughts on “Cain, Unable

  1. Singlecell, how I love reading your insights pertaining to politics. You seem to have a very rational, common sense approach to the political wranglings that have become ever present in the media.

    While I am frequently on the band wagon of hating how biased and sensationalized the mainstream news has become, the fact remains on this item, Cain had a chance to be forthright with the facts and he waffled and hedged all over the place.

    I, dare say, that many people in high leadership positions are accused of all sorts of supposed bad behavior, (some true, some not true). This seems to go with the job. People seem to like to knock the people climbing to the top, down a bit. In this case, Cain hurt his credibility by the ever changing accounts of the events, or for that matter initially stating he couldn’t remember one of the events at all. It is the vacillating from version to version that seems to be part of the damage. (I would not believe that a person would forget an instance where one is accused of sexual harrassment)

    I don’t know why, I am constantly disappointed when I hear stories of inproprieties of people that seem to have accomplished great things with their lives….still I am usually quick to recognize that they are human and prone to human weaknesses.

    As for Cain, I am waiting and listening before making a judgement. I will say, that I would LOVE to have a politician that I have total respect for, trust implicitly, and felt that they are setting an example of what being truly decent is. Does that person exist?

    • Thank you Cheryl! You’re right: everyone likes to attack the person at the top. It’s an occupational hazard, regardless of the occupation. In the business world, you get attacked by a few people, but in politics, you get attacked by the country (it must feel that way, at least). I don’t think Cain ever expected to be in the lead and therefore I don’t think he ever prepared for this. And I think if this is his reaction to something he thinks is not a big deal, he’s not going to react well at all to criticism if he holds public office.

  2. I have to say, it’s been an interesting week for Mr. Cain. He had to have known all of this would come out eventually, so it makes his handling of the issue even more startling. He seemed a little befuddled, and in one interview I saw he acted as if he were surprised that being accused of sexual harassment was even anything that was serious or damaging enough to warrant all the attention. It made me wonder: How smart is this man? I understand people wanting a nonprofessional politician “regular guy” for a candidate (if you can truly call him that), but it seems to me you have to base your decision on more than just that one fact.

  3. You insist on posting on politics, toying with my apolitical tendencies. I’m jaded by politicians exactly because when they tell the truth it’s because it’s the “first rule of public relations in situations like this, ” not because they have integrity. The system forces them to lie, or if not to lie, to hide the truth so often that they lose track of where they are and need public relations people to keep them on track. I didn’t like “The Ides of March” much as a film, but it certainly had a point to make. Cain is almost my age. I can tell you that during my career, many things that are regarded as sexual harassment were common place, even after they were regarded as sexual harassment … that is., there was a lot of wink-wink going on, some of it under the guise of office romance. There was an African American man in my division for years who was a grabber and a groper. Most of us felt that his race shielded him from consequences of behavior that none of us could get away with (eventually he was “walked out” of another company for sexual harassment). In a way, I’m astonished that they don’t come up with something on ANYONE over say, 55, who existed in businesses during the wink-wink years. I know, I’m rambling and I’m certainly not advocating perverts for president. I just get frustrated that so many potential candidates are sullied by innuendo that may have little to do with their ability to govern … and that the innuendo is brought to bear by other politicians. It just makes me want to go take a shower … instead, I turn apolitical. Whoops … I guess that sounds like I don’t shower. I have, by the way, voted in every election since I was old enough to vote, so I’m not terminally apolitical. I usually have to hold my nose, though. I have no reason to expect this year will be any different.

    • Ain’t I a stinker? I suppose one could argue that if they have to employ the first rule of public relations they may have lacked integrity to begin with. (I know, this makes your point for you.) But this happens with business dealings, taxes (and who doesn’t screw up their taxes?), etc. – things for which there are bound to be questions even if there is no impropriety, because nobody can make sense of every business deal or tax code. That’s the PR problem far more often than things like what’s happening with Mr. Cain right now. And I think we agree that, as I said in the post, sexual harassment is in the eye of the beholder sometimes, but those who have been truly harassed certainly should have their right to correcting the behavior because nobody wants to feel uncomfortable coming to work. And if they’re too young to remember the pre-awareness days, anyone who’s seen “Mad Men” knows, as you say, it does happen all the time, and often, women either tell themselves not to be bothered (boys will be boys) or have little recourse if they want to keep their jobs. So it’s clear that these statutes and policies are necessary. Unfortunately, some people do exploit them. As to your point about accusations that have little to do with their ability to govern, I’ll make this point (which I wish I’d made in the post): whether or not Mr. Cain harassed these women is one thing. The way he – and his campaign staff – handle the accusations being public is another. I would argue that it tells us a lot about how he would behave and handle difficult situations as president. And right now, he’s failing that test, in my opinion.

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