Commentary: Scandal offers a view into Herman Cain's character

The Kansas City StarNovember 8, 2011 

I see the makings of another best-seller in the recent travails of presidential candidate Herman Cain.

This one might be titled, “Owning Up To The Past: How My Failed Bid for the White House Taught Lessons in Humility and Self-Awareness.” When the dust settles, Cain will have to take responsibility for how poorly he has handled the allegations that he sexually harassed women while head of the National Restaurant Association. It will be interesting to see how Cain — a propagator of the slogan “CEO of Self” — files this episode.

Even if we never know the truth about the growing pool of allegations, we’re finding out more about Cain through this ugly episode. We’re seeing his character.

Damage control experts have been quick to point out that Cain has done enormous harm to his image by mishandling his response to the charges.

Shortly after the story broke in Politico a week ago, he denied the allegations outright. Then, his memory seemed to recuperate. Perhaps there was a settlement, he admitted, but he wasn’t privy to the details. He also seemed to belittle the abilities of one accuser involved, telling interviewers that her job performance wasn’t up to speed.

Next, Cain sought to deflect blame onto others, in particular a staffer for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Also, Cain alleged, the fact that journalists were digging deep into his background was tantamount to a “witch hunt.” Meanwhile, conservative blowhards were doing Cain no favors by alluding to a nefarious liberal media conspiracy, orchestrated to takedown the black conservative. (Sorry, folks, there’s no roundtable. We’re not that organized.)

Cain is in the national spotlight because he asked to be there. And he’s withering under the heat lamp. His contradictory replies are keeping the issue in the headlines far longer than the initial story necessitated.

In all of this, Cain seems to be missing what could have been his strongest defense: that the allegations might be false. Or that they could fall into that fuzzy area of poor judgment but not be outright unwanted sexual advances.

There is no doubt that some allegations of this sort are false. Men in high-ranking positions can be wrongly accused. It’s quite common for companies or other organizations to settle even flimsy claims rather than drag proceedings along in court.

Yet, it is equally true — and probably much more common — that women hesitate to file such grievances even when they do have solid grounds. Many women put up with uncomfortable encounters because they fear being fired. They need their paycheck too much, and they neither want to undergo the scrutiny that would ensue in a civil suit nor to be known to other potential employers as a troublemaker.

Cain’s response has accomplished nothing except to make the public suspicious.

But let’s suppose the grievances are baseless, or that they do not rise to whatever Americans consider scandalous today. What could Cain have done differently?

He could have stated with authority that, unfortunately, misunderstandings do happen in the workplace. That in his long career it was quite likely that someone along the way would take issue with his management style. And that confidentiality agreements, which are for the protection of both parties, mean that the details simply can not be discussed.

But he didn’t take that tack. He played the victim.

It was a curious choice for someone who has built a career on self-regulation, of wisely redirecting himself, of taking difficult circumstances and rising to the challenge.

Somehow, none of the adages of which he is so fond have been available to guide Cain in his time of weakness.

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