Herman Cain's Republican presidential candidacy probably was dealt a fatal blow Sunday with a disclosure that he had faced sexual-harassment allegations from two female employees during his time running the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C. in the late 1990s. According to initial information, the employees got paid off, left the restaurant lobbying organization, and agreed to remain silent about the matter.
Sex sells and the charges soon overwhelmed in the media such matters as the European debt crisis, an unseasonable Northeast snowstorm, and the byplay leading up to the Nov. 23 deadline for a bipartisan congressional panel to agree on a compromise debt-reduction package.
When confronted with the charges, which appear to have substance, Cain's reaction was a "tell." He stood silent for a long time. His first words to the inquiring reporter: "Have you ever had sexual harassment charges made against you?" His campaign has since issued a somewhat nuanced denial.
Presidents, presidential candidates, and other well-known political figures have weathered similar charges. But, by the time the charges surfaced, they already had established public-sector personas. This is not true of Cain. He still is undefined in most voters' minds and, thus, the harassment charges will largely define him. It was the most recent setback for Cain in a 10-day period during which his poll standings had held up but in which his 9-9-9 tax plan was criticized and then revised and in which he had to explain almost daily verbal glitches and blunders concerning issues important to Republican voters.
Cain's first impression with voters had not yet been completed. His sex charges will raise doubts about him and, as is often said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
What about sex in high-level politics? From my own observation, there probably is only a bit more adultery or womanizing among male politicians than in the male population in general. Information about their female counterparts is sketchy, but my general impression is that female politicians have been less likely to act that way.
In modern times, Tennessee Sen. and 1956 vice-presidential candidate Estes Kefauver, Presidents John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, Vice President and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Sen. and presidential aspirant Gary Hart, and North Carolina Sen. and 2004 vice-presidential candidate John Edwards all had reputations linked to their extramarital conduct. Yet many other national-level officeholders and candidates were straight arrows in their private lives. Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter had their problems governing but, in their private lives, were one-woman men, even though Carter admitted to having "lust in his heart" from time to time. I knew and worked closely with most of the Democratic headliners between 1960 and 2000 and observed Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Fritz Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry, Paul Tsongas, Ed Muskie, Mike Dukakis, and Joe Lieberman, in particular, to be committed husbands. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden certainly give every evidence of being in that category. I have heard not one rumor otherwise.
Among current GOP presidential aspirants, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has confessed publicly his previous adulterous behavior. It does not appear to have harmed him. But Gingrich, as noted, had been defined as a public officeholder long before he launched his present candidacy. Cain has never held public office and, until now, had benefited in particular by appearing a forthright, refreshing non-politician "not like the others."
A couple things should be said about sex and politics.
First, a number of people drawn to politics are there because it offers them a chance for love and recognition. Those politicians whose adultery I have observed have been people needing their egos constantly fed and who crave applause, just as their counterparts in show business. Sex does that for them. It is an open joke in Washington, D.C. that the persons most likely to begin acting adulterously are freshman members of Congress. They come to the capital fresh from affirming electoral victories in their home districts, feeling high and important. Then it quickly sinks in on them that few in the capital know or care who they are, except for lobbyists seeking favors. A high percentage of the frosh, the joke goes, soon are seducing young female staff members or interns, who are about the only people in proximity who treat them as important.
Second, the culture surrounding political campaigning fosters casual sex. Many people in political campaigns are, quite literally, campaign junkies who love the existential experience. The hour-by-hour, day-by-day life in a campaign can be much like that in wartime. Things are impermanent, relationships can be transient, and end-of-day drinking or doping can lead to a roll in the hay in that night's campaign motel. Or staff can be thrown together for a few days working in an out-of-town campaign headquarters or advancing a candidate's visit. The candidates themselves, and their senior staff, are too busy to get drawn into that culture — except for those, as noted above, who need to be in it wherever they are.
Herman Cain, we hardly knew you. Now you will pay the price for behavior a decade ago that will largely define you now.