Why the idea that people can learn from their mistakes doesn’t apply to Cain’s sexual harassment

In his attempt to address the charges that he sexually harassed three women while he was president of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) in 1996-1999, Herman Cain keeps trying to misdirect the media into side issues.

His first misdirection was to suggest that it was only because he was a Black conservative that these accusations were seeing the light of day, comparing himself to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whose nomination was nearly scuttled because of accusations of sexual harassment some 20 years ago.  It didn’t seem to quell the outrage.

Cain’s second misdirection was to accuse the Perry campaign of disseminating the reports. This move made sense tactically, because Cain is fighting Perry (and Bachmann, Santorum, Paul and Newt) for the non-Mitt—AKA more conservative—position in the Republican presidential sweepstakes. It’s as if the Republicans are playing a game of high-low poker in which the high and low hands split the pot, in this case frontrunner status. Romney is going high and everyone else is going low. (Or more accurately, Mitt is going low and the others are going even lower!) Cain thus gains more by tearing down Perry than he does by tearing down Mitt. 

Blaming Perry worked in one way: most mainstream media gave more coverage to the Perry canard the day Cain made his statement than they did to the other big Cain sex news of that day—the discovery of a third woman claiming harassment. The effect lasted exactly one day, though, because the news of the third victim was just too big to contain.

So far, none of the politicians or pundits, nor Cain himself, has addressed the real issue: Do these incidents of sexual harassment disqualify Cain from the presidency? 

We don’t know the answer to that question because the facts of the incidents have not been revealed. We can, however, lay down some general guidelines for analyzing the incidents to see if they should disqualify the Pizza King.  Essentially, we have to ask ourselves three questions:

  1. What did he do? Did he make a few off-color or suggestive remarks, or did he constantly make such remarks, touch a woman inappropriately or make an explicit sexual proposition?
  2. What were the accepted social mores and laws of the time? What was considered standard behavior in the 50’s and 60’s would now be considered workplace harassment.  
  3. Did he learn from the experience? The initial assumption—three times and you’re out—might not apply if all three incidents came in one single week or month after which Cain was a perfect gentleman. In that case, the incidents could be considered as one lamentable but forgivable occurrence, that is, assuming that the incidents were all talk and no touch.

Let’s be absolutely clear about one thing: Repeated and/or unrepentant sexual harassment of any kind should disqualify someone from the presidency for three reasons:

  • We want our president to treat all people equally, especially in the workplace.
  • Workplace sexual harassment is against the law.
  • Workplace sexual harassment also shows poor personal judgment and the kind of risk-taking that could be dangerous in a president.

But I want to illustrate how difficult it is to determine if Cain’s past harassment disqualifies him from presidential consideration by dredging up two embarrassing incidents from my own past:

As a 22-year-old, I taught a class in French literature at the University of Washington in which I often made off-color remarks or sexual innuendoes in class, but never directed at any of my female students. One day during my office hours, one of the women in the class talked to me about it. I’ll never forget her words because they hurt me like a series of slaps in the face—the pain, almost physical, was my own shame. Here’s what she said: “You are a great teacher. You treat women as equals and give us the same opportunities as men. I asked around and know that you have never hit on any of the female students. But your sexual remarks are bad—they make us feel uncomfortable, and they’re not appropriate.” My off-color remarks ended immediately. The year was 1973, and in retrospect, my student was brave and outspoken. My rhetorical question of course, is if this incident reflects on my current views and actions and therefore disqualifies me for president. Hell no, it’s like Obama admitting he smoked a little weed, except Barack did nothing to feel embarrassed about, whereas I did.

The second incident is a bit more subtle. It was the mid-80’s and I was working for a major public relations agency. A young female intern closed my office door one afternoon and started crying. One of the mid-level executives kept hitting on her and she felt very uncomfortable. She told me she had gone out with him once just to placate him, but that had only made it worse.  She wanted my help and my advice.  I told her that she didn’t have to put up with it and all she had to do was to harshly and directly tell him to stop asking her out and to leave her alone. 

She followed my advice and it worked, but I was wrong, wrong, wrong! I should have reported the incident to senior management and asked the company to begin an investigation of the matter, which eventually would have led to action against the harasser. The reason I didn’t act in the right, and legal, way was that I didn’t know what to do, and the reason I didn’t know what to do was because the company had not trained me. Nowadays all supervisors and managers receive training in how to identify and address harassment complaints in virtually all large and mid-sized companies, and many small businesses as well.

Of course, by 1996 when Cain joined the NRA, corporate America had made enormous strides in recognizing and addressing the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. As leader of a major corporation and then a trade association, Cain should have known what constitutes harassment, so it’s pretty hard to give him a pass, especially in light of the fact that there were three incidents. 

But let’s say the facts came out and it turned out that all Cain did was mouth a few awkward suggestions to the three women during a two-week period, before and after which he behaved impeccably. I would say that everyone makes mistakes, and this unfortunate incident (merging them into one) should not in and of itself disqualify Cain.

To convince me, however, I would have to see the complete reports and hear from at least two of the victims. I doubt that’s going to happen. Based on Cain’s cover-up attempts, it’s more likely that the reported harassment was serious and troubling. It’s likely that touching was involved or that the words crossed an unambiguous line, even for those times. It’s likely that the incidents occurred far enough apart to constitute three mistakes, not one. It’s likely that Cain did behave in a way that should remove him from presidential consideration. Otherwise, why wouldn’t he tell us what happened, admit he made a mistake and say he learned from the experience?

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