Herman Cain has become the center of the first juicy scandal of the primary season, just as suddenly as he became the front-runner of the GOP field. Last night, Politico published a story reporting that when Cain was the head of the National Restaurant Association, two women employed there accused him of sexual harassment and were offered five-figure cash settlement in exchange for leaving without talking about the incidents. The story doesn't detail the incidents precisely, but there were "conversations allegedly filled with innuendo or personal questions of a sexually suggestive nature," as well as "descriptions of physical gestures that were not overtly sexual but that made women who experienced or witnessed them uncomfortable."
One unnamed source told the four-person team of reporters that that, "I think that anybody who thinks this was a one-time, one-person transgression would be mistaken." Another source says Cain alerted at least one campaign aide earlier this year to the fact that there might be such a story in the offing.
Cain's spokesman told Politico that the candidate was "vaguely familiar" with the charges: confirmation! But then, as the story broke, the campaign changed tunes. First this:
Cain said he has “had thousands of people working for me” at different businesses over the years and could not comment “until I see some facts or some concrete evidence.” His campaign staff was given the name of one woman who complained last week, and it was repeated to Cain on Sunday. He responded, “I am not going to comment on that.”
He was then asked, “Have you ever been accused, sir, in your life of harassment by a woman?”
He breathed audibly, glared at the reporter and stayed silent for several seconds. After the question was repeated three times, he responded by asking the reporter, “Have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?”
Petulant teenagers the world over nodded in recognition at the tactic. But the campaign also issued an official denial to the Associated Press:
“Inside-the-Beltway media have begun to launch unsubstantiated personal attacks on Cain,” Gordon said in a written statement to the Associated Press. “Dredging up thinly sourced allegations stemming from Mr. Cain's tenure as the Chief Executive Officer at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, political trade press are now casting aspersions on his character and spreading rumors that never stood up to the facts."
Victim-of-the-mainstream-press certainly does seem to be a mode with more mileage in it for the Cain campaign. At least so far, the accusations don't appear to be damaging him too much on the right — in fact, conservatives seem to be rallying around Cain. "These are nothing more than allegations at the moment; let's not rush to judgment until all the facts are in," went one typical response on TownHall. The Drudge Report linked prominently to one video of Ann Coulter saying, "They are terrified of strong, black, conservative men," and another story that makes the comparison to Clarence Thomas even more explicit: It's a Washington Examiner piece in which Cain himself is quoted saying, "They're going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate. You're right. Clarence Thomas. And so, to use Clarence Thomas as an example, I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through — for the good of this country. I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching." The story is dated May 15.
Update: Cain's denials have gotten more specific. He's not saying that he was never accused of sexual harassment, but that he never committed it. "I have never sexually harassed anyone, and yes, I was falsely accused while I was at the National Restaurant Association," he said. Expect a minor re-hashing of the '80s and '90s culture wars over what precisely constitutes sexual harassment starting any minute now.