Herman Cain has managed to say some silly and outrageous things as a GOP presidential candidate without losing any support. In fact, he's been gaining in the polls all the while.
But new allegations of sexual harassment by at least three women who worked for him when he was president of the National Restaurant Association now threaten to unravel his candidacy. He's handled the situation badly, changing his side of the story day-to-day and refusing to answer simple questions. But the whole thing -- at least what details of the actual allegations against him have so far been revealed in the press -- seems wildly blown out of proportion.
So far, few concrete details of the alleged offensive behavior have leaked. According to people who worked at the National Restaurant Association when Cain headed the trade association, Cain liked to socialize with younger employees. He sometimes made crude remarks and suggestions to female staff and may have invited women to go home with him. At the time, Cain, who has been married for decades, was living in Washington while his wife remained in Atlanta.
His behavior sounds more pathetic than harassing.
For the sake of argument, let's say Cain did invite female employees up to his apartment or made sexually suggestive comments or gestures at social events. Does this really constitute sexual harassment? In feminists' and their legal allies' eyes, it may, but should such behavior be cause for civil action?
I once defended Bill Clinton against Paula Jones' charges of sexual harassment by describing the then-governor's behavior as "gross and disgusting" but short of sexual harassment. And Clinton's actions were far more egregious than anything Cain is alleged to have done.
Sexual harassment is a serious charge and should, in my view, consist of the solicitation of sexual favors in return for monetary or other rewards; sexual advances that involve implied coercion; or sexual attention that is repeated and interferes with the victim's ability to do her job.
If an employer -- or even a co-worker -- engages in this kind of unwanted sexual behavior, I'm all for throwing the book at him (or her, if the sexual predator happens to be female). But what if the boss has had a few drinks too many and invites one of his female employees up to his room? What if he tries to kiss her? Or says something sexually provocative? Is that really sexual harassment?
It all depends on what happens next. If the woman rebuffs him and the employer accepts her refusal with no subsequent retaliation, that shouldn't constitute harassment. If the boss keeps bothering the same woman -- or bothers so many different women that female employees begin to be wary of ever being around him -- then a harassment charge seems appropriate.
The problem is that in our hyper-politically correct and litigious society, we've turned boorish behavior into a matter that can be resolved only by lawyers. Not every unwanted advance should end up in a lawsuit or result in a financial settlement.
It may be that Herman Cain's behavior was over-the-top -- and if he truly kept coming on to women who had no interest and, moreover, worked for him, then he's probably a bad bet for president. What he's accused of indicates a lack of judgment and decorum, attributes we expect our leaders to possess. Since he's married, it also raises questions about his character. But let's not pretend that he's broken the law just because he may have behaved badly.
If these allegations end up bringing down Herman Cain's candidacy, it will be because he's been unwilling to come clean. He should have admitted what happened as soon as the issue was raised and thrown himself on the mercy of the voters.
There's no better story in American politics than a sinner who's found redemption. Just ask Bill Clinton.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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