It has the feel of an ambush -- this sexual harassment story involving Herman Cain. Some conservatives are responding in familiar ways. "They are terrified of strong, conservative black men," one commentator explained. "It's another high-tech lynching."
The emotional response is understandable. Ever since the orchestrated, scurrilous character assassination aimed at Judge Robert Bork, conservatives have been perpetually on edge, waiting for the next slander of public figures who represent a threat to liberal power. In a remarkable (and frankly, brave) acknowledgement of this history, liberal New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote recently that Judge Bork was a "legal intellectual" and that "whatever you think of (his) views, they cannot be fairly characterized as extreme . . . The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics."
Liberals, Nocera writes, knew that Bork was not an extremist. They knew that he just happened to disagree with them on abortion, affirmative action and other matters, and they feared that he would swing the court in a more conservative direction.
But liberals couldn't just come out and say that. "If this were carried out as an internal Senate debate," Ann Lewis, the Democratic activist, would later acknowledge, "we would have deep and thoughtful discussions about the Constitution, and then we would lose." So instead, the Democrats sought to portray Bork as "a right-wing loony," to use a phrase in a memo written by the Advocacy Institute, a liberal lobby group.
The accusations against Clarence Thomas, following what liberal commentator Juan Williams called a "search for dirt" by liberal activists, deepened the disgust conservatives felt. There have been any number of conservatives who've been "borked" since.
So the response among some conservatives to the Cain story is practically Pavlovian. And yet, just because the well-worn tactic of digging up dirt on candidates is abhorrent, and just because the press dashes around with its hair on fire whenever one of these juicy targets presents itself, doesn't mean you can dismiss the accusations altogether.
I say that because the Cain campaign has not, thus far, handled this predictable emergency well -- perhaps due to political inexperience -- or perhaps for some other reason. Cain did not immediately deny the accusations. Instead, he sent his spokesman J. D. Gordon to Fox News where he offered the kind of responses associated with, well, guilt. "These are thinly sourced allegations . . . These two sources aren't even named in the (Politico) piece. It was a third party." This sounds like those confrontations in crime dramas where the detective confronts the villain with the accusation of murder and instead of denying it, he sneers, "You can't prove that." You don't have to be a cynic to notice that. According to Politico, the women, themselves, are not permitted to discuss the matter. So to say that because the information came from a "third party" it is therefore not credible, seems a little slippery.
Pressed by Geraldo Riviera about whether it was true or false that two female employers of the National Restaurant Association had received settlements in connection with harassment claims, Gordon offered a non sequitur, noting that major news organizations had previously passed on this story. Asked again whether the National Restaurant Association had settled with two women who alleged sexual harassment by Cain when he headed the organization in the 1990s, "yes or no," Gordon sidestepped the question, saying this was a "scare campaign" and offering, "you'll have to ask the Restaurant Association." Uh-oh.
The following day, appearing at the American Enterprise Institute, Cain declined to take questions on the matter. Finally, later in the day, he told the National Press Club, "I was falsely accused while I was at the National Restaurant Association, and I say 'falsely' because it turned out after the investigation to be baseless. Never have I ever committed any kind of sexual harassment." I hope he's telling the truth. But the locution "I say falsely because it turned out after the investigation to be baseless" leaves one queasy. A falsely accused person doesn't need to wait for an investigation to issue a passionate denial.
It's certainly possible that the Restaurant Association agreed to a settlement to avoid costly litigation. That happens. But no one in the Cain camp is saying that.
This may be just another knot in a long string of character assassination attempts against conservatives. It's also possible that Cain is playing that angle to avoid the truth.