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.