I think I understand why the audience at Wednesday's CNBC debate booed Maria Bartiromo's question to Herman Cain about sexual harassment allegations. They don't believe there is any truth to them. They suspect, along with the candidate, that the women concerned are part of a liberal lynch mob out to smear another strong, conservative, black man. They know that accusations of sexual harassment are often nebulous and politically correct. If I guess correctly, they also believe -- with considerable justification -- that the press is less interested in the dry details of policy than in salacious tales of misbehavior. They resent being dragged into another smutty distraction.
As someone who was well disposed toward Herman Cain as a public figure, if not as a potential president, I cannot help recalling the response of Democrats to revelations about Bill Clinton. "We know all about it," one exasperated reader wrote to Newsweek Magazine, "and we don't care." In fact, the majority of Americans did not care, and it was not our finest moment as a nation.
Liberals, who professed to be appalled by the one accusation against Clarence Thomas (just one non-contemporaneous accusation -- not four or five), dismissed Bill Clinton's behavior as no big deal. Stuart Taylor noted at the time that even if everything Anita Hill said about Clarence Thomas were true, it would not be nearly as serious as the allegations against Bill Clinton. Conservatives argued at the time, that character mattered. Liberals replied, in effect, that it didn't.
But liberal hypocrisy, however malodorous, shouldn't justify our own. The booing, and some of the commentary among conservatives, can be interpreted to mean not only that we disbelieve the accusations, but also that they wouldn't trouble us even if they were true.
Alternatively, one gets the sense among some conservatives who are circling the wagons around Cain that the accusations are the reason to support him -- despite his weaknesses on policy, experience and crisis management.
We don't know whether Cain is telling the truth that he "never sexually harassed anybody." I hope so. But we shouldn't be indifferent to the truth. No fewer than five women have filed formal or informal complaints against him. For days, he said he wasn't going to chase "anonymous" accusations. He continued this posture even after Sharon Bialek held a press conference.
It's certainly possible that the two women who received "settlements" from the National Restaurant Association were either overly sensitive or dishonest. But Cain, who initially denied the existence of settlements, has not encouraged the NRA to release all concerned confidentiality agreements, so that others can judge for themselves. He has not asked the NRA to disclose the findings, which he says proved at least one of the allegations to be "baseless." He has claimed that he does not know Bialek, yet witnesses saw them hugging at a Tea Party event a few weeks ago. If Bialek is telling the truth, it's an open question why she chose to embrace Cain. But if Cain is telling the truth, his memory lapses alone might disqualify him (along with the hapless Gov. Perry) from consideration for the presidency.
Meanwhile, Cain and his campaign have engaged in wild, unsubstantiated accusations of their own, lashing out at the Rick Perry campaign and accusing a staffer of orchestrating the leaks. Campaign Manager Mark Block later falsely suggested that Karen Kraushaar, one of the women involved in the NRA settlements, was the mother of Josh Kraushaar. "So we've come to find out that her son works at Politico," Block told Sean Hannity. Except that Josh Kraushaar (who now works for another publication) and Karen Kraushaar are not related. When Hannity asked whether they had checked out the story, Block said, "We've confirmed that he does indeed work at Politico and that's his mother, yes."
The ghost of Bill Clinton haunts the Cain campaign in other respects as well. After Bialek's press conference, the Cain campaign released a slashing attack on Bialek, itemizing personal bankruptcies, custody battles and other problems. It wasn't quite James Carville on Paula Jones ("If you drag a dollar bill through a trailer park . . .") but it wasn't uplifting either.
Bartiromo asked a perfectly appropriate question --character still matters.