The verbal caning of Herman Cain

Stop the presses! News flash! Story of the year is here! Herman Cain, newly christened a top-tier Republican candidate for president, has become the target of “sexual harassment” charges made by as-yet unnamed sources.

Look, I have no earthly idea if the charges that Cain “sexually harassed” a woman while he was president of the National Restaurant Association (the other “NRA”) more than a decade ago are accurate or not. But I do know that it has become far too easy to lodge charges of “sexual harassment” against male public figures, and that the national media is far too willing to give “legs” to such charges with little or no evidence that the charges are accurate.

This is not the first time a candidate for elective or judicial office has been tarred in the same manner Cain is facing right now. Cain, however, makes a particularly tempting target because he has not previously been taken seriously as a viable candidate, and therefore his past has never been fully “vetted,” even when he ran for the United States Senate in Georgia in 2004.

The story is, by now, well-known. It began this past weekend, when the Washington-based political outlet, Politico, reported that Cain, while CEO of the National Restaurant Association in the late 90s, was the subject of two sexual harassment complaints by female employees. Details of the complaints were not provided (a point that has led to much skepticism from conservatives), but the fact that the story reported the two employees “received separation packages that were in the five-figure range” launched the story into the stratosphere, from whence it has not descended.

Despite the explosive nature of the story and the fact the Cain campaign had several days’ warning before it went public, the candidate appeared completely unprepared to respond when the story broke. The Cain campaign, which had remained remarkably on message throughout the primary campaign — focusing on tax reform and economic issues — has been forced on the defensive and off message for several days, with no end in sight.

Just ask Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas how such charges, once leveled, can haunt a man indefinitely. After being nominated to the Supreme Court by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, the conservative jurist was forced to endure an embarrassing public spectacle, as Senate Democrats mercilessly dragged his name through the mud based on lurid allegations of “sexual harassment” by Anita Hill, a disgruntled former employee.

Thomas strongly denied the claims, and boldly denounced the confirmation hearings as “a circus.” He said what he had endured was a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.”

While Thomas survived his confirmation hearings and has proved to be a thoughtful and well-respected jurist on the high court for two decades, the charges still resonate in the media and among his detractors.

For others, the outcomes are not so positive.

During a 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate, then-Rep. Jack Ryan (R-IL) had his campaign completely derailed by salacious claims made by his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan. None of the claims alleged anything illegal, but the damage to Ryan’s credibility was swift and devastating. Within a week, Ryan was out of the race and out of politics.