The verbal caning of Herman Cain

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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.

Much of this problem lies in the very term “sexual harassment,” which, like other explosive terms such as “indicted” and “racist,” are white-hot verbal tools which brand the target as soon as uttered. Invariably, those making such charges know exactly what they are doing and know the wounds such terms make as soon as leveled — regardless of their substance or whether there is any evidence to back them up.

What exactly does “sexual harassment” mean, anyway? Certainly, it can, if backed by factual evidence, reveal true and serious misconduct by an individual, almost always a male, which properly should be the subject of a civil lawsuit or, in extreme circumstances, criminal charges. But often the term is used to incorporate a vast universe of words or behavior that may amount to little more than a poorly worded compliment, a bad joke or an improper gesture — all inappropriate and unprofessional, but hardly the basis on which to ruin a person’s professional or political career.

In today’s world of blood-sport politics and 24-7 media constantly on the prowl for a story or allegation with which to gain a momentary advantage over the competition, however, the flimsiest of “sexual harassment” charges are immediately elevated to the level of “world news tonight,” with the inevitable and often lasting damage to the person being targeted.

If Herman Cain can withstand this episode — presuming the charges are false or unsubstantiated — and emerge with his numbers and campaign intact, he will have done a favor for all current and future candidates, even though far into the future his name will remain associated with the dreaded “s” word.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.