In the wake of Sharon Bialek’s press conference describing an alleged incident involving of attempted quid pro quo sexual harassment by Herman Cain in 1997 [read the account here] , and the Cain camp’s instant and unequivocal denial, fair Americans are posed with a classic ethics challenge: how do they assess her accusations while being fair to the accused? It is a daunting problem, with many components. How do can we compare Cain’s credibility with Bialek’s? What, relevance, if any, does the timing of her appearance have? How are the previous, still anonymous, un-detailed allegations of hostile work environment harassment to be factored in to our calculations?
Addressing this conundrum requires wading into a jungle of biases, presumptions and caveats. Among them:
1. Is Bialek credible?
Pro: She did not have to come forward. So far there is no indication that she stands to make any money off of her sudden emergence. Her story has the kind of details—the “palatial” suite, Cain’s quick agreement to drive her back to her hotel without further argument, the involvement of her boyfriend—that bestow the aura of truth.
Con: First and foremost, she is coming forward more than a decade after the incident, when it is impossible to investigate or verify anything in a he said/she said scenario. This is inherently unfair. Her flat statement that the complaints of the other unnamed women are true is not a good sign: she can’t possibly know whether they are true or not. Her “come clean and move on” exhortation to Cain is disingenuous: obviously if he admits that he tried to solicit sex in exchange for giving her a job, he won’t “move on.” Finally, the involvement of attorney Gloria Allred is worthy of caution. Allred looks for celebrity controversies and stokes them. And the similarity to the Clarence Thomas ambush by Anita Hill cannot be ignored.
Conclusion: Bialek is credible, if not especially admirable.
2. Is Herman Cain credible?
Pro: He has said from the beginning that he never sexually harassed anybody, and nothing that was said or produced by the two women who filed complaints with the National Restaurant Association demonstrates otherwise—because they didn’t say or produce anything at all. A complaint isn’t proof, and a settlement isn’t proof. Cain, unlike (to use the best of all serial sexual harassing politicians as an example) Bill Clinton, does not have a reputation for shading the truth or being deceptive in other matters. An unequivocal denial to the nation should always be given a strong benefit of the doubt. It also should be noted that the kind of harassment alleged by Bialek is not of the same variety as the two NRA complainants allege; indeed, what she alleges arguably fails the legal definition of sexual harassment.
Con: His denial in this situation is in the “everybody lies about sex” category: the alternative would be remarkable. Cain has not come up with an explanation of why this woman would come forward to lie: in contrast, Anita Hill was a former employee of Clarence Thomas who obviously had a history with him that was contentious, and she was politically aligned with his opponents. While the vague allegations of other women are neither fair to Cain nor themselves probative of anything, there is a cumulative probability that can’t be denied when multiple women come forward, or, as in this case, one comes forward while the others snipe from the shadows.
Conclusion: Although far from proving him a serial harasser, Bialek’s claim makes Cain less credible regarding the other accusers than he was yesterday, less credible than Clarence Thomas was when he denied Anita Hill’s story, and still more credible than Bill Clinton when he was denying various allegations, which is nothing to be proud of.
3. Do we know who is telling the truth?
No. And we probably won’t.
4. Is it conceivable that Herman Cain did nothing inappropriate with any of the women who have complained now or in the past?
Yes. It is also possible and plausible. A fair conclusion would be, however, that a candidate who has never had any allegations of sexual harassment made against him is a more reliable bet to have never harassed anyone than a candidate who has had three women, in various ways, claim that he has. Thus Herman Cain is unavoidably less trustworthy regarding his honesty, tendency to abuse power, integrity and respect for women than he would be in the absence of these accusations.
5. Is that fair to Cain?
No. But it is true.
6. What should this mean to his presidential campaign?
What it will mean is that his reputation is seriously wounded. If he cannot convincingly rebut the impressions created by this week of allegations, all of them unfair in one way or the other, then he becomes an individual of dubious character. I don’t think any American should want to elect a President capable of treating a vulnerable woman looking for a job the way Bialek says Cain treated her. The fact that we have had such Presidents does not make being a pig a job qualification.
Some conservatives have already quoted Gloria Steinem’s revolting and hypocritical defense of Bill Clinton’s alleged treatment of Katherine Willey, whose story of his alleged sexual harassment of her was similar to Bialek’s. Steinem said that Clinton was “not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. . . . In other words, he took ‘no’ for an answer.”
OK, it may not have been sexual harassment. It was still atrocious, unethical, abusive and un-Presidential behavior.
So how do we treat Herman Cain fairly at this point? All we can do is put our biases aside and try to make sense out of conflicting facts. It would be unfair to conclude that he is guilty as charged.
It is fair to have doubts, and where trust and leadership are involved, doubts count.