On Fox News Monday tonight, Greta Van Susteren interviewed Herman Cain at length about the Politico article regarding his 1990s sexual harassment issue. Cain made some good points throughout: that in all the many jobs he has had, he never had any sexual harassment issues anywhere other than the National Restaurant Association; and that several fellow heads of the NRA vouched for his integrity and credibility. He also said the accusations never rose to the level of alerting the NRA’s board, which can mean two things: that the accusations were baseless as he says, or that he covered them up to keep the board from knowing. Given the small size of the settlement, “baseless” seems to be the more probable conclusion. So why didn’t he and his campaign get ahead of it when they could have?
Politico says they contacted Cain’s campaign about the allegations ten days prior to publishing the story, but got no answers. In the Fox interview, Cain says that the campaign decided not to respond because they didn’t know what they were dealing with. All they had were anonymous sources and vague allegations, and Cain said they didn’t “want to chase anonymous.”
Does that make any sense? Surely Mr. Cain remembers the one incident in his entire career in which his integrity came into sharp question. Surely he remembers the accusation and the accuser, the lawyers, the rest, to some level of detail. And if the charges were in fact baseless, it seems to me that he would have been even more likely to remember them. Who wouldn’t remember a false accusation that could have done so much personal and professional damage?
He didn’t seem to remember much of anything about the accusation this morning. But by day’s end, he was telling Greta about the one incident he can remember that was in the charges, the innocuous “you’re as tall as my wife” incident. He told Greta that he remembers that that incident occurred in his office, with both himself and the accuser alone but with the door open. So he remembers that in the afternoon, but in the morning didn’t even remember that there was a settlement. In the morning, he said he hoped that the settlement was not for very much money because nothing happened. By day’s end, he said the accuser got a settlement that probably amounted to about three months’ salary. He also said that if the accuser had simply left the company amicably, that’s probably the amount of money she would have walked away with. So, basically, she got nothing. That’s more evidence that there’s nothing to the charges. Cain also said that he doesn’t remember whether she left the NRA voluntarily or was fired, and whether she left before or after the allegations of sexual harassment. All of these details are as relevant as the open office door and the hand on the chin, but we only have the open office door and the hand on the chin. And that’s after the campaign has had ten days to drum up a response.
The problem with all of this not remembering anything in the morning and then remembering some things by evening is that the story didn’t rock the campaign without warning. They had ample warning — about ten days. It’s possible that he spoke with his former general counsel at some point today, and that person refreshed his memory, allowing him to remember things in the evening that he didn’t remember in the morning. It’s possible. Is it likely though?
Politico first started trying to get the campaign to comment about it all more than a week ago. Cain surely knew at that moment that Politico wasn’t “chasing anonymous.” He knew there was a name even if he couldn’t remember it immediately, and he knew there was an accusation even if it was baseless, and he knew that there had been a settlement of some kind. His integrity had been called into question, in a way that could threaten his career and his marriage. He would remember that even if the accusations were baseless. And though the incident was years ago and for all we know may well have been all about nothing, his memory would have started coming back before this morning.
It could be that when Politico came calling, Cain huddled with his staff and they made a team decision not to respond. If that’s what happened, then his staff didn’t serve him well. When you’re dealing with reporters chasing a negative story about you or your organization, if they have solid information, you can’t hide from it. You have to do what you can to get ahead of it. Cain surely knew much of what Politico had; whether he told his staff much is still an open question. Now, coming forward to a reporter in good faith is no guarantee that you’ll get the story mitigated or turned in your favor. I dealt with a story once in which a reporter was chasing information and had a preconception of what he was going to write. I could tell from the angle of his questions. I gave him all the information he needed, all the access, whatever was necessary to show that he didn’t have it right, and he still ended up spinning everything as negatively as he possibly could — even though the very fact that I had the information should have told him that he had much of the story wrong. Some reporters are just hacks. That’s a fact of life.
So there’s no guarantee that getting ahead of the story will help you, but that’s still the best way to handle it. Leaving it the way Cain and his campaign did allowed the story to get out without their side being included. They hunkered down, the story broke, and then Cain ended up evolving his side of it throughout the day. That doesn’t help his credibility at all. Based on the size of the settlement and the fact that, at least so far, no other accusers besides the two from the NRA have come forward, it’s probably true that Cain was falsely accused. The 1990s were a weird time, when sexual harassment charges were just about everywhere. It’s possible the woman got fired for job performance or some other issue, and decided to get revenge and pay her bills by leveling a sexual harassment claim. That’s the impression I came away from the Cain interview with. We don’t know for sure and probably never will. Politico really should never have run with the story, as vague as it was. But Cain’s handling of all this doesn’t inspire any confidence. At the end of the day, it’s apparent that Herman Cain was either ill served by his campaign staff, or that he either intentionally or unintentionally misled them.