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Cain invokes Thomas-Hill controversy

Published: November 11, 2011
Section: Front Page


When Politico reported late last month that two women had accused presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexual harassment while employed under him during his time at the helm of the lobbying group the National Restaurant Association, it threw the already unsettled Republican field into further disarray: Cain called the accusations “a high-tech lynching.”

The infamous phrase is a direct quote from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who derided the 1991 Anita Hill harassment allegations against him and the ensuing media frenzy as a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks” before the Senate Judiciary Committee nomination hearings.

Hill is now a professor at Brandeis and recently keynoted a conference in New York City, commemorating the 20 years since her brief trials as a national figure in what many call the first instance of a national consciousness of the problem of sexual harassment. The American public at the time of the hearings was very skeptical of her account (and of course Thomas was soon confirmed to the high court) but supporters, including the many at the “Anita Hill 20” conference last month, credit her not only with bravery for daring to come forward if her story is true but also for bringing the issue to the fore of the national conversation.

Cain’s use of Thomas’ trademark rebuttal and counter-accusation has sparked what already would have been an obvious comparison: two prominent black conservatives, both accused of sexual harassing remarks in their distant pasts right at the height of their national spotlight and the cusp of power.

Cain, the business executive who is leading in some national and state polls for the Republican nomination, flatly denied the accusations, calling them “totally false.” Like Justice Thomas, he has blamed the media for supposedly exaggerating accusations against him, giving credence and airtime to liars and generally waging a war against him, whether because of his race or ideology, or both.

Recently, several women have come forward, with the number of known accusers now tallied at four. Sharon Bialek, a former associate of Cain’s and the first to make herself known (and who appeared with celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred), even went so far as to say that Cain had groped her leg and toward her genitals, in a description more akin to sexual assault.

Cain not only denied each additional accusation, but also claimed this week that he “did not even know who” Bialek was, saying her story about a restaurant dinner, hotel and car ride were entirely fabricated.

Bialek, whose lawyer said they had secured two affidavits from friends who said told them of the incident when she says it occurred, has since been targeted by both conservative bloggers and commentators and even more viciously by the Cain campaign itself. Cain’s campaign manager has referred to her past “financial troubles” and questioned her honesty in other personal affairs.

For some of the other women, namely the former employees of the restaurant lobby, Cain also denied the accusations, saying he has “never sexually harassed anyone, at any time,” as well as making several conflicting comments on whether the restaurant group ever reached a legal settlement with his accusers. At first, he said he was not aware if a settlement had been made between the women and the organization—where of course he was chief executive officer.

In a later interview Cain acknowledged a small settlement—calling it “an agreement” changing his original remarks on the subject. He also understated the size of the settlement by a substantial margin. One woman, who he said received about “a two-month or three-month” pay package, actually received a year’s salary in exchange for signing a non-disclosure agreement about the incident.

It is this record of inconsistency that has led observers like the chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Brandeis, Professor James Mandrell, to abandon their benefit of the doubt for Cain.

“When I first hear about stories such as this, I try to be careful about judging anyone but the way he has handled the situation is regrettable,” he said.

Mandrell also explained that the real harm, irrespective of how Cain fares in his quest for the presidency, was demonstrated in how his lawyers had trashed the character of Bialek and others.

“One can question some of the media coverage,” Mandrell said, but the “pointing a finger and blaming shows that despite the ground gained since Anita Hill, the country has not come to the point we need to be at in terms of personal responsibility and mutual respect.”