November 16, 2011
By William McKenzie/ Editorial Columnist
As you know, Herman Cain faces allegations that he sexually harassed female employees during his time at the National Restaurant Association. The Republican fervently denies the charges, although there are reports that settlements have been made in these cases. Cain's story about those settlements continues to evolve.
As this story unfolds, I would like to hear you talk about the obligation of the women in this episode. It is natural that they would want to avoid a media firestorm. But don't they have a moral obligation to step forward and tell their side of the story, like former NRA employee Sharon Bialek did on Monday?
If nothing happened, shouldn't they be explicit about that? But if something did happen, shouldn't they provide details? After all, Americans are trying to evaluate the campaign of a rising presidential front-runner who says he did no wrong....
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins Theological Seminary, Southern Methodist University
There is no doubt that many in the news media seem to be hungering and thirsting for Mr. Cain's accusers to come forward and for them to provide more details about the alleged sexual harassment by him. But, despite the fact that one of them has now done so, the women are under no obligation to give details in a public forum.
First, if there is any truth to the allegations that Mr. Cain harassed them, then these women were victimized. That they have been given severance packages suggests there was at least some merit to their claims. That they were compelled to sign documents regarding a commitment to keep silent is further evidence that there is some merit to their claims. It means they were victims. And victims should not be at the center of the discussion. Perpetrators should be.
Second, once the women appear in public as interviewees and as prey to paparazzi, they will subject themselves to another form of victimization. They will become easy targets for commentators to vilify and for comics to ridicule in ways that they do not deserve. They will be accused of having reneged on the signed agreements that secured their silence. They could be sued for breach of contract. They might have to find financial resources to defend themselves in civil court.
Third, the troublesome issue here is that none of this is necessary. Whether Mr. Cain is a viable candidate for the presidency should be judged after a careful analysis of his policy recommendations and after a rational review of his qualifications for the job. Judgments about the merits of his candidacy should not be made on the basis of prurient interest in what he may have said or done in communication with women on the staff of his organization.
The appalling amount of attention by our news media to this matter is overwhelmingly out of proportion to the real issues that media should be investigating. What are the real details of his tax proposals? What are the real details of his plans for changing health care reform laws in America? What experience does he have that equips him to make foreign policy decisions? What are the criteria that can be used to assess whether he was "joking" about electrifying a fence on the US border with Mexico?
In the cacophony of media noise about the allegations coming from these women, almost nobody seems sufficiently informed to answer these far more important questions about Mr. Cain. The continuing risk that the women will be further victimized and the continuing risk of keeping the American electorate uninformed are the real dangers in today's political arena.