Herman Cain harassment allegations: why they're not Clarence Thomas redux

Anita Hill's allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas were explosive but lacked documentary evidence. The allegations against Herman Cain were reportedly investigated, meaning there could be a paper trail.

Jason Reed/REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks at the National Press Club in Washington Monday. Cain acknowledged that he was accused of sexual harassment in the 1990s but insisted the allegations were baseless.

Herman Cain – is he 2011’s Clarence Thomas?

After all, today Mr. Cain, an African-American, is the subject of reports that female employees at a restaurant trade association accused him of sexual harassment in the 1990s. Twenty years ago, Supreme Court Justice Thomas, an African-American, was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, who worked with him at a federal government agency.

The Thomas-Hill confrontation was a combustible mix of race, gender, and power relationships. It played out before a national audience in public testimony, leaving neither the accused nor the accuser unscathed.

In the end, Thomas was confirmed after enough members of the Senate Judiciary Committee decided there was no convincing proof of the allegations. In his own testimony, the future high court justice framed the process as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

On Monday, some Cain supporters were making an explicit comparison between the two cases. Conservative author and talk show host Ann Coulter said Cain, like Thomas, was the victim of a “high-tech lynching” due to his conservative beliefs.

Back in May, Cain himself had predicted in an interview with the Washington Examiner that liberals and Democrats would find a race-based way to attack him. He brought up Thomas as a point of reference.

“I’m ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through,” said Cain at the time.

On Sunday night, as the Politico story on the allegations of sexual harassment broke, the Cain campaign implicitly raised the Thomas experience again.

“Sadly, we’ve seen this movie played out before,” said Cain team on its twitter feed.

But having lived through the Thomas confirmation hearings, we have this to say about that: Cain’s story is unlikely to mirror Thomas’s story. There is at least one crucial way in which the current media pixel-storm is different from what happened 20 years ago.

Ms. Hill’s allegations were explosive, and many believe them today. But there wasn’t much in the way of written evidence to support her case. She took no official action against Thomas at the time of the alleged offenses. Indeed, she continued working with him, notes the conservative blog Hot Air.

Yes, we know that was a different era with different standards, but we’re not here to reargue the Thomas case on either side. The point is that Cain’s case is different: the women who felt he had harassed them reported it at the time. There charges were investigated. According to Cain himself, the counsel of the National Restaurant Association carried out an investigation of the charges. Presumably, a copy of that investigation still exists in the trade group’s files.

Cain himself said Monday that the investigation exonerated him. Perhaps it does – we don’t know, because we haven’t seen it. But the written report would provide a fact check on what Cain has said about the matter. The trade group probably has records showing whether Cain knew about the financial payments it made to the women at the time.

The Thomas case had no such documentary trove, and so devolved into “he said/she said” argument.

The Cain allegations? The contemporaneous report could provide powerful evidence one way or another – if it is ever released. Which is a very big “if,” of course. Cain himself says he is the victim of a “witch hunt,” and that he won’t call for the report to be made public. But the pressure on him to do otherwise could become overwhelming if, say, the women involved go public in coming days and dispute aspects of his story.

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