If there’s anything the political press loves more than a sex scandal, it’s one that dethrones a figure deemed to be riding too high. And so, in a fortuitous scheduling twist, reporters on Monday swarmed the National Press Club in Washington like sharks smelling blood, arriving early to take a bite out of Herman Cain’s presidential campaign, or at least to catch a glimpse of its carcass.
Hours earlier, Politico had unearthed allegations that Cain had been accused of sexual harassment while heading the National Restaurant Association during the 1990s. Cameramen stood sentry at the Press Club entrances and elevator banks. Forty-five minutes before Cain’s address, the press section in the balcony had reached fire-hazard capacity; it took a sympathetic Press Club employee to surreptitiously spirit me into the back of the ballroom, where attendees munched fried chicken, halved pears and noshed cupcakes topped with “9-9-9” frosting.
Ever since he began topping presidential polls, the media has been drafting pieces of Cain’s political obituary: unpacking his campaign’s organizational woes, his tortured answers to questions on abortion and foreign policy, his puzzling scheduling strategy. Now they wanted to witness the last breaths. But the candidate showed up boisterous and smiling, and after skating through a stump speech laden with humor and light on policy, Cain mopped a patina of sweat from his brow and stepped to the lecturn to face his questioners. “I would be delighted to clear the air,” he said.
“Number one, in all of my over 40 years of business experience … I have never sexually harassed anyone,” Cain announced. “Number two, while at the restaurant association, I was accused of sexual harassment. Falsely accused, I might add. I was falsely accused of sexual harassment, and when the charges were brought, as the leader of the organization, I recused myself and allowed my general counsel and my human resource officer to deal with the situation. And it was concluded after a thorough investigation that it had no basis.
“As far as a settlement,” Cain continued, “I am unaware of any sort of settlement. I hope it wasn’t for much, because I didn’t do anything.” He declined to speculate whether the source of the Politico article cataloging the allegations was an opposition leak, called the kerfuffle “a witch hunt,” and suggested there was nothing further to pursue.
This was wishful thinking, particularly since Cain’s team did little to snuff out the flames of the story as it caught fire. Before the speech, Cain’s chief of staff Mark Block — the mustachioed cigarette smoker in the Cain video that went viral last week — told a crush of reporters that the allegations were “totally false,” but offered a confusing explanation of Cain’s involvement in the settlement.
“We discussed it. He said he wasn’t aware the settlements had taken place, and they had nothing to do — if they did take place – with any accusations that he had, that were made against him,” Block said. Why didn’t Cain answer questions about the allegations? “They were anonymous accusations, and we didn’t want to, in any way, make those real. They’re anonymous. They’re baseless, sourceless.” The accusations were not made anonymously, of course; Block is conflating Politico’s protection of the accusers’ identity with its sourcing. And while Block and his boss pointed reporters to the restaurant association, that group so far isn’t talking.
Cain also skirted some key issues during his address, which was peppered with boilerplate apart from a spirited defense of his 9-9-9 plan. The catchy tax policy was also Cain’s rhetorical crutch during the Q & A session. He cited it as a path to economic growth, a solution to the foreclosure crisis, and evidence of his bold leadership. But if Cain was short on detail, he had charm to spare, rattling off zingers with a comic’s timing and a preacher’s cadence.
It was the candidate’s booming baritone, in fact, that punctuated the bizarre afternoon. Invoking Cain’s pizza-flavored rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Mark Hamrick, the press club’s president, asked Cain to repeat the performance. And so, after a few perfunctory protests about preserving his voice and the centrality of faith to his campaign, the Republican frontrunner for president in national polls launched into a ditty. The song he chose to serenade the audience? Dottie Rambo’s “He Looked Beyond My Faults.” Cain has to hope that voters will do the same.