The report by Politico over the weekend revealing that GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain was accused by two women of sexual harassment while he was CEO of the National Restaurant Association in the mid-1990s has led to swift condemnation -- not of anything Mr. Cain may have done but of the media's appetite for such stories.
Some conservative defenders of Mr. Cain, who is at or near the top in most polls of Republican voters, have compared the story to what Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas referred to as the "high-tech lynching" he received at his confirmation hearings when he was confronted with allegations of sexual harassment. It's an odd comparison for those who support Mr. Cain to make, and it does him no favors. After all, the accusations Anita Hill made against Justice Thomas were detailed and public — they were broadcast live on television as Ms. Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Subsequent reporting on the matter has largely backed her up.
The situation for Mr. Cain is far different. Whatever happened between him and the women at the restaurant association is murky and cloaked by non-disclosure agreements. There is simply no way to know at this point what actually happened. The story would likely not be causing such a ripple if not for Mr. Cain's initial refusal to discuss it and for his shifting answers once he did. He has, throughout, denied acting inappropriately, but the rest of the details have changed. At first, he claimed to be unaware of any settlements made as a result of allegations against him. Later, he acknowledged that at least one settlement had been made. He has alternately refused to discuss it at all and provided vague details about one of the incidents. As far as transparency and accountability goes, this ranks somewhere below Bill Clinton's 60 Minutes admission early in the 1992 campaign that he had "caused pain" in his marriage.
But should Mr. Cain have been asked questions about this in the first place? There are a few crucial differences between this story and those of public figures accused of harassment or other sexual misconduct in the past. For one, none of the women involved has come forward to make public accusations. For another, there is, as yet, no evidence that the alleged misbehavior represents a pattern. It is odd that a man who has been in the business world would have two allegations of harassment brought against him during a period of a few years in the 1990s but not at any other point. Finally, Politico editors have said the initial tip for the story came from someone not directly involved in the incidents, but they have declined to answer whether it was a supporter of one of Mr. Cain's political rivals. All that has fueled Mr. Cain's supporters' complaints that this as an example of a hostile media trying to dig up anything it can to discredit someone who has emerged from nowhere to lead the GOP pack.
That said, the story is clearly within the bounds of the normal vetting process for presidential candidates. It is at least as relevant as what Barack Obama's former pastor said during sermons when the future president wasn't in the pew, or whether Mitt Romney once hired a landscaping firm that employed some illegal immigrants. In fact, it would be surprising if those now coming to Mr. Cain's defense also think that the press went too far in asking questions about Mr. Clinton's personal life before he was elected president. They certainly found the issue to be germane several years later. And the motivations of the person who first tipped reporters off aren't germane — the facts of the story are.
What Politico did, and what other news organizations are now scrambling to do, was to ask questions and try to get answers. It's up to the public now to decide how they fit with the emerging picture of a man few had even heard of until recently. If Mr. Cain was, in fact, falsely accused, the story will ultimately be of no consequence. If there's more to it, the facts will out. But the one thing that should be of concern to Republican voters is Mr. Cain's poor handling of the issue. Politico gave him and his campaign 10 days to respond, and he was still flailing to get his story straight a day after the article ran. If he wants to be a serious candidate for the presidency, he'll need to convince voters that he can handle much more difficult situations than that.