As his campaign implodes in the face of sexual harassment allegations, Herman Cain’s Super PAC has launched an ad featuring Clarence Thomas’s 1991 charge that similar harassment allegations represented “a high tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” “Don’t let the left do it again,” the ad concludes. In a tight spot, both Cain and Thomas played the race card they had previously criticized, and both denied the sexual harassment allegations rather than taking responsibility. Indeed, the Cain episode, which also occurred in the 1990s, is a throwback to the Thomas era in more ways than one. It’s also an increasingly rare example, in the 20 years that have intervened between the two scandals, of powerful men strenuously denying their responsibility in sexual scandals rather than taking the rap, showing contrition, and trying to move on. What might explain this seemingly positive development?
In the aftermath of the Thomas hearings, there were a slew of examples—from Senator Bob Packwood to President Bill Clinton—of politicians accused of sexual liaisons, harassment, or worse and denying any wrongdoing. And then, during the past decade, the examples seemed to taper off. Why? When it comes to the apparent decline in highly visible harassment cases, one possibility is that men are cleaning up their act: Harassment law, by threatening draconian penalties for dirty jokes, may have deterred some bad behavior and led men to treat women with greater respect. Another possibility is that technology has reduced the incentive for men to hit on subordinates: As Anthony Weiner shows, the possibility of virtual flirtation with willing strangers may reduce the temptation to hit on colleagues face to face.
But perhaps the real reason we haven’t had a full-scale sex scandal in recent years in which the man denies all wrongdoing is that technology has made it so hard to cover your tracks. Now that men are finding it increasingly difficult to deny their bad behavior, they’re avoiding the sexual cover-ups that, as Maureen Dowd has noted, are invariably more damaging than the underlying crimes. In the Dominique Strauss Kahn scandal, for example, DSK didn’t even try to deny that he had sexual relations with the chambermaid who accused him of rape: The DNA tests, cell phone records, and hotel key card history that pinpointed his activities made that impossible. All he could do was claim that the sex was consensual. In the Elliot Spitzer and David Vitter cases, both politicians were exposed using prostitutes thanks to their electronic footprints and, because they were caught dead to rights, they accepted responsibility rather than stonewalling.
In this sense, Herman’s Cain sexual harassment scandal is a retro outlier. Because the details of the allegations and the settlement are under seal, and because Cain refuses to release his accusers from their non-disclosure agreements, he is spending more time trying to cover up the charges rather than taking responsibility. Too bad for him that his allegedly boorish behavior occurred before the age of cell phones, Facebook, and ubiquitous surveillance. If Cain knew that his inappropriate jokes might be tweeted, blogged, filmed, or subpoenaed, he might still be a plausible candidate for president.
Jeffrey Rosen is legal affairs editor of The New Republic.