What the DSK affair taught Herman Cain

November 9, 2011

By Amanda Marcotte
The views expressed are her own.

Few events can tune Beltway TVs to C-SPAN like a sex scandal press conference. Yesterday, Herman Cain, as expected, issued a blanket denial of all accusations of sexual harassment, including the two incidents that ended in settlements between the National Restaurant Association and the complainants. But Cain didn’t limit himself to denials. He went on to cast aspersions on the mental health of the one accuser, Sharon Bialek, calling her a “troubled woman” being exploited by the “Democrat machine”.

The only surprising thing about Cain’s invective is that it came straight from his mouth. Most politicians keep their distance from the muck, leaving surrogates to the job of denigrating foes. In general, though, evoking negative stereotypes about women’s mental health is standard-operating-procedure for those trying to pry public figures from accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. As history has shown, changing the conversation from the accusation of what he did to gossiping about who she is works remarkably well to protect those accused of sexual misconduct. Even in cases with substantive evidence behind the allegations, and even when the accuser’s character has no bearing on the facts of the case.

For a quick lesson in how this routine works, look at Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged attempted rape of a hotel maid, Nafissatou Diallo. The initial reports stuck to the evidence at hand: the DNA samples, the evidence from the rape kit, the testimony from those who assisted the alleged victim. Strauss-Kahn’s defense team, however, moved swiftly to change the subject to the more fruitful topic of the character of the accuser.  Stories began to trickle out to the media: The accuser had unsavory friends. She had acknowledged Strauss-Kahn’s wealth during a private discussion of the case. She had lied to immigration officials about past sexual abuse to improve her application. There were insinuations about her sexual behavior and her mental health. The leaks worked; once the mainstream media started talking about Diallo’s history, they stopped talking as much about Strauss-Kahn’s. Even more importantly, they stopped talking about the evidence collected by the police.

Call it the “nutty and slutty” strategy, after David Brock’s infamous characterization of Anita Hill in the wake of the Clarence Thomas hearings. The hearings are well-known for making sexual harassment a national issue, but that case also helped set the pattern for changing the subject when a prominent man is accused of sexual harassment or assault. The process goes something like this:

1. Accusations are initially treated seriously, with straightforward media reports on the evidence and implications.

2. Then the accused’s team gets to work. They’re not out so much to prove the innocent of the accused, but to smear the accuser with a trinity of sexist stereotypes: gold-digging, sexually-loose, and insane. Since these three accusations are rather ambiguous—how do you measure “looseness” and when does the human desire to make money cross into the zone of gold-digging?—they are impossible to truly defend against.

3. The debate about the character of the accuser floods out discussion of the evidence at hand, giving the accused a chance to walk before any fair hearing can occur. Thomas was safely ensconced in the Supreme Court when journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson put together the case corroborating Hill’s testimony while casting doubts on Thomas. And in the Strauss-Kahn case, prosecutors eventually dropped charges, citing Diallo’s credibility as the main reason.

Cain and his supporters are following the script as closely as they can. At first, they had few options, since the public had no information about the accusers beyond the fact that the two had settlements with the National Restaurant Association. But once Sharon Bialek stepped forward, Cain’s defenders had a target, and therefore a chance to change the subject from the evidence against Cain to accusations of nuttiness, sluttiness, and gold-digging against Bialek. The Cain campaign sent out a press release accusing Bialek of having “a long and troubled history”, and hinting that she’s only coming forward for financial gain. Republican surrogates also went to work. Former Clinton political adviser turned right wing talking-point disseminator Dick Morris openly used the phrase “gold-digger”. Kirsten Powers, a political analyst for Fox News, played a variation on the “slutty” card by claiming that a woman should never be alone with a married man, even for work-related events. And of course, Cain used his press conference to make insinuations about Bialek’s mental health, saying, “I don’t even know who this woman is,” floating the possibility that Bialek simply projected elaborate fantasies on a man she’s never even met.

Will this strategy work as well for Cain as it has for those accused in the past? It’s possible, but ironically, the prior cases that set the script may end up working against him. After all, every time this script to discredit an accuser is set in motion, feminists unite in denouncing the very existence of this script, and in the process, teaching the public to view the smearing of accusers with more skepticism. With every scandal the public—hopefully, at least—becomes more literate. The strategy worked for Clarence Thomas, and it worked for Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But polls suggest Cain may be facing a public that has grown tired of slurring accusers with sexist stereotypes. Cain’s unfavorability ratings with Republicans have nearly doubled from 18% to 35% since October, according to a Gallup poll. That same poll says only 45% Republicans say he’s doing a good job responding to the charges. Perhaps even a crowd with predisposed hostilities toward feminism has turned skeptical of those who attack the character of the accuser instead of dealing directly with the charge.


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Pray tell, what facts are we discussing with respect to Mr Cain. The author does a fantastic job of panning the camera away from Mr Cain onto DSK, but the “facts” of the DSK case, although disproven, were much more lurid and specific than any sort of allegations made against Mr Cain.

If you’re going to draw a comparison between Mr Cain and Mr DSK, then please, by all means, show us some evidence whatsoever that Mr Cain has done anything even remotely inappropriate with any of these women.

There is no semen on anyone’s dress.

There is no weeping house maid who is claiming rape, mere minutes after it occurred.

There is no history of inappropriate affairs and written evidence of sexual misconduct.

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Posted by JaredWhite | Report as abusive

this is the dumbest thing i have ever read, my fault i guess for venturing into the opinion section.

how exactly would you recommend someone respond to accusations of sexual harassment? You mention evidence in the Strauss-Kahn case that people forgot about, but there is no evidence in this case. There is no DNA. the case hinges ENTIRELY on the words of the accuser, in this case accusers who only came forward when it became profitable to do so.

So under the obvious assumption that he wants to defend himself from these allegations, how should he defend himself without calling the accuser’s mental state into question?

It is clearly a case of he said/she said, that’s what every sexual harassment claim without physical evidence comes down. So who are you to berate him for trying to cast doubt upon what ‘she said’? You seriously think he doesn’t have the right to defend himself against these allegations?

I wonder how the left would react to accusations of sexual misconduct against Obama

Posted by Vestar | Report as abusive

President Clinton survives sexual harassment allegations and the impeachment. Investigators had DNA sample and other stuff. Please leave Mr. Herman Cain alone

Posted by AlexanderF | Report as abusive

An interesting opinion Amanda but your artful wording belies what seems to be your actual intent. You speak of charges where there are only accusations, and compare Mr Cain’s possible verbal improprieties to Strauss-Kahn’s actual intercourse, marital infidelity, and quite possible rape of a woman.

Herman Cain was not caught fleeing the country late at night, nor are the AMA settlements in lieu of litigation any admission of guilt. Merely an expedient that favors economy over spending spending double or treble the settlement amount proving innocence in court.

You speak of Cain smearing accusers while actually smearing Mr. Cain, and therein lies the gist of this piece. You don’t like the man. Fine, that’s your right.

You’ve got a vote, I’ve got a vote, we’ll see how it all works out next year.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

Both the Republican and the Democratic Parties have developed a joint comedy of hypocritical candidates. And the Republican debates are 4 star laugh shows.

Posted by geesam47 | Report as abusive

Some of the commenters ought to think about how THEY would feel is it was THEIR daughter or wife that had Herman Cain’s groping paws up their skirts.

There is something about the culture of powerful men that leads these people to think they can get away with it. Indeed, probably 999 times out of 1000 they do.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Just from the brief description (Freelance, feminist, political) we can know where the writer plans to go with this piece. Barely high school quality.

Reuters can do better than this – and better do better if it wants me to keep tuning in.

Posted by Global55 | Report as abusive

I think that both political parties are at fault for not checking out the candidates prior to letting them run for office. Too much time is spent listening to useless tabloid junk speak. Like Obama, nobody is checking out the ability of the candidates to lead the country. The reason Perry is not being considered seriously is because he is trying to follow in the footsteps of loser Bush from a so called position of leadership in Texas.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

I’d like to address the comments by JaredWhite and Vestar regarding “facts, evidence, DNA and only words of the accusers – who only came forward when it became profitable to do so”. I’d like to point to a a case of sexual misconduct currently being investigated at Penn State. The accusers have only words, some eye-witnesses who did nothing when wrong-doing was happening, no DNA, the words of an emotional female making outlandish claims to officials regarding a high profile person, nameless vitims and documented ones. What about the victims of Penn State; what about their situation at the time, were gifts exchanged, favors given and does this negate the sexual misconduct? Do you believe a man is innocent because no one retained evidence, because no one came forward, because it was repeated over and over? Do you believe accusers profit from such claims or do they want justice? Are the claims against Mr. Cain that difficult that plausibility is absurd? Our society requires us to responsiblity investigate such claims ESPECIALLY against individuals in high profile, positions of power to avoid further deceit to the public and that is what’s happening now. We must listen to the accusers and make a decision about his innocence because this man intends on us handing over our trust to him in major proportions.

Posted by TigerPantz | Report as abusive

Whatever happens, it seems that we will never reach balance and that media is opened to extremists just because they create controversy. Not to say that there isn’t sexual harassment, racism, chauvinism but there are studies that show that when one gets the view that he/she is discriminated, anything, even the most innocuous statement, will be perceived as part of the same ongoing harassment or discrimination. Just as these women remembered only now that they were victimized by Cain’s harassment, and not when it happened, Cain can say whatever he feels it would help his case. Bialek didn’t say that the “palatial suite” was inappropriate or that a very expensive dinner was inappropriate and weird to be given to somebody who sought you for a job-connection. Was she as naive as to think that Cain was offering these to any job-seeker?!

Posted by AndiV | Report as abusive

There is a reason why the scale is a symbol of justice, in very few cases is right and wrong as clear a difference as day vs. night.

Let’s assume Herman Cain is innocent (as we are supposed to do, it is part of the system), is it wrong for him to defend himself by going on the offensive? Of course not. However, the damage has already been done and there is no way he is going to fix it. The author forgot to mention that despite DSK’s offensive, he still lost his job as head of IMF. If Cain was taking a leaf from DSK’s book, he should know now that his shot at presidency is over.

Sure, Cain will successfully defend against the accusations and the women will likely receive no further monetary compensation, but in the end they won. The only explanation as to why they would come out now is to prevent Cain from taking office. Perhaps they feel sacrificing their reputation is worth it. I think that speaks volumes.

Our justice system may seem unfair at times, but that’s only because the scale sometimes fails to tip in one direction or the other.

Posted by YuseL | Report as abusive

There’s 5 accusers now, right? Well the truth is important but I have no way of assuring that the facts are on the table…so I must weigh what I do know and that is…Its five against one that’s it…I won’t take a chance and give him my vote..

Posted by Ebbygirl | Report as abusive

He sure likes the stripper types with the butterfaces

Posted by deerecub1977 | Report as abusive

It is not exactly correct to say that “the strategy worked in the case of DSK”. My own interpretation of events (but, I have no proof, although I believe most people are of the same opinion as me) is that Nafissatou Diallo had, at some point, to balance the tradeoff between a degrading court litigation where DSK’s lawyers had used all legal means available to destroy the credibility of the accuser, and the offer of a pay-off for not obstinately blocking the prosecutor’s inclination to drop the case. The very indigent lady rightly chose to be practical. Feminists don’t put food on your table for long.

Posted by MohamedMalleck | Report as abusive

[…] Mitt Romney was too rich, and Herman Cain was a womanizer.  Unlike Romney, who choose not to challenge accusations, Cain did but the smear still took him […]

Posted by It’s OK to stand up to bullies | Jeffco Conservatives | Report as abusive