What the DSK affair taught Herman Cain
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.