Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Herman Cainís woman problem


WASHINGTON—If you were Herman Cain, what would you do?

Undoubtedly countless men have pondered this question the past several days. The query got trickier when feminist attorney Gloria Allred presented a fourth woman—in person—to recount a past sexual transgression involving the former pizza executive.

Or, as Allred colorfully put it, Cain's idea of a "stimulus package."

Oh, chortle, chortle. Perhaps finding herself in the Friars' Club, where Allred called a news conference, she couldn't resist her inner comic.

If true, the experience related by Sharon Bialek, a former employee of the National Restaurant Association's educational foundation, was more than a joke. Allegedly, on the pretense of showing Bialek the restaurant association's offices, Cain parked the car and essentially assaulted Bialek, slipping his hand under her skirt and trying to bring her head toward his lap.

Not a very presidential image, that.

When Bialek protested, reminding Cain that she had a boyfriend, he allegedly said, "You want a job, right?"

Corroborating testimony via written statements from two other individuals to whom Bialek had told about the incident at the time, including her then-boyfriend, further reduces Cain's wiggle room. Bialek didn't share details of the assault back then, saying now that she was too embarrassed.

Cain said Tuesday that he doesn't even know Bialek. He also has denied the allegations of two other women who filed complaints and received settlements from the restaurant association, as well as a third, who says she considered filing a complaint. Even as one types "three other women," deniability seems less plausible. In journalism, three is a trend. Four is a tipping point.

< Whereas the other women remained anonymous (until one's name was revealed Tuesday), Bialek is quite real. She has a name. She has a record of employment. She has a son. Most important, she has Allred, whose entrance into any arena does not usually bode well for a man accused.

Women, too, may wonder what they would do. Would they file a complaint and settle for a year's salary if their boss made sexual advances or otherwise made them feel uncomfortable at work? Would they step forward 14 years later to face a nation's scrutiny, including the inevitable questions of their own credibility?

It's a nasty business.

The male in a sexual harassment equation has two choices: Confess and quit or deny and push on. In his denials, Cain has said repeatedly that he has never "sexually harassed" anyone, and to his mind, this may be true. In the first three cases, he may well think that his behavior was gregarious and friendly, within the bounds of acceptable.

He may even feel that whatever happened in the car with Bialek was not out of bounds depending on his perception of the circumstances. Bialek said she contacted Cain to ask for help in finding a job, met him for drinks and dinner, and, having learned that he had upgraded her room to a suite (talk about smooth), went willingly with him in the car. Was she perhaps naive in thinking he had only an office tour in mind?

Be still my sisters. I'm not suggesting that Bialek was asking for anything more than a job. I'm merely trying to put myself in Cain's shoes and see things as he might have. And this is where he gets into trouble. No amount of rationalizing, no amount of wine (Bialek recalled that he probably had a couple of glasses with dinner), nothing really justifies this behavior. If Bialek is telling the truth, then Herman Cain is a predator, not to mention a boor, and no man for the presidency.

Still we are left with he said/she said and Cain knows that we can't know what happened. He knows that in sexual harassment cases, the sin is in the eye of the beholder. One man's flirtation is another man's unwelcome advance. One woman's embarrassment of riches is another's hostile workplace.

Politically—and considering the peace in his own home—Cain has nothing to lose by sticking to his guns. He figures his base hates the media more than they hate whatever he did. And there's ample precedent for this approach. Absent a blue dress, why should he confess?

Cain could survive, though whether he should is another question. The claims of four women require a lot of denial, and people are not credulous. They have a sense of things. They know what "is" is. The beholder's eye is now public opinion and the image has been irretrievably set—of a man and a woman in a parked car.

Kathleen Parker's email address is (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group.

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