Herman Cain was running for president when I wrote these words late last week. Maybe that will still be true when you see this commentary on Monday morning, but I doubt it, and it really doesn’t matter. Practically speaking, the Cain campaign never made it to December.
Ginger White pounded the final nail in Cain’s political coffin when she told Atlanta’s Fox affiliate that she carried on a 13-year extramarital affair with the former pizza executive. White said the affair continued until just eight months ago, when Cain was getting his campaign off the ground, and that he gave her money for what she called “household expenses” without asking anything in return. She had phone records to document their extensive contacts.
Cain rushed to get his side of the story on the air before White’s interview appeared on the local news. Yes, he knew her, but her claim of an affair was “fabricated” and “unsubstantiated,” he said. Which leads me to wonder how, exactly, one should substantiate a fabrication.
Cain said that he and White were friends, that he gave her money to help her with her finances, and that he never got around to mentioning the friendship to Gloria Cain, the woman to whom Cain has been married for 42 years.
Cain thereby poured a large bucket of cold water over the flickering embers of his campaign. An alleged womanizer might make it to the White House. But someone who makes himself appear to be a liar – a particularly inept liar at that – does not have a prayer. It does not matter whether Cain was actually lying or not. What matters is that nobody, at least nobody who has ever been married, is going to believe that Cain did what he said he did.
You can be friends with a woman, and you might even give her money, but if the relationship is on the up-and-up, you are absolutely, certainly, positively going to tell your wife about it, unless you have a powerful wish to die.
There is a strong argument (in my opinion, anyway) that Cain’s marital fidelity should have no bearing on his fitness to occupy the White House. If honoring one’s marriage vows was a prerequisite, there would have been some extended vacancies over the years. Modern politicians are probably no better or worse than their forebears. If someone came up with a DNA test to prove marital virtue and applied it to every current member of Congress, with immediate expulsion for those who failed, I question whether any committee on the Hill would be able to muster a quorum afterward.
But credibility is the politician’s stock in trade. Cain’s credibility was already in tatters after four other women came forward to complain that he had acted inappropriately toward them. All of them were lying, according to Cain, who said he was the victim of character assassination by liberals – none of whom are running for the Republican nomination. Why are the liberals assassinating Cain’s character while the most damage Saturday Night Live can do to Mitt Romney is to portray him as lethally boring?
Maybe Cain’s campaign could have survived if he had simply said that he never claimed to be a saint in his private life, that he apologized to anyone he had hurt or offended, and that he had tried to learn from all of his experiences and that it would have no bearing on the policies or conduct of his administration? What if he had pointed to the successful organizations he has run and said that they are the history upon which voters should judge him? What if, after simply acknowledging a less-than-perfect past, he refused to discuss it, as George W. Bush did?
That strategy would have at least given him a chance to keep the focus of his candidacy on the issues. Cain had his moment in the political sun when his nine-nine-nine proposal (a 9 percent personal income tax, 9 percent corporate income tax, and 9 percent national sales tax) caught voter attention during the summer’s deficit impasse. Like his plan or not, he was the man with the plan, not the 58-point white paper.
I don’t think Cain ever had much chance to win the nomination. He simply lacks the breadth of knowledge and experience to hold his own against his rivals, and his pose as the outsider was only going to carry him so far. But once he let the charges about his personal conduct become the main story, he was finished.
We do not benefit from our focus on the private lives of public people. I have always believed that the Supreme Court made a terrible error (and probably came to realize it) when it allowed Paula Jones’ lawsuit against President Bill Clinton to proceed while he was office. The lower court judge promptly permitted Jones’ attorneys to turn a sexual harassment charge into a full-blown investigation into the private sexual conduct of consenting adults, which in turn led to Clinton’s famous finger-wagging denial and the notorious blue dress. The entire episode was stupid and pointless.
I demand the utmost in honesty and integrity from my firm’s employees, yet I would not fire someone merely because I learned of an extramarital affair or similar conduct. It simply has no bearing on their work. We hire mortals, not saints. Everyone understands that about their personal workplace.
Why set a different, and unrealistic, standard for candidates for public office? Think of all the talented individuals who may have contemplated politics, only to decide that the opportunity to serve was not worth the potential pain and humiliation when “opposition research” inevitably reached into the mud.
But when the mud splashes you in the face, the only thing to do is wipe it off and admit that sometimes you get muddy. Denying the mud is not going to get you anywhere. Least of all to the White House.