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Much ado

Posted: November 8, 2011 8:52 a.m.
Updated: November 9, 2011 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Herman Cain searched his memory for details about what might have caused a woman in the 1990s to accuse him of sexual harassment.

No, he couldn't remember her, not much at all. Then again, there was one time, he told me, when he stood next to the woman and noted that she was about the same height as his wife. He showed me how close he was standing to her by asking a female staffer to stand next to him. It was close. Not touching, but close.

This demonstration took place in an office in the National Press Club following a luncheon where Cain was the featured speaker. Having wrapped up a Q-and-A with a song to express his faith, Cain turned to the matter that has been dominating the news cycle. "Let's get to it."

The allegations, which were brought against Cain when he was head of the National Restaurant Association, were determined at the time to be without merit. Even so, the woman received a settlement from the restaurant association, which Cain recognizes raises skepticism about events. He also notes that his success in the polls has made him a target. And that resurrection of this long-ago history is a political hit.

"Only when I came inside the Beltway did this crap come up."

Cain has repeatedly denied ever sexually harassing anyone. He also says he doesn't remember another woman who Politico reports also filed a complaint and also got a settlement. When a reporter showed him the other woman's name, he remembered her, but says he has no recollection of a complaint or a settlement. On this he doesn't budge and is convincing in his assertions.

Regarding the charge he does recall -- "a false allegation," Cains quickly corrects -- the candidate is adamant that nothing happened. At the time, when he was first informed by the association's attorney, he couldn't even place the woman. Her name didn't even ring a bell.

But when pressed, small details began to emerge. He remembered that his office door was open and that his secretary was seated just beyond the threshold. He also remembered offering the woman a ride to a management meeting, but said she wasn't the only one he invited. He says he doesn't remember whether she accepted the ride.

"I don't know what else I can say because there isn't anything else," he said.

As political history makes clear, where there is smoke, there is usually a least a match. In this case, as in many instances of alleged sexual harassment, it also can be a matter of perception. Nothing is more subjective than sexual harassment. 

What Cain remembers doing -- standing close to a woman, commenting on her physical stature and comparing her to his wife -- probably crosses the line for some people. Wives and their husbands are intimate together and co-workers generally don't want to be considered in terms of a spouse. Physical proximity is also fraught with potential tension. Some women wouldn't blink at such a comment; others could feel it was the wrong remark in the wrong place.

I asked Cain how he defines sexual harassment and he listed offenses that would resonate with most Americans: forcing a female to do something against her will; inappropriate touching; making inappropriate comments in the presence of a female. 

To Cain's generation (age 65), a casual remark about someone's appearance is often viewed as a gesture of friendliness. To someone younger, who has been versed in the catechism of sexual harassment, it could be viewed as hostile or at least inappropriate.

When you're running for president of the United States, you'd better know the difference. Today, Cain surely does. But over a decades-long career as an executive, Cain says he never gave his behavior a second thought. He was just being Herman -- "upbeat and jovial."

As to the details of the settlements, he pleads absolute ignorance. Even his campaign attorney wasn't able to get details from the restaurant association. It's a personnel matter, they said.

Cain is hardly the first political candidate to suffer this kind of scrutiny. But a faulty memory is a weak defense when the national media is chasing your history. As soon as humanly possible, Cain needs to find out what was in the complaints and settlements and get the facts on the table. If he doesn't, someone else will.

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