Ain't Misbehavin'

Ginger White's apparently painful confession of having had a 13-year on-again, off-again affair with Herman Cain seems to have dealt the final blow to his tottering political campaign. I've heard conversations, since, in which political insiders are annoyed about that—believing that adultery should never be what brings a public person down.

Here's the idea: Adultery is a private, consensual behavior. While it may violate a person's marriage, that's none of our business as citizens. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is a public matter precisely because a) it is not consensual, and b) it is employment discrimination against women (or sometimes men), that makes it difficult for a person to earn a living. Violating another person's body and discriminating against them in the workplace is, in this view, completely relevant to governing, because it is an abuse of power that indicates someone may well abuse other power, and doesn't deserve to wield it. (Cf: Senator Bob Packwood: after being confirmed as a serial sexual harasser, was also charged with financial improprieties.)

I have made these arguments in the past, and stand by them now. I see no reason for a news organization to investigate charges about someone's private sexual behavior, or for a citizenry to care, so long as no one has been harmed. But I'm no longer entirely certain that there's a bright line, as the lawyers say, between the two—so long as the harassment allegations come first.

Herman Cain is not the first to be discovered dabbling in both behaviors. Consider the former governor of California, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a.k.a. "The Gropinator." There was coverage of his abusive treatment of women for a long time before we all learned that his longtime mistress and former household staff member was raising his extramaritally conceived child. There's something about a longterm secret affair that confirms the picture of someone who does not think ordinary rules of personal behavior apply to him. It's as if these men were playing video games, trying to knock down every nice-looking woman who comes their way. It's as if they're thinking: Some women say yes, some complain, and you can't know which is which until you try. Knowing that a man can't keep it zipped outside his marital bed just makes it more plausible, I think, that he's been out of line in other ways.

I'm not saying that this is how Americans should, ideally, assess their political candidates. In the ideal world, everyone would have time to sit down and carefully assess a candidate's ability to handle problems in Waziristan, fallout from the European debt crisis, or policy thoughts on Social Security. The news media would focus only on what's essential in a candidate's thinking. Sexual harassment charges would be assessed on their own merits. But given that that's not our world, I am inclined to accept Ginger White's testimony into the evidentiary record about Mr. Cain.


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