Can We Leave Herman Cain's Wife Out of This?

There is little to gain and much to lose from forcing her to play a prominent role in her husband's campaign

Herman Cain - AP Photo:Brian Ray - banner.jpg

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Herman Cain's presidential candidacy, besides his revival of the dadaist aesthetic aside, was the fact that he wasn't dragging his wife around on the campaign trail. For the most part, the press respected her remove. But the allegation that Cain sexually harassed subordinates at the National Restaurant Association, and treatment of those allegations as if they're more relevant than his ignorance about China's nuclear weapons, has changed everything. Editors and reporters now perceive news value in stories like "Gloria Cain Stands By Her Man," "Team Cain: A Portrait of the Candidate's Marriage," and "Rarely Seen, Gloria Cain to Speak Publicly."

Say for the sake of argument that there is some benefit to publishing these stories (though I have my doubts). Even if that is the case, can they possibly outweigh the costs? There's the unpleasantness and loss of privacy that Mrs. Cain is suffering, the distraction from weightier issues, and most important of all, the fact that insisting on making the nature and quality of candidate marriages as an inevitable subject of inquiry -- even when spouses stay off the campaign trail -- makes normal people far less likely to run for office, or to permit their spouses to run.

When a politician is accused of sexual impropriety, whether or not his wife stands by him tells us nothing about the truth of the allegations -- see Bill and Hillary Clinton -- or their relevance, or how objectionable the politician's actions were if the allegations prove true, or whether voters should forgive him. Nor is there reason to believe that what a wife says publicly in that situation is what she really believes. But there is every reason to believe that scrutiny of spouses increases the cost of presidential runs to people who actually care about their spouses.

From a civic perspective, this coverage fails the cost-benefit analysis. Alas, Mrs. Cain now feels compelled to give a television interview. If it is on Fox News, as early reports indicate, I'll be thankful for once that most of its anchors play slow-pitch D league softball with fellow Republicans.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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