Leave Herman Cain Alone Already

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Standards of conduct on sexual mores are constantly in flux, but the media madness has gotten wildly out of control

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Herman Cain is now finishing a full week of interrogation over three cases of alleged sexual harassment in his past, and there's no end in sight. His supporters have not served him well by calling the media circus a "high-tech lynching"; as a number of other people have noted, that phrase trivializes the horror of lynching and speciously evokes the 1991 drama of Clarence Thomas, which resembles this one mainly in the color of the accused's skin. But if Cain's defense has misfired, his bottom line is actually quite sensible: As the man said, "Don't even bother asking" him. The media madness has gotten wildly out of control, and it's time for the press to relent and let Republican primary voters decide whether they believe or care about these still-vague charges.

About 25 years ago, journalists coined the term "feeding frenzy" to describe the mad swarms of hostile questioning and idle commentary that they inflicted on politicians at the first whiff of possible wrongdoing. That term still nicely describes the dynamic. In the countless frenzies over the years, which have tripped up public figures from Dan Quayle to Anthony Weiner, journalists have almost always operated from a faulty assumption: that the behavior in question -- usually something about sex -- undermines the politician's fitness for office. But that assumption was unfounded when these feeding frenzies started, and it's no more justified in Cain's case.

Set aside that hardly anyone knows what really happened in Cain's case; even without that information, we should know better. Personal misbehavior, after all, has never correlated with public performance. Indeed, as I tried to suggest in a longer historical piece for The Atlantic earlier this fall, our judgments as to what even constitutes sexual misbehavior have varied enormously over time, in accordance with ever-changing social norms. That fluctuation should induce some humility and restraint among pundits inclined to decree that a particular deed -- whether harassment or adultery, divorce or homosexuality, or even sending lewd pictures over the Internet -- presumptively disqualifies a politician from holding or seeking office.

You don't have to turn the clock back very far to find sexual and journalistic norms vastly different from our own. In the 1960s, divorce was rare enough that it could sink a candidate's presidential aspirations. In early 1963, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller led the race for the Republican nomination when his sudden remarriage to a much younger woman set the news media atwitter. Although his liberal stance on civil rights following Martin Luther King's Birmingham march may have triggered his subsequent fall in the polls (as Marsha Barrett, a doctoral student at Rutgers, has discovered), the personal scandal accelerated his decline and helped seal his fate.

Divorce rates climbed in the 1970s and soon America even elected a divorcé, Ronald Reagan, with little fanfare. But then adultery emerged as the big political no-no. In previous decades, few journalists would have even thought to publicize the affairs of Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson. After the sexual revolution, however, philandering went from personal to political, and in 1987 the press drove Gary Hart from the presidential race after an overblown drama over his boat trip with a woman who was not his wife.

Attitudes toward homosexuality, too, have changed dramatically over the years. As recently as the 1980s, same-sex relationships were considered so shameful that journalists dared not tell if they knew a politician was gay. In 1989, conservatives spread rumors that House Speaker Tom Foley was homosexual, forcing the story into the news -- but the universal reaction was to brand it a smear and leave Foley alone. Recently, though, the stigma has abated and under particular circumstances reporters have seen fit to out politicians such as Mark Foley and Larry Craig. We've even seen journalists openly (and baselessly) questioning the sexual preferences of avowedly straight public figures, such as Elana Kagan and Michele Bachmann's husband.

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David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism & media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of several books of presidential history. He writes the History Lesson column for Slate.

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