Leave Herman Cain Alone Already

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.

Norms about prostitution are also in flux. Eliot Spitzer's resignation as governor of New York in 2008 would suggest that patronizing sex workers remains taboo. But the reelection of Louisiana senator David Vitter in 2010 would suggest that it's not.

It may be hard today to imagine that sexual harassment could be considered anything but proof of a serious moral deficiency. The crime has appropriately moved from a widely tolerated practice to one whose gravity is dinned into the heads of every employee in every workplace. But the behaviors that fall under the rubric vary widely, and some may result not from malice but from the inability of men accustomed to one set of rules to adjust to new realities. Certain kinds of flirtation deemed unacceptable today could perhaps one day be regarded as relatively harmless. At the least, in this case, as in the others, we should halt the rush to judgmentalism. We shouldn't assume that our own culture's newly developed notions of sexual right and wrong are timeless and absolute.

It's not only in the realm of sex that standards evolve either. A few years ago, the press grilled every candidate on whether he had used illegal drugs. Then, with Barack Obama's candidacy, those questions were dropped. (In fact, raising the issue of his drug use was deemed beyond the pale.) Military service, once deemed a sine qua non for presidential candidates, is also no longer discussed much.

In short, standards of what amounts to scandalous behavior are fluid and amorphous. Yet journalists in recent years have, if anything, grown less restrained in hounding and judging politicians, frequently exhibiting a righteous moral certainty. Some officeholders, such as Weiner, have been unfairly pressured to quit -- in his case for a victimless, if tawdry, sexual transgression. Others have been tarred as miscreants on scanty evidence. Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain had to submit to feeding frenzies over stories that, for all we know, lacked even a kernel of truth.

Politico, which broke the Cain story, engaged in legitimate reporting in disclosing the harassment allegations. Voters should be aware that these charges were brought and settled out of court. But the ensuing bedlam has served no evident purpose but to afford reporters a chance to try to ensnare Cain in a lie or contradiction -- thereby justifying the blanket coverage on the grounds of his dishonesty or inconsistency. You don't have to discount the severity of sexual harassment, or believe in the myth of the liberal media, or agree with Cain's politics, to want to give the besieged candidate a break.

The news media, of course, won't refrain from feeding frenzies so long as the public laps them up, and our hunger for titillating details about our leaders, which is entirely natural, remains robust. But journalistic scandal-mongering may abate if and when we reach a level of civic tolerance great enough to greet hyped-up stories about politicians' sex lives with a collective yawn. If today's endless parade of salacious scandals ends up desensitizing the public to routine sleaziness, it may also, ironically, help cut through the clamor and help us decide for ourselves which of these transgressions, if any, truly trouble us.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters