Desperately Seeking Anita

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 12:33 PM EDT

Slate's Dave Weigel reports that Iowa Rep. Steve King doesn't see the big deal about sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain that have surfaced in recent days. For him, it comes down to one thing:

"Where’s the Anita Hill?" he said. "This is an Anita Hill issue, and from what I see, without substance, this shouldn’t have been a story."

It's funny, however, that King should mention Hill, the former Equal Employment Opportunity Commission employee who testified under oath that she had been harassed by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, since it's not as though no Republicans have dealt with sexual scandals since then. Rather, as Jesse Taylor points out, "There haven't even been enough black Republicans of note in the past two decades to have another scandal."

King's reference to Hill may have greater meaning than merely recalling the last time a prominent black conservative was accused of sexual harassment. As it so happens, two of the women who accused Cain of harassment are bound by confidentiality agreements as part of the settlements reached over the allegations. One of them was considering coming forward but changed her mind, according to the New York Times. Why? According to her attorney, Joel P. Bennett, "She has a life to live and a career, and she doesn't want to become another Anita Hill."

Beliefs about Thomas' guilt tend to fall along partisan lines—if you're a Democrat you think he was lying, if you're a Republican you think Hill was lying. What isn't a matter of perception, however, is that when Hill came forward, the right set out to completely destroy her at all costs. David Brock, the former right-wing journalist who defected and formed the left-wing media watchdog Media Matters, wrote a book about Hill that portrayed her as a mentally unstable, promiscuous liar, a characterization immortalized by Brock's description of Hill as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." Brock's The Real Anita Hill was later eviscerated by Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, and Brock himself later recanted, but Hill's reputation was destroyed and Thomas was confirmed.

I don't know whether the allegations against Cain are true—the settlements confirm the existence of the allegations and not necessarily their veracity. An accuser coming forward would provide the right with an obvious target, someone to destroy, rather than simply watching Cain helplessly try to deflect the issue by blaming other campaigns for leaking the existence of the settlements. 

Things have changed since The Real Anita Hill. Destroying someone's reputation is as simple as a selectively edited YouTube clip. Given the combined heavy artillery of the vastly expanded Republican noise machine, it's easy to understand why Republicans are looking for a "new Anita Hill," and why Cain's accusers don't want to be her. Cain aside, the only real winners in this scenario are powerful men of all political stripes who would rather keep their bad behavior secret. 

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