Just over twenty years ago, the most compelling episode of He Said, She Said in U.S. history gripped the nation. Taking place in the unlikely setting of a room within the Senate’s Dirksen office building, what became known as the Thomas-Hill hearings lasted from October 11-13. They were called to explore alleged sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, who weeks earlier had been nominated by President George H.W. Bush to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. The allegations came from Anita Hill. Nearly ten years earlier, Thomas was Hill’s supervisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
An excellent description of the Thomas-Hill hearings can be found at the Museum of Broadcast Communications website. Suffice it to say that by the end of the hearings, millions of Americans had been exposed to an alleged Thomas reference to a public hair on a can of Coke and his alleged admiration of a performance from porn star Long Dong Silver (you youngsters can ask your parents; I’m not making this up. It was not a high point in American political discourse.)
Thomas was on the defensive when the hearings commenced. Hill’s allegations were specific and powerful. Then working as a professor of law, Hill made an impressive witness. Thomas was also solid in his presentation. He opened his testimony with a statement that explosively connected his situation to those of blacks who in previous generations were viciously and publicly murdered by mobs for imagined crimes. Of the hearings and the events leading to them, Thomas said:
This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.
Thomas’s vigorous playing of the race card essentially worked. The cowed and somewhat bumbling all-male Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee questioning Thomas backed off a bit and the Republican members moved under the protective cover of Thomas’s racially-loaded accusations. Thomas was approved by 52-48 vote in the Senate and he remains on the Supreme Court, even after twenty-plus years ranking as younger than four of the eight of his fellow justices. This explains, much more than his race or his alleged sexual harassment–why so many Democrats opposed Thomas’s nomination. They feared that if he was approved, Thomas would bring his staunch conservative positions to the Supreme Court for decades. And he has.
Discussion and analysis of the recently disclosed sexual harassment allegations against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and their settlement have resulted in countless characterizations of being another “high tech lynching,” particularly from some of the leading conservative voices. Though he has not used this phrase, Cain asserted that race has been a motivating factor in the creation and life of the disclosure from those “on the left” before he moved to accuse the campaign of rival Republican candidate Rick Perry.
Cain’s haphazard attempt at racial victimhood does beg a few questions: Is there any reason someone on the left would try to slow the momentum of the Cain Train? Is there an Obama supporter anywhere who would not thank the political gods if Cain ends up the Republican nominee? If Herman Cain somehow manages to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and competes all the way to election day, he will lose in one of the largest landslides in U.S. history.
Cain will not get elected to the presidency, because he is–as described by Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker–a fringe candidate. Lizza notes that fringe candidates, “push the ideological debate further to the right or left and to make a name for themselves in the process. If they are lucky, they end up with some notoriety, a new national fundraising base, and perhaps a show on cable TV. These types of fringe candidates don’t truly prepare for the absurdities and difficulties of a Presidential campaign because in their heart of hearts they never believed they would make it very far.” He adds, “Herman Cain has [become] a truly new phenomenon in Presidential politics…a fringe frontrunner…and the result is akin to a dog catching a car.”
The fact that Cain–boastfully ignorant and hopelessly confused on key issues such as international anti-terrorism coordination, abortion, immigration policy, and nuclear arms (China had nukes almost forty years ago, Mr. Cain)–is a fringe frontrunner, leading the Republican party in national polls, tells you much of what you need to know about what is now the mainstream of the G.O.P. They are farther to the right and seemingly much more reckless than the Republican establishment that stood by Clarence Thomas when his nomination was under siege. Today, it seems that Herman Cain’s surprisingly robust campaign is in jeopardy and most political observers believe it will not survive this crisis intact. But time will tell how it will be perceived and treated by this new breed of mainstream–and perhaps more unpredictable–Republican voters.