On The Cain-Clarence Thomas Connection

by Alec MacGillis | October 31, 2011

Well, that didn't take long. Scrambling to deal with Politico's report on allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain by two of his employees at the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s, Cain's campaign has already played the Clarence Thomas card. A campaign spokesman today invoked the Anita Hill-Thomas conflagration of 1991:

“Sadly, we’ve seen this movie played out before -- a prominent conservative targeted by liberals simply because they disagree with his politics,” said spokesman J.D. Gordon (who is the campaign’s “vice president for communications” as well as a senior foreign-policy adviser).

There's a bit of historical irony in Cain deploying Thomas in his defense, something I've seen noted nowhere else today. When Cain was CEO of the restaurant association -- the three-year period during which the allegations of harassment were reportedly made against him -- guess whom the association persuaded to give a rare speech in 1998? That's right, Justice Thomas. The judge, known for sitting stone silent in the courtroom, gave a fiery call to arms to a meeting of the association in September 1998. From the Philadelphia Inquirer's report at the time:

In a rousing, patriotic speech yesterday, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accused "smart-aleck commentators" of flooding Americans with a steady stream of unjustified cynicism that trivializes and undermines the nation's democratic institutions.
"Expressions of faith in the institutions often evoke snotty little comments and snotty little smirks from smart-aleck commentators and self-professed know-it-alls," Thomas told hundreds of National Restaurant Association members.

It is indispensable to have constructive and thoughtful critics, he said, but "cynics passing as critics are as irrelevant as they are trivial - and they are harmful. They undercut our faith in the process that we need . . . to maintain . . . a free society and a free country."

Thomas did not identify the targets of his remarks, but it was clear they were directed generally at commentators in the media.

We can probably expect Cain to have a lot more to say about "smart-aleck commentators" before this episode is over. As Dave Weigel notes, Cain was eager to embrace the Clarence Thomas comparison back in May, long before these allegations surfaced, agreeing with Byron York that he would meet with as much liberal fury as that other black conservative did.

"They're going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate," Cain responded.  "You're right.  Clarence Thomas.  And so, to use Clarence Thomas as an example, I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through -- for the good of this country."  Cain smiled broadly.  "I'm ready for the same high-tech lynching."

Finally, it's worth noting another bit of irony in this story. One of the major issues for the big restaurant chains that Cain was representing in the association has historically been... dealing with sexual harassment suits. Most notably, in 1998, in the middle of Cain's tenure at the restaurant association, his former pizza rival Domino's was hit with an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge of sexual harassment and gender discrimination based on the allegations of six employees. More recently, there was an unsuccessful Michigan sexual harassment suit brought against Hooters, if you can believe that. The Nation's Restaurant News reported in 2008 that the restaurant lobby was doing what it could to limit the cost of such lawsuits:

"Litigation is a big issue for the restaurant industry," says John Gay, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the National Restaurant Association. "It's one that the National Restaurant Association has worked on for years and always will. The idea that there's any one legislative fix that could solve the lawsuit problem--I don't foresee that ever happening."

Yes, it's an issue that the National Restaurant Association has worked on for years -- more directly so than anyone knew, before today.

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