Politics & Policy

Who Dropped the Dime on Cain?

It could be someone in the Republican family.

In a case of an untimely death, the first thing the cops do when they arrive at the home of the deceased is to try to determine whether the death was the result of a self-inflicted wound and, if it wasn’t, whether a member of the family did it. Statistics show that these are good places to start looking. If the recent events surrounding sexual-harassment allegations against Herman Cain sink his campaign, the same postmortem may be appropriate.

First, Cain’s self-inflicted wounds. When the allegations became public, he started defending himself with an unloaded gun. Even an admirably unconventional campaign cannot defy certain principles. One would be never to eat at a place with an “Eats” sign in the window. Another is that when it hits the fan, you should get your recollection and your facts as straight as you can before you start talking. You can’t outwit the media at their own game if you don’t know the game they’re playing. Now it’s not just about whether he was overly friendly with Miss Molly at the Fourth of July picnic — it’s also about catching him in inconsistencies.

There’s a type of guy well known to every defense lawyer. He’s a very successful man, usually a businessman, politician, or other public figure, who owes his success in large part to being a forceful communicator as well as very smart. Often you cannot persuade him that he should not go before that grand jury to “just answer a few questions.”  He cannot believe that he can’t persuade them of his innocence, because he believes he’s innocent. Just as he cannot believe the perjury indictment that is returned later.

I seriously doubt that Cain did anything that merits the “stop the presses” treatment this story is getting, but that won’t matter if he has to spend many more days talking about what he knew and when he knew it and the difference between an agreement and a settlement. As Herman himself might say, the situation is complex, but the solution is simple. He must get some advice from somebody who has been to a rodeo before, get it all straight, lay it out, and move on.

Actually, Cain has a good chance of weathering this storm for several reasons. People like him, and they want to believe him. More important, most primary voters intensely dislike the media, which they see as trying to bring him down. I’m not sure Herman will appreciate the reference, but that is one of the main reasons that Bill Clinton survived.

To many people, not just Republicans, this is just another instance of dirty Washington politics indulging itself, obsessing over trivia while Rome burns. Cain, a very intelligent conservative, upsets the liberal paradigm of what African Americans are supposed to believe. Many Cain supporters involved in the tea-party movement have themselves been called racists in the recent past. Now, with the economy in the tank, the nation broke, the European Union on the verge of throwing the entire Western world into recession if not worse, and former Democratic senator and governor Jon Corzine’s company having “misplaced” $200 million of investors’ money, our burning national issue is whether Herman Cain made some improper remarks over a decade ago.

Moreover, people are on to the sexual-harassment scam. In typical fashion, Congress took a situation where women had no protection for legitimate grievances and created a solution rife with unintended consequences. Now businesses are regularly making payouts for the flimsiest of reasons. It’s obvious that these alleged victims and their lawyers — no matter what they may say publicly — are champing at the bit to come forward for their day in the limelight and the inevitable book deal. Who can pass up being the new Anita Hill, who to this day periodically receives glowing newspaper profiles?

Yet people today are watching the Cain story unfold, looking at the timing of it, and writing checks to the Cain campaign. Who knows what may come out before it’s over, but it better be some pretty powerful stuff if it’s going to fit the mood of the American people these days. People expect presidential politics to be rough and tumble, but times are different, and so are the circumstances of this campaign. Republicans are looking for someone to believe in. They won’t all vote for Herman Cain, but right now, he symbolizes something they want to protect. Try to take him down at your own peril.

This brings us to another interesting situation. Usually in presidential campaigns, the question of who originally leaked the story is given little consideration. The publisher protects his sources, and the rest of the media has no interest in drying up their own potential sources by publishing identities even if they know who they are. But this time, people will want to know. Also, these days, the media is so diverse that it will be very difficult to keep the identity of the people who planted the story secret. And it may not turn out to be the most likely suspect.

Initially, Cain lashed out at the liberal media. So did several conservative commentators. But I doubt that Politico, which published the story first, came up with this scoop by investigating Cain’s background on its own.

People may think that news organizations have legions of Woodwards and Bernsteins fanned out across the country, poring through old courthouse records or public business records and talking to anyone they think may have some dirt to dish on a candidate. They don’t. They don’t have the money, for one thing. No, the days of Woodward and Bernstein, intrepid investigative reporters, are over. Investigative reporters have been replaced by people who keep a big basket under the transom to catch the dossiers and other materials that the various campaigns drop on opposing candidates.

Campaigns that can afford it often spend lots of money on “opposition research.” The research can be for perfectly legitimate things, such as positions candidates have taken on issues. Or it can be for personal dirt, substantiated or otherwise. If they pass it to the media, the campaign, of course, wants to keep its role secret. In this way, reporters are seldom investigators. More often they’re facilitators. It’s easier work.

Cain has now gotten off the media angle and targeted Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign as the source of the story. This is based on the fact that a former consultant from Cain’s Senate campaign now works for Perry. The campaign and the consultant deny it, and instead point the finger at the Romney campaign, because Cain’s successor at the National Restaurant Association, where the alleged harassment took place, is a Romney supporter and contributor. Further, the names of Democratic operatives and a Democratic officeholder have been mentioned to me off the record.

I have no idea who originated the story. But I’d say that looking inside the Republican family is probably a good bet. I speak from personal experience.

Days after I got into the presidential race in 2007, I was greeted with a website, “PhoneyFred.org,” described in the media at the time as an “anti Fred Thompson smear site.” You couldn’t really tell who was behind it, but we learned of it from the Democratic National Committee, which made ample use of it. We assumed that they had created it. However, a reporter at the Washington Post (of all people) decided to find out who was behind the site. After a lot of effort, she traced it to an executive of TTS Strategies, a South Carolina consulting firm run by J. Warren Tompkins, one of the most notorious hardball political operatives in the country.

Politicians of opposing campaigns were known to get the “Warren Treatment.” He ran Bush’s 1980 campaign, in which anonymous flyers and telephone calls accused John McCain of fathering an illegitimate black child. 

In 2007, he was running Mitt Romney’s campaign in South Carolina, where Mitt was behind the rest of us in the polls. Of course, when confronted, both Tompkins and Mitt were “shocked” to learn that a rogue employee (who ran Tompkins’s office) was running such a website (out of the office), and the site was taken down immediately. One of the more benign and amusing things the site accused me of was being a “flip flopper.” I kid you not.

This doesn’t mean that Mitt is behind the Herman Cain hit piece. I’d like to think that he — and his extensive staff, many of them with training in the “political dark arts” — has learned that when you hire the meanest dog in the junkyard, it’s a little difficult to claim that you are surprised when he bites.

Most of us have long since given up on adherence to Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, but Republican candidates do enough damage to each other out in the open these days. They shouldn’t get away with peddling stuff they’re ashamed to be associated with, and that can be used later by Democrats. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. I hope so. Still, I’d like to know who dropped the dime on Herman.

— Fred Thompson, who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1994 to 2003, is an actor, lawyer, and political commentator.


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