by Matthew Hennessey
During the media firestorm over the sexual harassment allegations against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, one of the voices that cut through the din was that of Steve Deace, a conservative talk-radio host in Iowa who has been critical of the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO.
Many a man has been done in by the inability to control his urges… I am no different and just as vulnerable as any other man, which is why I put safeguards around me and hold myself accountable to my wife and other men in my life. Especially, since I have very talented employees that happen to be women. I go out of my way to treat them like my sisters. For example, I wouldn’t tell them or any other woman I am not married to nor related to how pretty she is.
Seems like fine advice to me. Probably born of bitter experience and hard-won self-knowledge. I had never heard of Steve Deace before this week. I still don’t know much about him. Reports suggest that he does not support Cain’s campaign and that his criticisms predate this week’s allegations. I guess he has an axe to grind. So be it; that is what it is. It doesn’t negate for me the essential truth of his statement.
In my estimation, Herman Cain will not survive much longer as a candidate. I don’t know if he did the things he is alleged to have done. No one knows that but Herman Cain and the women who are coming forward. Is it fair that he is being tried “in the court of public opinion,” as he said at Wednesday’s debate? Of course not. But that’s politics, and that’s what Herman Cain signed up for.
Predictably, Cain has vehemently denied the charges. His political enemies, he says, will stop at nothing short of getting him out of the race. Some folks, including my wife, say: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” which may not constitute a standard of justice that most of us would be happy with if it were turned on us, but consider this: No American politician in recent memory was more despised by more people than George W. Bush, yet even his most fervent detractors never dared level such charges at him. They knew they wouldn’t stick. No one would ever have believed it.
Herman Cain is a great businessman. Joe Paterno is a great football coach. Both are American success stories that should be celebrated and emulated throughout our great land of opportunity. But the message I take away from this week’s news about these men is that a lifetime of good deeds and exemplary behavior can be instantaneously overshadowed by a single bad decision.
Would Herman Cain be a good president? Maybe. Probably he would do fine. But it appears that despite his denials he has made some very poor choices that, while perhaps not representative of the full content of his character, are the sorts of choices that no one who is thinking of a political career can make and get away with. My guess is that that realization is hitting him pretty hard now.
Would Joe Paterno handle things differently if he had it to do all over again? You bet your boots he would. But we don’t always get a second chance to do the right thing. Life is full of unexpected and difficult emotional challenges. You may wake up one day to find your best friend’s wife suddenly so appealing that you can’t think of anything else all day long. You may get so carried away at work that you feel momentarily compelled to shut up a co-worker with a fist to the mouth. It may dawn on you out of the blue that no one would ever know if you skimmed a little cash from the register—and, anyway, the boss is a jerk and how much more money does he actually need?
These thoughts occur to honest and decent people all the time. Which is why there is such value in Deace’s statement. Temptation is all around us. In the real world, the opportunity to sin—perhaps, sin gravely—is always just past the next corner. To live in anything remotely like an honorable way, we have to install safeguards against our own base instincts. Like a basketball player practicing his foul shot day and night for decades, we have to diligently prepare ourselves for the moment when the noise in the room drowns out the sound of our own conscience.
I had a science teacher in junior high school that everyone thought was a blowhard. Every chance this guy got he’d repeat to us his personal mantra. It was a platitude that we neither understood nor cared to understand. He even went so far as to stencil this mantra onto the wall outside of his classroom: Life is not determined by what you want; life is determined by the choices you make.
I was well into my 30s before I realized that my science teacher was not a blowhard. He was in fact trying to do for us what the public school system in this country is almost universally prohibited from doing: provide junior high schoolers with some moral formation. I am forever grateful for his constant sloganeering. We thought he was a blowhard then because he couldn’t connect with us on our level. But that is of no more consequence than Steve Deace’s anti-Herman Cain agenda. Truth is truth, no matter the source.
To me, the Joe Paterno case especially bespeaks the absolute importance of vigilance in our moral and emotional lives. I’m sure he didn’t want to hurt anyone. I’m sure he didn’t want to bring disgrace on himself and his beloved Penn State. But the choices that Joe Paterno made ultimately ensured that all of these terrible things came to pass in his life. In fact, his choices may have resulted in outcomes far more dramatic than the ones he was hoping to forestall by keeping the matter out of the press in the first place.
Some say that Americans are too prudish, that we lack the sophistication to overlook personal shortcomings in our leaders. No one is perfect, goes the argument, therefore we should content ourselves to see past the poor decisions or improper behavior of public figures.
That’s all wrong. No one is perfect, true. But that’s exactly why we must hold our leaders accountable. For the alternative—a world where everything is permitted—is unacceptable. Life is not determined by what we want; life is determined by the choices we make.
Matthew Hennessey is a writer and editor in New York City. His website is www.ninetydeuce.com.