The Critical Mass

Cain and Paterno: The powerful, and ignorant, circle the wagons

The  week’s two biggest news makers, Herman Cain and Joe Paterno, share obvious elements. Both have been protected by tone-deaf defenders with an absolute unwillingness to accept the truth, to the point of lashing out against those with whom they disagree.

Did Cain sexually harass two, three, four, and maybe even five women? As the details emerged, his story evolved. He denied, conceded, contradicted himself and blamed everyone else (It was Perry’s people! The Democrat Machine!). And he split word hairs (Claiming to not remember if there had been a monetary settlement, because there’s a difference between “an agreement” and “a settlement”).

And Paterno, the legendary football coach of Penn State? He protected a friend, Jerry Sandusky, once his top assistant coach, a sexual predator whose victims were children. As did the president of Penn State, also dismissed on Wednesday. And the handful of coaches and school authorities who witnessed abuse, or were in on the discussion, and passed on doing the right thing. The police weren’t the higher authority in their minds. Penn State administrators were.

Ignorance, as both Cain and Paterno have plead, is not a defense in either case. As CEO of the National Restaurant Association, Cain should have been completely in the loop if a top executive in his organization was being charged with sexual harassment. Especially if he was that top executive. It was his responsibility as a leader. Paterno reported to several people, including the university president Graham Spanier, that one of his assistants had been caught in the football team’s locker-room shower engaging in a sexual act with an underage boy. As the leader of that storied football program – the CEO, if you will – Paterno should have been in the loop as well, making sure the episode was settled properly, and legally.  It was his responsibility as a leader.

It is obvious, neither leader showed leadership. Now the powerful circle the wagons, protecting each other from the powerless. And they divide us, even when the moral choice is clear. Cain’s supporters are a howling pack, consumed with the usual tactic of attacking the accusers. As the reprehensible Fox News commentator Dick Morris said of one of the women, “I look forward to her spread in Playboy.”  When the moderator at Wednesday night’s debate featuring the Republican candidates dared ask Cain a question about the allegations, some audience members booed. They don’t want to know the answer: Was this man who wants to be president of the United States ever charged with sexual harassment? Most important, they certainly don’t want you to know the answer.

And when it was announced that Paterno had been fired, simple-minded students at Penn State rioted. Very tellingly, they weren’t rioting because the school president had been dismissed, but because they’d lost their football coach.

So we not only had criminal allegations that went with little investigation. We also had two leaders, in positions of high responsibility, creating an environment that allowed such criminal behavior to continue to exist. As Paterno may now have learned, turning your back on a rapist is not a wise move.