Herman Cain and Joe Paterno engage in some magical thinking

Presidential candidate and football coach can't see those with no power

November 14, 2011|Susan Reimer

It was a week of magical thinking.

Author Joan Didion used that phrase to describe the time after the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne: a state of mind more complex and encompassing than simple denial.

And it is the only way I can think to describe the way Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain and Penn State football coach Joe Paterno seem to see the world — through a prism of pride and privilege that bends reality and their place in it. Magically.

I believe Herman Cain when he says, "I have never acted inappropriately with anyone. Period."

I believe him when he says of the sexual harassment accusations against him, "They simply didn't happen. They simply did not happen."

I believe that for Herman Cain, these women "simply" don't exist.

And I sure Mr. Paterno believed he was doing the Penn State Board of Trustees a favor by announcing his retirement at the end of this season. I am sure he thought it was his decision to make, his shot to call.

And I am sure he believes he was "fooled" by his longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky, who stands accused of using the prestige of Penn State football to seduce and sexually assault young boys.

And I believe Mr. Paterno is convinced he did what he should have done when a stricken young assistant coach told him what he saw between Mr. Sandusky and a 10-year-old boy in the locker room showers. He told his boss, athletic director Tim Curley. I am sure he believes that his responsibility ended there.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I do not think Mr. Cain or Mr. Paterno wrestled with these demons and, out of desperate self-preservation, mounted massive cover-ups. You have to recognize wrongdoing before you can sweep it under the rug.

Instead, their actions speak of something far beyond a strategy of "deny, deny, deny." It is some kind of extraordinary state of mind that permits you to think of women and children as something other than the victims that they were. Something beyond, well, personhood.

And it allows you to think of yourself as not bound by the same rules of civilized behavior that might govern others. They "simply" do not apply.

This is a state of mind that allows you to go on a late-night comedy show, as Mr. Cain did with Jimmy Kimmel, and talk about yourself in the third person and trade sexual banter about "trains" without realizing that just about every woman in the listening audience has experienced some measure of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace or knows someone who has.

It is the kind of super-inebriated state that allows you hire a lawyer to take the microphone for you against these charges and warn any other women who might be considering coming forward with similar allegations to "think twice." That is beyond magical thinking. That is a threat.

And I am not sure what makes a man think, as Mr. Paterno appears to have, that the reported rape of young boys under your nose by a member of your football family is something that can be simply handed up the chain of command, like the bad behavior of a booster, and that your responsibility ends there.

Mr. Paterno talked in his public statement about the benefit of hindsight, and about how he wishes he had done more. Mr. Cain has offered no such statement of regret.

But I do not believe that what happened with these men was because of a moment of bad judgment or weakness or clouded thinking. I do not believe that either would have acted differently had they taken time to reflect.

Mr. Cain and Mr. Paterno, and men like them, exist in a dimension of success, power and hubris unknown to the rest of us. A place where responsibility is someone else's burden. Where there are no consequences because there is no fault. Where women, children and subordinates are not people but nameless shadows.

It is a different world. And, apparently, a very magical one.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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