Herman Cain is playing with fire.
It may take a few days, even a few weeks, for Mr. Cain's 2012 presidential nomination campaign to unravel, but now that a fourth woman, Sharon Bialek, a former National Restaurant Association employee, came forward with very graphic and disturbing details of sexual harassment (or assault by some legal standards), if the allegations are true, Mr. Cain has committed reputational suicide, joining the ranks of Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
It doesn't matter that Mr. Cain is black, this isn't about race. It doesn't matter if a Republican competitor leaked the initial accusations; if the sexual allegations against Mr. Cain are true, then Mr. Cain's chances of becoming the Republican presidential candidate are dead in the water. In light of what appears to be Mr. Cain's past predilections, trying to convince the American people that he is the candidate best deserving of their loyalty and trust will be lost on deaf ears. If these sexual allegations are true, Mr. Cain clearly abused his power and will now pay.
Without prejudice, every crisis, or the potential of a crisis, dispassionately stops a current course of action, allowing the participants to consciously choose how, from this very moment, they will proceed going forward. Every crisis produces a crack in the ego's façade, and what was once considered the ultimate goal, such as becoming President of the United States, is now shattered by a new reality.
History has a short memory, and Mr. Cain's "Nine, Nine, Nine" message will quickly be lost to Ms. Bialek's description of their alleged encounter when "...he suddenly reached over and he put his hand on my leg under my skirt and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it toward his crotch."
Building a reputation is about choices over time, and regardless of what Mr. Cain may say today, or the indignation he may express with the media's repeated requests for unanswered questions, Mr. Cain doesn't appear to understand that truth is the ultimate spin.
Character is built into our DNA, and although Mr. Cain was able to make the actions of his poor judgments disappear with financial settlements, the American people demand transparency, holding their potential leaders to an enormously high standard. American politics is a contact sport, and despite all the criticism about the process, if a candidate is caught in a lie or denying an inappropriate truth, the penalty is rejection from the game.
Crisis is a benchmark of leadership. True leaders accept what happens to them, and understand they are, ultimately, judged by their response. Legacy leaders are victors, not victims. Herman Cain has yet to learn that lesson.
If there is no truth to any of these allegations, then his "handlers," as Mr. Cain described his staff on Jimmy Kimmel's show on Monday night, should tell him to act presidential, compassionate, and strong, and not flippant and dismissive. Saying on network TV, "...there's not an ounce of truth in all of these accusations..." is playing reputational roulette, because if any of these women are telling the truth, Mr Cain just became a liar.
The terrible Penn-State scandal, the European financial meltdown, along with other major stories may temporarily dominate the news cycle. Yet, in a very short time, the harsh spotlight of truth will again come back to rest on Mr. Cain, who will eventually apologize for either his sexual misconduct or insensitivity to woman's issues, and soon thereafter, begrudgingly, concede his presidential candidacy race.