Campaign Crawlers

Dreams Die Hard

The heartbreaking wreckage of Herman Cain's campaign.

By 12.5.11

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Mike Rogers was on board what became known as the Cain Train even before the locomotive left the station. A computer systems engineer who lives in New Hampshire, Rogers first heard Herman Cain speak at an Americans for Prosperity conference in 2009, and immediately believed the Georgia businessman should be the next President of the United States. Rogers and his wife gave the maximum legal contribution to Cain's presidential exploratory committee before the former Godfather's Pizza CEO officially announced his Republican primary candidacy in May.

"I was sitting in the front row for the announcement in Atlanta," Rogers said Sunday, a day after Cain returned home to Atlanta to announce that he would suspend his campaign, which had soared to the top of the GOP field in early October but was eventually derailed by accusations of sexual misconduct that the 65-year-old candidate has insisted are false and politically motivated. In announcing his exit from the campaign trail, Cain said he was moving from "Plan A" -- winning the White House in 2012 -- to "Plan B," an issues-advocacy website, but Saturday was definitely the end of the dream that Rogers and thousands of other self-declared "Cainiacs" had dreamed for months.

"Plan B is just face-saving," Rogers said. "Unless he's able to clear his name and get back in, or clear his name and be picked as the [vice-presidential running mate] for somebody, essentially his best bet is to take his raised profile and get back on the radio, maybe a little bit of TV, and push his policies. But really, it's not going to have the same force as being in the field shaping the debate."

Unlike the TV talking heads, print pundits and late-night comedians who spent the past five weeks reporting, analyzing or mocking each new accusation against Cain, it's not easy for true believers like Rogers to move on. The media immediately turned their attention to speculating about which of the remaining Republican candidates will benefit most from Cain's painful encounter with the politics of personal destruction, while the dreamers awoke to life without a dream. And here, alas, one reporter must lay aside his Joe Friday "just-the-facts-ma'am" act, dispelling the phony illusion of neutrality that the device of writing in the third person is supposed to achieve. Please accept my apology if I ever fooled anyone with that trick, because the dream of the Cainiacs was one I shared in a deeply personal way. If my coverage of his against-all-odds campaign was always factual and accurate, it was no more "objective" than any of the other stories written about Herman Cain, whether the reporters doing the reporting were his friends or foes. Many of my journalistic colleagues who covered him on the campaign trail came to love "The Hermanator" as much as I did and, even among those politically hostile reporters who didn't think Cain was qualified to be president, nearly everyone who got to know him actually liked the cheerful, humorous, and outspoken businessman.

"Steve Forbes with charisma," I dubbed him less than a year ago in my first American Spectator article about Cain's prospective campaign ("Run, Herman, Run," Dec. 27, 2010). Back then the typical reaction to his candidacy was "Herman who?" While he lacked the factor that pollsters call "name ID," anyone who initially underestimated Cain's potential as a candidate was proven decisively wrong on that Saturday in September when his victory in the Florida GOP straw poll quickly launched him to the top of the Republican field ("Herman Cain's Magic Moment," Sept. 26, 2011). During those nine long months, while Cain struggled to overcome the scoffing skeptics who consistently maligned his candidacy (e.g., Karl Rove), I was quite nearly the only national political reporter to take the Cain campaign seriously, covering him extensively both on my personal blog and here at The American Spectator. When I joined the media mob at an Arlington, Virginia, book-signing event in early October -- just after national polls first showed Cain as the Republican front-runner -- one of his longtime supporters laughingly reminisced about those months when my blog was just about the only place on the Internet to find news about the long-shot campaign. It was reporting for Cainiacs by one of their own. If anyone reading this is now recovering from the aftermath of Cainmania, feel free to blame me: Maybe I wasn't "Patient Zero" of the epidemic caused by Cain's contagious charisma, but I certainly did all I could to spread the fever.

"When people meet Herman, they like Herman," his former campaign spokesman Ellen Carmichael told me many months ago, expressing the essence of his appeal. Beyond his confident smile and down-to-earth personality, Cain brought to the campaign more than the entrepreneurial sensibility of an experienced businessman. He also brought his own inspiring personal narrative: A black man born in the segregated South, his parents domestic workers of modest means, Cain rose through hard work to become an executive at Pillsbury before taking over a Midwestern pizza chain that he helped rescue from the brink of bankruptcy. His first foray into politics -- refuting President Bill Clinton's health-care claims during a televised 1994 town-hall event -- made him a hero to conservatives. He became head of the National Restaurant Association, and subsequently enjoyed success as a motivational speaker before starting a promising career in talk radio in Atlanta.

It was at the studios of Atlanta's WSB that I first met Herman Cain in 2007, watching him do his popular show before sitting down for an interview, during which I was struck by his analysis of what had gone wrong with the Republican Party in recent years. "They didn't stick to principles," Cain told me, explaining why Republicans lost control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections. "They were not listening to people outside Washington. If they would have listened, they wouldn't have lost." Is there any conservative in America -- anyone? show of hands? -- who disagrees with that diagnosis? Certainly I did not, and Cain's words carried extra weight in light of another diagnosis: A year earlier, doctors had discovered cancer in Cain's colon which had already spread to his liver. The odds were more than 2-to-1 against him surviving, and the mere fact that he was alive in the spring of 2007 made Cain's smiling optimism all the more inspiring.

As my Cainiac friend Mike Rogers said Sunday, "Herman was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool," and his speeches to rallies in 2009 and 2010 made him a grassroots superstar. By the time I saw him again -- at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in April 2010 -- his speech was greeted with thunderous ovations rivaling the cheers the GOP crowd gave to Sarah Palin. He ended that speech with a jocular reference to the possibility that he might be a "dark horse" presidential candidate for 2012, and afterwards was swarmed by Republican well-wishers eager to shake his hand and have their photos taken with him. If he wasn't joking about a 2012 campaign, Cain clearly had enormous potential. While I was then busy covering the mid-term congressional campaign, I made a mental note to keep an eye on Cain. As soon as Election Day 2010 ended, I found myself on the phone with Steve Foley, a conservative New Media consultant who had already taken the first steps toward launching his Citizens4Cain site to rally grassroots support. We agreed that, second only to Palin, Cain had the most potential to carry forward the momentum of the Tea Party movement.

All the pundits who low-rated Cain's presidential prospects never seemed to see what Foley and I and so many other Cainiacs saw. For all his gaffes and blunders, for all the ineptitude of his campaign staff, Cain had something special that appealed to ordinary Americans sick of the cynical rhetoric of establishment politicians. Once the Cain Train gained momentum, pundits like Karl Rove seemed to find it personally offensive that an inexperienced outsider running an amateur campaign could win the enthusiastic support of millions. Two polls in October showed 30 percent of Republican voters ready to vote for Cain. By Oct. 20, despite all his mistakes and all the criticism from naysayers, the amateur outsider moved ahead of establishment favorite Mitt Romney in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls. And it was just about then that reporters began contacting the campaign's recently hired communications director, J.D. Gordon, to ask about accusations of sexual harassment made more than a dozen years earlier during Cain's tenure at the National Restaurant Association. Were the accusations true? We still don't know and may never know. But to borrow Shakespeare's famous phrase from Marc Antony's funeral oration for Caesar, "If it were so, it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Herman Cain answer'd it."

Dreams die hard, and I suppose many of my fellow Cainiacs experienced the kind of pain I felt Saturday when my 12-year-old son Jefferson, who shared that dream, asked me, "Dad, what does it mean to 'suspend' a campaign?" It hurt to tell him that it means "quit," which was for so many of us at that moment the most painful word in the English language.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.