It must be everyone's worst nightmare – it's the morning of your final exam and you suddenly realise you didn't read the required books or attend any of the lectures. In politics, of course, it is that moment of truth on national television or before a room filled with journalists when it becomes plain to everyone that the candidate simply hasn't done his (or her) homework and was hoping a great smile and some clever one-liners were sufficient. Er, not really. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
The American presidential election is still just under a year away and yet this campaign for the presidency in 2012 has already generated some extraordinary moments like Rick Perry’s “Can’t think of the third one, oops” brain freeze. Now historically, of course, there are also some memorable moments of televised political mendacity like Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” or Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman”, as well as Gerald Ford’s claim that Poland was not a part of Warsaw Pact and as such under control of Soviet Union. And given the way this campaign is shaping up, we’ll almost certainly have a few of those by the time November 2012 comes around. In the meantime, however, we’ll just have to settle for an extraordinary Herman Cain event, captured on video the other day.
As politicians do routinely to demonstrate their policy chops and to win over editorial boards and senior journalists and thereby generate more understanding coverage, Cain met the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to let the assembled media types look over the man and his plan. And, in the fullness of time, the subject turned to Libya – a topic and country that has been in the news pretty much every day for months and whose former ruler represented a special pet hate for most American politicians since way, way back.
At this meeting, Cain was asked whether he agreed with the way President Obama had handled the matter and the Hermanator’s excruciatingly awkward answer ran for more than five whole minutes – generating a whole new “oops” moment for the delectation of YouTube viewers everywhere. After he is asked the question, Cain leans back in his chair, closes his eyes, fiddles with his suit and finally utters, “Okay, Libya” before asking whether Obama had supported the removal of the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Apparently contemplating how this question could mesh with stray thoughts about pizza prices and look-alike tax plans, Cain finally says he did not “agree with the way he [Obama] handled it for the following reason”. And then adds “Um, nope that’s a different one”, waving away that thought. Then he adds, delphically, “I gotta go back, see, got all this stuff twirling around in my head.” There’s more, but it’s probably better to actually watch the video clip to get the full flavour of the moment than read a selected transcript.
Cain, of course, is already swatting at charges of sexual harassment from four women while he was at the National Restaurant Association as its president and this, frankly, ridiculous performance as a would-be national leader is about the last thing he needed – unless voters believe their pick for president should be the candidate who has the least familiarity with international issues, but with the best smile.
Meanwhile, Perry and Cain’s prat falls have helped Mitt Romney solidify his position as the candidate to beat – unless Newt Gingrich really pulls a rabbit out of the proverbial hat – as Republican voters and activists continue their weary anybody-but-Romney-candidate-a-thon.
In the end, Cain never really did come to nail down the question about Libya, even as he lurched from sideline to sideline with observations Obama should have done a better job at evaluating the rebels’ motivations and the likely outcomes of any US involvement, even as it was never clear that Cain could describe what had actually happened. And all the time he was assuring the assembled editors that he would do a much better job than Obama –whatever that meant.
Afterwards, a Cain campaign spokesman tried to spin this one away by saying the candidate hadn’t had enough sleep and had been answering too many questions on different topics to really get his bearings. Poor baby. But, now, really, isn’t that what we want to know about a candidate: How will they function when the questions come from all over the landscape and sleep is at a premium, like when that mythical 3:00am crisis call eventually arrives? Isn’t that how you had to answer that tricky question about Goethe’s “Faust” after staying out too late the night before the exam, with one beer too many? Oh, but then you weren’t applying for the position of the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet, now were you? C’mon Herman, go back to pizza business. So much simpler. DM
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall