Saturday, November 12, 2011

The wizard of id

IMy initial reaction to Herman Cain —I must admit— was that he was one of maybe a number of what I call Rodeo Clown Candidates, supposed contenders without any realistic hope of securing their party's nomination or winning the general election, but who, nevertheless, by virtue (or lack thereof) of their garish caricatured persona politics, provide some amount of entertainment spectacle for the early going of the campaign. 'The Donald' served a stint in this role, likewise Michelle Bachmann. In real rodeos these clowns provide necessary distraction for the audience with their broad antics during the duller moments of setup, or conversely while the occasional gored cowboy is attended to and the blood is mopped from view. (With candidates like Rick Perry you get something of the clown and the gored cowboy all wrapped up into one.) So it was, or at least that's how it seemed, with Hermann Cain. A big old fence that electrocuted illegals wasn't realistic immigration policy. Nobody really believed every bill the Congress considers should fit on a single sheet of paper, or that tax equity and the state of our economy would be served with a simplistic gimmick like 9-9-9. There was something just a little fun about allowing the pretense though, for just a while.

So it was, or at least that's how it seemed.

When the allegations of sexual harassment first came to light just a while back I thought it reasonable to expect that Cain would be ready to remove himself from the rodeo arena —with maybe some laughable clown shoe footwork first and then one or two parting blasts from the squeeze horn. However, that's not what we've seen and as we've watched how he has handled (or more aptly
not handled) this situation, it has started to strike me that there's another kind of politics going on here with Herman Cain and that it's been going on for a while.

There is a fairly standardized operating procedure for addressing situations like the one Cain finds himself in with the allegations of sexual harassment. Get yourself on the airwaves, dutiful wife by the side, and engage in some warm and cozy, circular and fuzzy conversation, preferably on a homey and well upholstered stage set —with a fireplace— and a homey well upholstered journalist who won't quite ask what you don't quite want to answer. By the time we've all had to sit through that kind of show we are just so happy to see the sordid story go away, we're well past caring.

Cain's approach has been very different. He has called his press conferences in front of the flags arrayed and announced himself the victim, of media bias and racist innuendo and stereotype, of Republican rivals and Democratic machines at the very same time. He's made the categorical denials you should never make, because they can and have been proven patently false. You might think his handling has been inept. What I am wondering is if that isn't exactly how he wants it. He might announce that he doesn't want to talk about the scandal anymore, that he wants to focus on more serious issues, but then he books an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's late-night TV show. As Lisa de Moraes, writing for the Washington Post put it:

A serious “I don’t even know who this woman is!” news conference about the latest allegations could wait until Tuesday afternoon. On Monday, Cain wanted to look relaxed and share double-entendre gags with a comic.

When Kimmel cracked wise about Cain maybe hiring the noted (or notorious) attorney of one of his accusers as his own attorney Cain replied “You almost made me say something my analysts say, ‘You should not say.” With a wry grin he added “Let me put it to you this way: I can’t think of anything that I would hire her to do! I can’t think of a thing!

Nudge-nudge-wink-wink. Get it?

You might ask yourself —is he really that stupid? Is that how you handle a situation where your boorish abusive disrespect for women is being alleged? By going on national TV and chortling sly over veiled references to whoring? What's worse —what if he's not that stupid?

Think of that now famous campaign ad, with Cain's campaigner, Mark Block staring into the camera, dragging on his cigarette and blowing the smoke into the camera's (and the country's) face; then that long slow smile from the candidate himself. "I am America" a voice sings in the background. On that same appearance on Jimmy Kimmel's show Cain explained that ad as something emblematic of his political approach. "We have a saying in my campaign. Let Herman be Herman. Let Mark be Mark. And let people be people. That's really one of the things of my whole campaign."

Local sports fans might remember the expression we used to have around here about "Manny being Manny."

This is where that "other kind of politics going on" comes in for me —where things get "interesting" (in that sense of the old Chinese curse about 'living in interesting times'). On the one level of understanding Herman Cain had a situation that had to be handled, made to go away. On that level he could compare himself to Clarence Thomas as the one supposedly wronged because he is a Black Conservative, etc. His wife is on with warm and fuzzy interviews. That proven script was already well written and well known. But there is another level Herman Cain is operating on at the same time. On that level it isn't his victimization or the vulgar preposterousness of the charges against his character and behavior that work to credit his account. It's the plausibility of those same charges. It is the charming idea of 'Herman being Herman' —a boys-will-be-boys appeal to the gut level, to the id —the basest of base instinct in the body politic. The part of each of us that rejects the 'PC' demands of modern life, that is sick and tired of always being told our habits are vices, that they cause cancer or harm the environment, or are somehow boorish —even oppressive— to others around us, that part of us that is tired of having to behave. That appeal in the smoke of Mark Block's cigarette and the grin on Herman Cain's face is the very opposite of having some moralistic scold tell you to "eat your peas."

Herman Cain will tell you that he is a businessman, not a politician or a statesman. And he is not stupid. He has his ideas as to what sells and why. When it comes to our presidential politics, when it comes to our democracy, wouldn't it be sad if he was right?