Herman Cain has discovered that being at the top of a presidential primary campaign is not a comfortable place.
Any frontrunner is under pressure to answer the most obtuse questions, and the candidate’s speeches and gestures and even clothing choices come under the microscope. This is typical.
Yet in Herman Cain’s case, being the African American frontrunner in the Republican primary to unseat the country’s first non-white president is a bit like being, to borrow an old Southern idiom, a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
In Cain’s case, the media critique isn’t solely about the soundness of his policies or the validity of his credentials.
Instead, he has come under fire for the homespun manner in which he delivers his message. He says he’s being himself. However, if a recent New York Times article highlighting Herman Cain’s Southern-fried sense of humor is any indication, Cain is getting tagged as a minstrel.
If you’re an African American, no matter if you’re from the streets or a certified Calvin Klein-wearing preppy, those are fighting words. It’s the kind of blow that might make even some of his detractors wince just a little bit. I know I did.
Critics pointed to a recent interview Cain did with the Christian Broadcast Network. When the interviewer asked Cain if he was ready for “gotcha questions” like who’s the president of Uzbekistan, he responded: “When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I’m going to say you know, I don’t know. Do you know?”
No, I don’t know, but I immediately knew that Cain had been reading from the George W. Bush playbook. Bush, Ivy League-educated and the heir to an established political dynasty, spun folksiness and errant rhetorical gaffes into political gold, convincing people that he was just like regular folks.
In a Republican primary featuring uptight Mitt Romney, and with the prospect of taking on President Obama, who is criticized for being dispassionate and professorial, Cain has gained traction as the plainspoken everyman with a preacher’s cadence and comedic timing.
But this strategy distracts attention away from the success story that is Herman Cain. When people speak of living the American Dream, Cain is one of those men to whom this ideal is writ large.
Memphis-born but raised in Atlanta, Cain grew up “poor but happy,” as he put it, the son of a hardworking father and mother who instilled in him a sense of spiritual commitment to do something worthy in the world.
He has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Morehouse, a historically black college with a list of distinguished alumni that rivals any university in the country. Cain later earned a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue University, while working as a mathematician for the Department of the Navy. His exemplary record as chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza has been verified by the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact.com.
Cain’s problem is that he’s oriented his political persona down a path that is unsustainable. When he likens himself to Haagen-Dazs Black Walnut, or when he says his Secret Service codename should be “Cornbread,” he tragically conjures up a repulsive “Amos & Andy” character.
This not only negates a chance at a constructive dialogue about his political ideology but also threatens to sully his truly remarkable life narrative.
Cain should be himself, but maybe not so much.
Fred McKissack Jr. is a former editorial writer who lives in Fort Wayne, Ind. His latest book is “Best Shot in the West,” a graphic novel about the black cowboy Nat Love is scheduled to be released this January by Chronicle Books. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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