Sunday, December 4, 2011

Citizen Cain / Citizen Kane



Up until Saturday, Herman Cain had been using the most hopeful language to define the future of his tattered presidential campaign, but even before that day, the writing was on the wall. Deep down, in his heart of hearts, he always knew which conditional conjunction to use. It was never a matter of if the Herman Cain reality series would face cancellation; it was always a matter of when.

Cain more or less came to that conclusion when he formally ended his campaign on Saturday, announcing at his brand new Atlanta headquarters that he was "suspending" his campaign -- basically a legal dodge that idles his quixotic bid for the presidency while still letting Cain raise funds and engage in some political activity, but without the issues of actually ending the Cain 2012 pursuit.

“As of today,” he said, “with a lot of prayer and soul-searching, I am suspending my presidential campaign … because of the continued distraction, the continued hurt caused on me and my family, not because we aren’t fighters, not because I’m not a fighter ...”

It's the end of a presidential bid that had few parallels in modern American political history, but which dovetailed with at least one life in the wider culture.



Some of you reading the title of this blog entry will probably say “oh please, it's too easy,” rolling your eyes at its cute juxtaposition of politics and pop culture, the linking by homonym of two men — one real, one fictional — in a blogpost that will reach (or strain) to find a connection.

But the comparisons between Cain the candidate and Charles Foster Kane, the tragic protagonist of Orson Welles’ 1941 film classic “Citizen Kane” aren’t strained at all, in some ways hardly the reach you might think. What’s compelling is the way in which both the narratives, the trajectories into and out of the public life, are much the same. They are men of power and wealth, vast or otherwise, relative to the rest of the people in the country; they used the communication tools of their eras to advance their identities; and they were consumed by ravenous personal ambition and a calling to higher public service — a calling ultimately compromised by hubristic infections of the ego and the id.

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Lord Acton’s famous dictum holds up here. Power corrupts, and it utterly corrupted Charles Foster Kane. And while in real life, Herman Cain isn’t so financially blessed — he’s hardly the ruler of “an empire upon an empire” — there are parallels enough.

What corrupted absolutely in his case was the absolute power of a self-branded presidential run that’s been as much a book tour as a quest for the presidency, a venture starring a blustery, willfully parochial businessman who has repeatedly demonized Muslim Americans and undocumented immigrants, offered the nation an economic policy prescription named like something from a pizza-chain price war, and said he wanted to be president of the United States even though he probably still can’t identify Libya on an unmarked map. Even now.

To his advantage, Cain has brandished a sturdy sense of humor throughout this non-campaign campaign, as well as a very strong sense of being on the inside of his own joke. He has a self-confidence and a sense of the theatrical that plays large in a media-rich world. He’ll be right at home at Fox News when all this plays out.

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But that self-confidence, that Dolemite swagger has morphed into hubris more than once. Cain’s ambition, the drive to write his own biography, confronted the past much the same way it did for Charles Foster Kane. Despite his facing the headwinds of sexual harassment allegations and claims of a 13-year affair, Cain tried to bluff his way through it all, blowing off the blossoming controversy as no big deal in a visit to “The Late Show With David Letterman” on Nov. 18. But for the conservative values voters in Iowa, the ones he needed in the Iowa caucuses for any shot at political credibility, sexual harassment of women would not have been so easily dismissed.

At the end of the day, Herman Cain wasn’t serious about pursuing the presidency. First, his pockets weren’t deep enough to sustain a prolonged race; he told Letterman he launched the campaign with “$675,000 of my own money.” That’s not nearly enough to support a serious run at the Oval Office, and fundraising gets you just so far in the early going. The allegations that have surfaced in the last four weeks certainly cut into that.

Cain’s pockets of intellect, charity and experience weren’t deep enough either. We like candidates from other, non-political walks of life taking a shot at the presidency. Jimmy Carter was a former Navy man and a peanut farmer before he was elected governor of Georgia. He parlayed a formidable intellect, a weak Republican field, a smoldering weariness with the party responsible for Watergate, and the fact of having actually being elected to a statewide office into a presidential campaign that handily captured the White House in 1976.

Cain’s résumé has its bright and novel moments of accomplishment, but they could never overcome his own shortcomings of preparation, and a streak of intolerance that played to the cheap seats in the church of the GOP, but which would never have resonated with a wider, more diverse American public.

Herman Cain didn’t want to be president any more than Sarah Palin did. And Herman Cain knows that. And he knows we know that, too.



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His attempt to compartmentalize his life by walling off past from present, and his deeply analog, old-school belief that no one would connect the two in this information-accessible era finally combined to short-circuit what was always more an improvisation than a serious campaign.

In one scene in ”Citizen Kane,” the newspaper mogul sits with his wife Emily Monroe Norton at breakfast. Emily, having apparently read something over the top in the pages of the Inquirer, flagship of her husband’s empire, says in exasperation, “Really, Charles. People will think —“

Charles Foster Kane hotly cuts her off with a megalomaniac’s retort: “— what I tell them to think.”

It’s no quantum leap to find the connection between that self-aggrandizement and Cain’s overweening, almost confrontational self-confidence, his other abiding faith and one upended by a lack of the intellectual capacity, the tolerance and the sense of civic purpose needed to make a credible candidate, or a creditable president.

As the sexual harassment scandal unfolded, in denial after denial, it was clear Herman Cain really believed that people would think about him what he told them, that his assertions of marital fidelity, his method of fixing the economy, his approach to solving the immigration issue would squelch debate on the basis of his say-so alone.

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In the wake of the sex-related allegations, Cain’s most recent blame game was to darkly hint that the Democrats were in league to destroy his campaign and that of Newt Gingrich, who’s been rising steadily in the polls. “Maybe the Democrats want Newt Gingrich to win the nomination so they can then go after his personal life, but they need to knock me out now,” Cain said on Fox News Wednesday night. That’s just a hypothesis.”

That he would elevate such windy, delusional crap to the descriptive level of a “hypothesis” is itself breathtaking. But he went on. “This is about trying to bring down Herman Cain,” he said, jumping back to using the strangely dissociative self-reference in the third person that he’s used before.

You can't help but think of what happened after Charles Foster Kane’s disastrous run for New York governor. When it was all over but the vote counting in the more conservative “church counties,” Kane’s associates briefly debate which front page to publish -- the one declaring Kane the winner, or the front page they finally settle on, the one announcing his defeat but claiming that FRAUD AT POLLS! was the reason for his defeat. Fraud at the polls. Kane’s defeat had to be someone else's fault. He couldn't be the reason why he lost.

Cain’s been saying much the same thing for weeks now. In his eyes, the accusations of serial infidelity, geopolitical indifference, ethnic intolerance and lack of a broader economic acumen came from those who were dead-set against there being a businessman in the White House.

His enemies had to be at fault. It was the Democrats who were plotting against him. It was the media. It was the women who came out with claims against him, women who had to be seeking big money for digging up imaginary dirt on a former boss. Everyone else was wrong. Only Herman Cain was right. Only Herman Cain was above reproach.

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As much as anything else, what indelibly connects these two legends in their own minds is the presence of their equally outsize egos. For sure, a powerful ego is necessary to crank up something as monstrously intricate, expensive and potentially disastrous as a modern presidential campaign. It can’t be done without the ravenous self-confidence that ideally translates into a message that the nation can get behind on Election Day — something the American people can be as serious about supporting as the candidate is, presumably, serious about creating.

But all the ego on the planet is worthless in a presidential run without the chops to back it up, without a healthy dose of the required humility, the ability to stand up on your hind legs and own up to error — a quality that endears a candidate to the American people as much as competence and self-assurance.

Nobody gets it right all the time. As the great sportswriter Roger Kahn once observed, “There’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.” It’s the ability to strike that right balance between being the smartest guy in the room and the one most open to learning what he doesn’t know that makes for a successful presidential campaign.

Herman Cain never got the first part of that right, much less the rest. As his campaign enters the limbo of official suspended animation that precedes its actual demise, the damage he’s done to his own biography and to the party he loves is inescapable: he was less than capable at knowing about the world he presumed to lead; he was uncharitable about people who didn’t look or pray like him; and as his own scandal exploded in front of him, he certainly alienated some of his supporters for being as deceptive with them as he was with everyone else.

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Last Tuesday night, before the candidate pulled the plug, an NBC News embed caught up with Cain and asked him straight out if he planned to quit the race. Cain’s reply: “9-9-9,” — a repetition of the three-digit economic mantra he’s been offering for the last five months.

Before when Cain uttered his three magic numbers, there was a tolerance, maybe even a fascination with the idea that, maybe, something as insanely labyrinthine as the U.S. tax code really could be streamlined by a formula that simple.

But using it on Tuesday, with the bottom dropping out of everything, it was just weak and automatic and sad, a bit like Richard Nixon — another tragic American figure — exiting the White House in disgrace, walking to Marine One, turning on the short stairs and throwing up both arms, V-for-victory style. Like he did when he won the nomination in 1968. It was Nixon’s valedictory salute, his defining signature, as surely as 9-9-9 will probably be Cain’s own.

Ironically, Herman Cain was undone by the same thing that powers other candidates, in fact, the same thing that powers people in all walks of life: the sense of the possible. The fact that he brought nothing else to the table besides his belief in that profoundly American existential attribute was his undoing.

The Xanadu that citizen Cain built wasn’t made of bricks, glass and a wrought-iron fence; it was an edifice of self-righteous rhetoric, expedient xenophobia and incurious bluster. But finally, his campaign shared a fatal similarity to what Citizen Kane erected: “the costliest monument a man has built to himself.”

Herman Cain-"Citizen Kane" photo juxtaposition: Reuters/Warner Bros. Cain with David Letterman: © 2011 CBS News/Worldwide Pants. Kane at breakfast, Fraud At Polls!: From "Citizen Kane" (1941), Warner Bros.

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