CHARLESTON–Herman Cain fancies himself a man of the people. He preaches, rather than speaks. With his booming baritone, knotted eyebrows and bold gesticulations, Cain’s every word is punctuated with a call to action. No matter who the candidate is, someone needs to keep the voters inspired…and Cain’s nominated himself for the job.
Of course, not everyone wants a performance artist for a public servant. Especially, when his nonsensical campaign videos go viral and his geographical understanding includes imaginary places with an excess of “stan”s. I certainly didn’t take his candidacy seriously. His appeal was a mystery to me.
Not to Nancy McKnew, a boisterous retiree from Georgia. She loved Herman Cain from the very first time she saw him speak. She was very sad to see him drop out.
“He stood for what we stood for,” she said. “He just made sense—which is rare.”
After driving to Charleston, she and husband Dave sat in the bleachers of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference eagerly awaiting the arrival of the “Cain Train.” While a procession of speakers talked about a country in peril, Nancy shouted approving remarks and Dave obligingly snapped pictures.
Finally, Herman Cain emerged from the blue curtains to uproarious applause—impressive from Thursday’s small audience.
His speech had all the hallmarks of a Tea Party patriot—a jab at liberals, the incompetency of Washington and some not so sly 9-9-9 word play.
He prefaced his anticipated announcement with a message to the press. You’re not going to like this, he said. Then, with a sweep of his hands, he endorsed the people of the United States of America. The audience applauded hesitantly.
This is ridiculous, I thought. But I guess he did warn me.
Later in the press room, he would defend his decision not to endorse a candidate. He didn’t want to split his support base, he said. The reporters crowding the small space weren’t convinced.
But the response out in the audience was that of implicit approval. To folks like Nancy, Cain’s antics are just part of his familiar charm.
“I knew it was gonna be something like that,” she told me, speaking as if he was an old friend.
Matt Gottlieb, a Solutions Revolution tour volunteer, was expecting Cain to put forth some sort of platform but was happy with the unconventional endorsement anyway. The audience “connected with his message,” he said.
That message of American unity and empowerment was indeed welcomed by the McKnews, who plan to rally behind whoever the Republican candidate is come November. Nancy laid out her unconventional support plan. She wants to collect signatures from all the nominees on a yellow Tea Party t-shirt, auction the autographed item on eBay and then donate the money to the winning campaign.
Amidst the older, conservative demographic at the SRLC, Cain’s appeal was clear. He was their hope and change guy for an uncomplicated government and people-driven solutions. Would his call for revolution fall on deaf ears at Friday’s rally at the College of Charleston?
Of course the overwhelming majority of the “Rock Me Like a Herman Cain” crowd was there to see Stephen Colbert. I surveyed the mass of students skipping classes, Occupiers and costumed Uncle Sams to find out what they thought about Herman Cain. Most didn’t think him much of him as politician and some didn’t know much about him at all.
This will be a tough crowd for him to impress, I thought.
Riding the coattails of Colbert’s fanfare, Cain stepped up to the podium—wearing a black cowboy hat—to a fair share of the applause.
Then, to my surprise, he delivered almost the same speech as Thursday—with a little rearranging and minus a few of the liberal jokes. But the biggest shock came when this youthful college-age audience responded just like old Tea Partiers.
“Washington is broken,” Cain shouted and two days in a row, vastly different demographics erupted in applause and “Amen”s.
He continued with treatises of fighting the Solutions Revolution with “brains and ballots,” and asked people to sign up for his “Army of Davids” at cainconnections.com.
Cain really won the crowd with “America needs to lighten up,” and sealed the deal with a spoken word rendition of Pokémon lyrics.
“I like to have a sense of humor,” he said and even I nodded in approval.
He finished on a serious note, asking the students to stay informed, involved and inspired.
Don’t waste your vote on me, he warned. “I still believe every vote counts.”
After Colbert wrapped up the rally and the two exited the courtyard, I chatted with a trio of College of Charleston students, ecstatic about what they had seen.
Marguerite Conroy and Corey Smiley assured me they wouldn’t waste their votes.
“It’s a gift,” said Conroy, something that people in other countries die for.
Cameron Christensen skipped class for Colbert but came away really excited about Cain.
“His message was meaningful and not a joke,” he said. “Too bad he dropped out.” Christensen was further motivated by Cain’s words.
“He’s right I need to get more involved,” he added.
Cain’s constant profession of faith in the people and willingness to poke fun at himself in the process won him fans in an unlikely audience. And if stunts like this inspire people to care about politics, then maybe Cain is much more a man of the people than we give him credit for. Sure, his persona is silly, but at least he’s doing some good with the joke.