If you remember your classic Hollywood movies, Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) was unfit for duty – in spite of his previous command experience. The movie is The Caine Mutiny – from 1954 – mostly concerned with how Queeg, under the pressure of command, just loses it. The crew of his ship will have no more to do with him, for very good reason – and he ends up facing a career-ending court martial. And the movie is a bit of a showcase for Bogart – he gets to go all paranoid-creepy in the court martial scenes and really does chew the scenery. But back then that over-the-top histrionic stuff was considered serious acting, and after all, Bogart didn’t want to be Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe forever. So this was a break-out role, a chance to show the world he was a real actor, not a one-note cardboard character, always the tough guy who does the right thing. So Bogart hunched over and he muttered furtively about who stole the strawberries and shifted his big expressive eyes appropriately. You’ve seen the movie.
But Bogart ended up being more impressive than convincing – all technique. And normally that doesn’t matter out here. No one knows the difference. And Bogart got his Oscar nomination. But he lost the Oscar that year to Marlon Brando for On the Waterfront – as Brando, with his new wild method-acting anti-technique, seemingly random, was far more convincing than technically impressive. Brando did not, with every move and nuance, scream out for validation – Look at me, I’m acting! He simply became the character. You forgot him. And that’s the whole point of this acting business after all. Someone should tell Tom Cruise.
But that’s the whole point of politics too – if it is true, as is often said, that politics is Hollywood for ugly people. Politicians often strive to be impressive, when being convincing might be better. Recently we had the fearless risk-it-all maverick fighter pilot (McCain) – the elemental and fierce Momma Grizzly protecting her cubs (Palin) – and the man with the great hair and square jaw who really looks like he should be president (Romney). That’s all impressive, but not convincing. What would they do in office? And there’s the laconic long tall Texan who says little and doesn’t much think about things but just does what his gut tells him to do – Bush and now Perry. That too is impressive in a way, as is Michele Bachmann’s wild-eyed outrage-at-what-no-one-else-can-see character. But what would she, as a sort of female Captain Queeg, always seeing things that actually aren’t there at all, do in office? Being habitually delusional is not a recommendation for the most important job in the world. But being more impressive than convincing – with an impossible tax plan that cannot possibly work, or talking about a giant electrified fence on the Mexican border that will never be built – seems to be the order of the day. It’s better to be impressive than convincing. No one knows the difference, or so you hope.
And that has worked for Herman Cain. He has been impressive – although his 9-9-9 tax plan turned out to be more impressive than convincing. Of course the idea of effectively ending most taxes on the rich and on corporations, in favor of hammering the poor, the middle-class and the elderly, struck most people as a bit unfair, but even his fellow Republican candidates said it was shallow foolishness. But Cain was trying to be impressive, not convincing – kind of like Bogart in that old movie. Cain faced a bit of a Caine Mutiny, so to speak.
But he leads the pack. And that’s a Tea Party thing. They’re looking for someone who isn’t the slick and flip-flopping opportunistic Romney – all calculation and no conviction. They want a true believer. And it’s been rough going – Bachmann screwed up and Donald Trump wasn’t the answer, then Sarah Palin declined to run, and then the straight-shooting Texan who was going to save the day, Rick Perry, turned out to be a bumbling embarrassment. Cain ended up the last man standing – and what is impressive about him – no government experience whatsoever and all those years as CEO of a pizza chain, and his in-your-face attitude about everything, and his scorn for anything even remotely resembling knowledge of foreign policy – stood him in good stead with those who want someone in office who hates government, as such, and pretty much wants to end it. They do want someone who is impressive, who is not, in the slightest, convincing as a leader who must make hard decisions. Maybe that’s the whole point. They see no difference.
But then there was the Halloween surprise:
Herman Cain, a surprise leader in the Republican race for the presidency, acknowledged Monday that he was accused of sexual harassment while chief of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, but he denied wrongdoing in an episode that has consumed his rising candidacy.
Facing the biggest test of his campaign just as it was demanding notice from a political world that had not seen him coming, Mr. Cain spent the day in a whirlwind of television interviews and news briefings that were originally supposed to highlight his economic plans but became an exercise in damage control.
He maintained that he had been falsely accused and that internal investigations at the association had corroborated that. But his explanations evolved during a day in which conservative supporters rallied against what they called an unfair attack from the news media, while others expressed fresh doubts about a campaign that has yet to prove it has the mettle to survive a national nominating battle.
And the shifting explanations were odd:
In the early afternoon, Mr. Cain told a gathering at the National Press Club in Washington that “I am unaware of any sort of settlement” related to harassment accusations, which he called “a witch hunt.” But in an interview with Greta Van Susteren of the Fox News Channel shown Monday night, he acknowledged that in at least one case “there was some sort of settlement or termination,” worth “maybe three months’ salary.”
He knew nothing about this, or knew everything, or something. And suddenly he shifted from being impressive to being unconvincing – he lost both imperatives. And then things started to snowball. People started to remember things, and talk. And this messes things up:
His candidacy has been enigmatic from the start, and his rise to the top – or near the top – in national polls and in surveys of early voting states has upended expectations in the Republican presidential contest. Aides to rivals including former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts – who shares top billing with him in polls – and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who trails them both – have expressed skepticism that Mr. Cain’s campaign can go the distance but have been unable to ignore his strong marks from voters or the appeal of his blunt policy prescriptions.
And now there’s all the Anita Hill versus Clarence Thomas talk:
“This is another high-tech lynching,” the conservative commentator Ann Coulter asserted, reprising Mr. Thomas’s famous term from his confirmation hearings. But there was uncertainty in the early voting states.
“The verdict is out, and people want to give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Steve Scheffler, the chairman of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, who has met with Mr. Cain and other candidates. “If it’s no more than exaggerations or rumors, his campaign is not hurt. If it’s more than that, there could be some challenges for him.”
No kidding. But the challenges keep coming:
Having spent little time in Iowa in recent months and failing to take obvious steps to recruit supporters or precinct leaders who are the traditional foundation of a winning caucus campaign, he has become something of a mystery to many Republicans in the state.
His lack of traditional campaigning, his continuation of a book tour and his occasionally attention-grabbing statements – including a proposal for an electrified fence along the southern border that could kill Mexicans trying to enter the United States illegally – have led to doubts about his overall seriousness.
New questions about the stewardship of his campaign arose on Monday after The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the campaign may have accepted tens of thousands of dollars in goods and services from a tax-exempt organization founded by Mr. Cain’s chief of staff, Mark Block, an apparent violation of campaign finance laws.
But it’s one problem at a time:
On PBS, Mr. Cain seemed to acknowledge that his tendency to joke could have caused some of the problems between him and the woman at the restaurant association, saying “no” when asked if he had ever behaved inappropriately, then adding, “But as you would imagine, it’s in the eye of the person who thinks that maybe I crossed the line.”
But this is now a dicey business. And all he wanted to do was be impressive.
In Cain’s case, the allegations actually came five years before he ran for any office, twelve years ago now. There was no way they were politically motivated, because Cain had never been a candidate for anything. Furthermore, the allegations came not just from one disgruntled employee, but from two separate women. One allegation can be a misunderstanding, or an oversensitivity – or a case of job-related payback. Two allegations, separate and distinct from each other, are at least the beginning of a pattern.
And the Washington Post’s resident super-conservative, Jennifer Rubin doesn’t think much of Cain’s claim that he was unaware of any settlement agreement reached to resolve the sexual harassment charges:
For that to be true, many things would also have to be true: Herman Cain never asked the NRA how the claim got resolved; Cain never had to sign a settlement agreement or any other document; He trusted the NRA to obtain a complete release on his behalf, and the women never demanded that Cain release potential counterclaims (e.g., for defamation); He never agreed to keep the matter confidential – for example, after he left the NRA. (Arguably the association could bind him while he was still employed, but wouldn’t it have had to tell him to ensure compliance?); and in his role as CEO, Cain never had to approve a settlement, was never told the cost of the settlement and never saw a budget entry confirming a settlement.
And Philip Klein makes a similar argument:
It seems unrealistic that if a settlement were reached concerning his behavior that he’d be unaware of it. And if it is possible that a CEO can be totally unaware of a settlement, how could he be “absolutely” sure that no such settlements were made at his other employers? To be clear, overall, I think Cain did pretty well on Fox. If all there is to the story is anonymous accusers from back in the 1990s versus his emphatic denial, I think he’ll be able to survive this without many problems, especially given natural conservative distrust of the media. If, however, more details emerge that begin to contradict his initial statements, and the situation turns out to be a lot broader than he lets on, it will become a major problem.
And Kevin Williamson is simply blunt:
I got a lot of grief for writing that – based on my interaction with Mr. Cain – I would have hesitated to hire him to run a pizza company. I am feeling more comfortable in that judgment.
Yes, all this presents an interesting problem for Cain, although Michelle Goldberg takes stock of the situation:
As Sarah Palin demonstrated, the GOP base is eager to rally around those who seem to be victimized by a mainstream media they hate. But as Palin also demonstrated, eventually, evidence of venality and incompetence seeps in with the public at large. If Cain ever had a serious shot at the presidency, these charges would certainly hurt him. But he didn’t. The only thing he has to gain from this race is the mantle of conservative folk hero, and maybe Fox News contributor. And in that campaign, it looks like he’s still doing just fine.
And this might even help him with the base, as we see from Ann Coulter:
“Liberals are terrified of Herman Cain. He is a strong conservative black man. Look at the way they go after Allen West and Michael Steele and they aren’t even running against Obama. They are terrified of strong, conservative, black men,” Coulter said.
So Cain is a hero, and Andrew Sullivan comments:
Are we really headed for another “high-tech lynching” drama? I suspect the “liberal media line” will become Cain’s line of defense. And so the conservative movement gets what it always wants and always needs: a big old right-left 1990s-style set piece. God help us.
I guess that’s the thing to say if you’re running for the GOP nomination, but obviously it would be dumb timing for any actual liberal to hand a bad story on Cain to the media right now. If you’re a liberal, you’d sit tight and wait until Cain is the nominee to start dumping stuff on him. (I think Cain is extremely unlikely to be the nominee.)
This looks like the work of one of his GOP competitors. My top suspect would be the Perry campaign, just because it makes sense for them to do it – they certainly don’t want this Cain surge lasting any longer.
And Matthew Yglesias runs with that:
I think the way to look at the GOP primary at this point is this. Mitt Romney is ideological unacceptable to a large swathe of influential Republican Party actors, but Herman Cain is clearly unacceptable as the standard-bearer for a political party that is very likely to win a presidential election in 2012 unless they do something bizarre. Consequently, if it ends up being the case that Romney is the only viable alternative to Cain, then Romney wins. But if it ends up being that Perry is the only viable alternative to Romney, then Perry still has a very good chance, notwithstanding a thus-far-underwhelming campaign. But either way, Perry desperately needs to get into an “it’s me or it is Mitt” race, and the infatuation of certain segments of the mass electorate with Cain is muddying the waters in a way that’s very unhelpful to his cause.
Ah, there are wheels within wheels. But there’s Conor Friedersdorf here:
If not Romney, who? … The rise of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain weren’t accidents. They were the logical products of an ideological movement whose leading voices place no value on governing experience, credible policy proposals, or any other quality needed to be a successful general election candidate, or president.
But there you have it. They strive to be impressive, not convincing. And that’s kind of a Hollywood problem, in the land of politics – otherwise known as Hollywood for ugly people. It’s the actor who says look at ME – playing the part, impressively. That’s the actor who forgets what the job is. And that is the politician, running for office, who forgets what the actual job is – the actual job being what you do if you actually win.
And oh yeah, remember, Bogart lost the Oscar that year, because he went for impressive over convincing. And of course Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg was unfit for duty. He too wanted to be impressive, rather than effective. People can, eventually, tell the difference, you know.