Raising Cain on the Mountain

AP Photo/Bill Haber

Herman Cain stood out from the crowd at the patriot event for his impeccably tailored steel-gray suit. Crisp white dress shirt, red tie, cufflinks, the whole enchilada. It was August, and quite warm on the top of the hill at Ames Ranch in Jefferson, Oregon. Most conservatives attending the 2011 Gathering of Eagles were wearing light summer clothing.

The Tea Party was in full swing. Tri-cornered hats were in evidence, and candidate Cain was making the rounds. He had announced he was running for president in May; by September he would be surprising political observers with great showings in several significant straw polls.

It was all about the likability factor. In a campaign season characterized by glum projections about the ability to defeat Barack Obama and a respectable, accomplished, but ultimately less-than-scintillating Republican field, Cain had the likability market cornered.

I myself was a Newt Gingrich man in August 2011. The former speaker had also announced in May, and the promise of a return to some iteration of the Contract for America made his presidential run worth considering. I also hoped that Gingrich would not hesitate to return fire against the leftist mainstream press, something the last two GOP standard-bearers I’d voted for, John McCain and George W. Bush, never did.

When I got the opportunity to meet Cain close-up that day, I saw why his candidacy was so appealing to so many. From eager journalists to everyday folks with kitchen-table questions, he made strong eye contact with everyone who approached him. His handshake was firm, his smile broad and genuine. It was easy to see how and why the man had become successful.

My question to Cain was about the “balkanization” of immigration policy. I wanted to know how he would deal with a nation of patchwork-quilt immigration laws that varied widely in their particulars from state to state. Wouldn’t all the illegal immigrants migrate to the lenient, soon-to-be-designated “sanctuary states”?

The debate that year centered on Democrats calling for “comprehensive immigration reform,” and Republicans digging in with the party line: no reforms until the U.S.-Mexico border was sealed. Nothing got done. Meanwhile, President Obama was quietly deporting record numbers of illegals, a fact that Democrats downplayed throughout his administration, and especially in the run-up to 2012.

Cain’s answer was simple; he stated his belief in the need for strong borders enforced by federal immigration policy.

“If elected, I would put forth some bold proposals to restore border security,” Cain told me before thanking those crowded around him and heading to the podium for his keynote address

The address was vintage Cain, before there was such a thing as vintage Cain. The candidate worked the large outdoor, awning-covered area with a combination of humor and down-to-business pragmatism. He complimented the beauty of Oregon, and asked if it was “hot enough” for the audience. He hit the issues of taxation without representation, fiscally irresponsible Democrats, and a skyrocketing federal budget hard. Good news for true-believing Tea Partiers, who, in thronging to the event that year, had substantively altered the establishment-oriented conservatism of Gatherings of Eagles past.

I had a good seat down front for the address, and though the temperature had inexorably climbed all afternoon, Cain never broke a sweat. It came as no surprise when, after his address, after all the votes were counted, it was announced that Cain had won the Gathering poll of Republican primary candidates.

And then Herman Cain was off in a limo, headed to a Tea Party Express-organized event in another Oregon city.

On the drive back to Portland, the two state GOP operatives I’d hitched a ride with were ecstatic about Cain, and all that had transpired. These were not wide-eyed newbies to political hardball, but players who’d seen and done it all. They found something refreshing about Cain, something that made them think he could win. Hope sprang eternal with a second term for Obama on the horizon.

I recognized in the enthusiasm of my companions their hope for a wonderful opportunity. The chance to run a black Republican candidate, a good man, a conservative, an answer to Obama. Somebody who might put the lie to the leftist accusations about the GOP being the party of white America.

I liked Cain too, but it would be less than honest to claim that I gave him much of a chance to win. I was hung up on the experience factor; though Cain had reached the pinnacle of success in the world of business and finance, I was not convinced he could survive the rigors of contemporary scorched-earth politics. I remember saying to my pals, “Perhaps a VP slot, sure. Actually, what I think will happen is that Cain’s bid for the presidency will result in him becoming something of a conservative media star. When this is all over, he’ll be contributing commentary on Hannity.”

“We hope not,” sums up the response from my pals to the prediction.

I’m a Rush Limbaugh fan, but I don’t make a habit of saying “I told you so.”

But that’s just what happened.

Interestingly, when Cain’s candidacy ended that December after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced, he threw his support to Newt Gingrich, and then later, when the writing was on the wall, to Mitt Romney. Gingrich dropped out in May 2012, but not before dropping some rhetorical mortar fire in the laps of the insufferable Democrat debate moderators.

By the way, I bought a Herman Cain for President mug at the Gathering. Two actually, $20 each. I wanted to show support…who knew? This week, when news of his death due to COVID-19 broke, I took one of the mugs out of storage.

Looking back at the unprecedented corruption of Obama’s second term, I can only say, “If only. What did we have to lose?”

Mark Ellis is the author of A Death on the Horizon, a finalist in the 14th annual National Indie Excellence Awards in the category of General Fiction. Follow Mark on Twitter.