Earlier today, a few minutes after 10 a.m., Herman Cain met with his senior advisers on the eleventh floor of the American Enterprise Institute. They huddled in a private conference room near the lobby, Cain’s bodyguard hovering near the door.
A floor below, Cain’s economic team discussed the candidate’s tax plan. Under the glow of Klieg lights, they detailed its 9 percent rates. Sharing the dais, a panel of tax experts challenged aspects of their argument. It was wonky, serious, and mostly apolitical.
Upstairs, however, Cain was all politics. Sitting with Mark Block and Linda Hansen, his top strategists, he finalized the campaign’s response to a Politico report about past sexual-harassment allegations. They were in bunker mode.
As the clock ticked — Cain had another event to attend — Block outlined the best path forward. His quick advice: Answer questions frankly and without pause. Honesty and transparency, he predicted, would enable Cain to brush off charges, which, the former Godfather’s chief executive emphasized, were false.
The fresh tack was necessary. On Sunday, Cain was confronted by Politico reporter Jonathan Martin outside CBS News’ Washington bureau and, startled, did not respond to repeated queries. That would be the last time, Block asserted, that Cain would be caught by surprise.
By that point, Block and J. D. Gordon, Cain’s spokesman, had defended Cain on the airwaves. But Cain had yet to speak out on the matter. The campaign decided to send Cain to Fox News for a quick interview. The inner circle’s meeting adjourned. Cain hopped into an SUV.
Block, for his part, stayed behind for a few minutes, smoking a Marlboro Light on 17th Street. More than a few pedestrians noticed him. “The strategy is to be transparent and honest,” Block told me as he took a drag. “Mr. Cain never sexually harassed anybody, period, end of story.”
Down the street at Fox, Cain repeated that mantra on-air. “I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he said. “Yes, I was falsely accused while I was at the National Restaurant Association, and I say falsely because it turned out, after the investigation, to be baseless.”
The story, of course, was only heating up. Cain’s remarks at AEI earlier in the day, where he said little about the accusations, and his Fox News hit, only whetted the appetite of Beltway reporters, who showed up by the dozens at the National Press Club. By 11 a.m., cameras and producers lined its lobby, waiting for Cain to arrive to a long-scheduled lunch.
At noon, Cain arrived with Block and the rest of the senior team, ducking into a private VIP area to take pictures with supporters and National Press Club patrons. After 30 minutes of smiling and shaking hands, he headed into the ballroom toward the podium, his hand waving.
As I watched, a couple feet from the stage, it was clear Cain was at ease. “For a couple of weeks now, I’ve gotten used to what it feels like to be near the top,” he said at the top of his speech. “As a result of today’s big news story, I really know what it feels like to be number one.”
For the rest of his talk, Cain steered clear of even hinting at the Politico story. Then came the question-and-answer session. Cain, with a thin grin, declared that he would “be delighted to clear the air” when the moderator mentioned the flap. “We are not going to chase anonymous sources, when there is no basis for the accusation,” he said, blasting the “witch hunt.”
“I have never sexually harassed anyone,” he added.
We thought he was finished. Cain, without raising an eyebrow, had answered questions. The Q-and-A was over. But the moderator had one last query: He asked Cain, a longtime Gospel singer, for a tune. Cain paused briefly, mulling, then shuffled back to the podium.
The audience loved it — even the journalists, many of whom couldn’t hide smiles. Cain is under fire, to be sure, and song is by no means a political strategy. But Block, sitting a step away, didn’t intervene; he sat back and looked on. And Cain, his hands gripping the podium, burst into a few verses of one of his favorites — “He Looked Beyond My Faults.”
“Amazing Grace will always be my song of praise,” Cain sang, his rich baritone filling the room. “I do not know just why He came to love me so. He looked beyond my faults and saw my need.”
After a few more bars, he finished, dipped his head as the cheers rang, then pumped his fist in the air. More media hits, with Fox News and others, awaited. But on the toughest afternoon of his presidential journey, Cain left the event a fighter — and a singer, belting grace under fire.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.