Since suspending his presidential campaign, Herman Cain hasn’t really discussed his candidacy. He’s done a couple of television interviews, some radio appearances, but for the most part, he has bottled his feelings. He has shared few of his frustrations, of which there are many. But as he sinks into an armchair at a posh Midtown Manhattan hotel, Cain tells me that he is ready to ruminate, to start cobbling together his conclusions.
It’s been two weeks since Cain left the contest under a cloud of questions, both personal and political. In the days since, he has huddled with his wife, Gloria, at home in Atlanta. He has taken meetings with television executives and former donors. It’s been quiet, he says, busy but private. His cell phone, for the first time in months, is not buzzing. The primary has moved on.
Cain sighs and cracks a wistful grin. “I’m not bitter but I am disappointed and angry at times,” he says. “That’s different from being bitter.”
Perhaps. But what a year, what a ride. Cain began the spring as a tea-party nobody, entered the summer as a tea-party favorite, and by October had become a serious White House contender, leading numerous polls. Weeks later, after a never-ending swirl of allegations, he was a national pariah.
Reflecting on that ride is akin to asking a hoarse teenager to grade a roller-coaster, seconds after the screaming descent. But he’ll try. And over the course of 70 minutes, Cain does. “I’m not running for president, so I can say whatever the hell I want to say,” he chuckles.
Here are a dozen snippets from our conversation, which, as one might expect, drifted between topics.
The outsider: One of Cain’s main gripes concerns Republican grandees, such as Karl Rove, and how they responded to his campaign. “Let’s just say they haven’t tolerated such a bold outsider,” he says. “If you’re a timid outsider, they will tolerate you and give you an assignment to go to Weyauwega [a tiny Wisconsin town] and talk to the local Weyauwega Republicans. A lot of people within the party didn’t want to see me succeed. Some did, but I’m still an outsider.”
On race: After speaking at countless GOP and tea-party events over the past two years, “I detect no racism; I detect enthusiasm,” Cain says. “Are there possibly some elements out there that may not like the fact that I’m a black man? Yeah. But honestly, in my heart, I do not believe that the Republican party is fundamentally racist. I do not.” The “nut jobs” that caused trouble with death threats, he surmises, did so because he was a leading candidate, not because of his race.
On Democrats: Cain has scorn for those across the aisle who considered him a token black conservative in the GOP primary, or worse, a pawn of GOP interests. “To them, by being a black conservative, and a successful black conservative, you have wandered off the plantation and that’s not allowed,” he says. “I think there is more resentment of me being a black conservative in the Democratic party than in the Republican party. I really do.”
On quitting: Cain’s decision to leave the race was as much Gloria Cain’s as his own. “I got home that Friday,” he recalls and faced his wife for the first time since Ginger White accused Cain of conducting a decade-long affair. “She said to me, ‘tell me your side of the story from start to finish.’ So I sat down and walked her through it, all the way from the first allegation.” She asked questions “and she cross-examined me,” he says. “At the end of that, she said ‘I believe you, I love you.’” It wasn’t emotional, no tears or yelling, “just straightforward.”
On books: When it comes to critics who describe his campaign as a glorified book tour, Cain has little patience. “Bull feathers,” he says. “They don’t know me. I would not run for president just to sell books. I had already sold tens of thousands of copies of my previous four books, which were published before I ran for president.” He notes that Michele Bachmann also touted a book on the trail as part of her strategy, “so why was it a big deal I had a book out while running?”
No regrets: Cain does not regret giving money to Ginger White to help her with her bills, or making the payments without informing his wife about the transactions. “I’m a giving person,” he says. “She’s not the only person, or the only time I have given financial help to someone who was, quite frankly, destitute. The hurtful part was that I thought she was accepting the help as a friend, in the spirit that it was given. But she decided to go a different route.”
The media: When Cain launched his campaign, “I didn’t realize how vicious it was and I didn’t realize how one-sided it was,” he says. “For the people who say we could have handled it differently, send me the plan. . . . If I make a mistake, criticize me fairly. But if you’re going to take a tape that’s 40 minutes long and pull out 15 seconds and forget about the other 39 minutes and 45 seconds, that’s a disservice to the American people. It gives [journalism] a bad name.”
Advice given: “Anticipate everything,” Cain says, when asked what he would tell future conservative insurgents about presidential bids. “Early on, go to your supporters and tell them that if you begin to gain in the polls, the character assassinations will start. Alert them to that fact; tell them not to be surprised.” His campaign, he says, “didn’t sit around strategizing about what to do when that happened,” and ended up suffering the consequences. “We thought we’d get a fair shake by the media and in the court of public opinion. We were wrong,” he says.
Advice received: As the sexual-harassment controversy unfolded, Cain ran into former president George H. W. Bush at a football game in Houston. “I went by to say hello, to see him and Mrs. Bush. He said, ‘Can I give you some advice?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, please!’ He said, ‘Don’t let the bastards get you.’ I said, ‘Can I quote you?’ He said, ‘Yes, because I don’t care what they say.’” For Cain, that’s a treasured memory from the trail.
Veep picks: Cain urges the GOP nominee to tap Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice, or Mitch Daniels for the number-two slot. “I have a lot of respect for Paul Ryan,” he says. Rice, a foreign-policy heavyweight, “should also be considered. She has a great track record, great experience, and the only people that don’t like her are the Democrats.” Daniels, for his part, “may not have a lot of the sizzle that some people are looking for,” but the Indiana governor has sound “business principles.”
What he misses: “I miss the debates because I like to rumble,” he says. “I liked having to think on my feet quickly. But I don’t miss the flyspecking of some people in the media, be it a word, a pause, or a phrase. The American people didn’t care about that; only the media class did.”
What’s next: Cain will launch a new political-action committee in January, which will focus on promoting his “9-9-9” economic plan. He is also mulling a variety of television contracts. But he has not been offered a television show. “I’ve been offered to be a commentator; I’ve been offered to be a contributor. I’m going to do some of that. And I’ve been asked to get back into radio.” Eventually, he expects to host a radio program once or twice a week.
“TV, radio, the speaking circuit, I’ll be there,” Cain says. He’ll also hit the campaign trail once he decides whom to endorse. But for the moment, Cain is focused on one thing: vacation. He and Mrs. Cain soon will travel “someplace warm,” spending a few days at a resort around the holidays. It’s not Des Moines, but that’s alright, he says. “I’m looking forward to it, and eating in the dining room with everybody else.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.