William Temple put on the classic militia outfit, grabbed the Gadsden flag, and headed to Herman Cain’s Sunday night reception. He has 12 different get-ups to re-enact different military eras, but this one—tan sailcloth, black leather gaiters, tricorner hat—goes over the best at Tea Party events.
Reporters love this. Temple is probably the most-photographed soldier of the Tea Party movement. Alas, it’s Sunday night at a hotel in a particularly anonymous quadrant of the Washington, D.C. suburbs. Barely 150 people have shown up. So Temple grabs appetizers. There are four nearby tables piled high with grape leaves, various cheeses, pita bread tips, and charcuteries.
“I’m here to support Mr. Cain in whatever he does,” says Temple. “What the media did to force him out of the race—that was one of the worst things ever done in this country. I emailed [Fox News reporter] Carl Cameron on it, and said it was a high-tech lynching. He emailed back, and said ‘I’m not an investigative reporter.’ This was Fox News! Fox News carried this story with no proof.”
A waiter walks by, cradling a tray of crabcakes, each approximately the size of a gummy eraser.
“Ah, yes!” says Temple, affecting his revolutionary-era accent. (Think of an extra from the John Adams mini-series.) “I’ll have a full regiment.”
The waiter moves over to Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation and mastermind of the February 2010 National Tea Party Convention. That event cost up to $549 per ticket. This event is free. Phillips passes on the crab cake anyway, as he scans the crowd for networking opportunities. Look, there are leaders from Tea Party Patriots! Over there—that’s the editor of Tea Party Review magazine!
“Herman Cain is becoming the man of the moment, as far as the Tea Party’s concerned,” says Phillips. “What’s his role in the movement now? I’d call him a strategic planner without a portfolio.”
You can chortle at the empty chairs and uneaten catering at the Renaissance Hotel, but put it in perspective: The inspiration is a guy who dropped out of the presidential race before any of the primaries. He had to drop out because middle-aged women kept materializing in TV studios and describing grabby encounters with the former National Restaurant Association boss. As he was quitting, he spent more than $300,000 on legal bills.
And yet here he is, still beloved by the movement that briefly made him a legit threat to Mitt Romney. Here’s Mark Block, Cain’s chief of staff, still Internet-famous for the campaign video that featured him free-associating about Cain’s “campaign like no other” and smoking a cigarette in front of a brick wall.
“How many candidates dropped out of the race?” he asks, rhetorically. “Herman didn’t go away. Here’s a joke among staff that we love. He took ‘three days of vacation’ after the announcement, okay? Two and a half days of that, he was working, setting up Cain Solutions.”
Quitting the presidential race worked out brilliantly for Cain. Contrast his life with that of Newt Gingrich, still technically running for president. Cain now heads three organizations, with loosely defined goals—Cain Connections, Cain Solutions, and the Herman Cain Foundation. At this reception, he will announce a video channel called CTV. Its flagship show, confusingly enough will be called Cain TV. A short preview shows the host, a beefy joke writer named Rodney Lee Conover, mocking the life and loves of Sandra Fluke as a cartoon of the birth-control advocate sprawls lazily and lustily on a dorm room bed.
It compares awfully well to the no-end-in-sight tragedy that is Newt 2012. When he left Congress, Gingrich started founding think tanks and holding conferences that people actually showed up to—the strategy that Cain is Xeroxing. Those think tanks, now Newt-less, are shutting down. Running for president doesn’t give Gingrich space in the media to share his grand ideas. It gets him headlines about being bit by penguins. The life of the professional has-been is sweeter than the life of the has-been candidate.
On Sunday, Cain and his flock finish the appetizers and move into a conference room decked with American flags. The theme is a tribute to Andrew Breitbart, and the conservative media pioneer’s successors are ready with a tribute video and speeches to the “fallen soldier.” (That’s Cain’s phrase.) The ex-candidate keeps referring to “300 people” in the room, even though half that many are actually occupying chairs.