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.
“Don’t worry about the numbers that turn out,” he says. “It was a small, passionate group that fired King George.” For inspiration, he shares the thought that came to him when watching airplanes land at the nearby Reagan National Airport. “In order for us to win, we’ve got to be like an airplane with wings. If you’re going it alone, it’s like going down the runway with no wings. An airplane that does not have wings cannot fly. We must get past the differences we have and puts wings on this movement!”
The event breaks up after Cain sings a song about “believing in yourself, because God believes in you.” It picks up again Monday morning with another crowd of 120 to 150 people in a half-empty room. The accidental intimacy gives Tea Partiers close access to the Cain-approved conservative leaders. You can’t miss the focus on nonwhite outreach, the factor that Cain lovers worry that they lost when their candidate lost. A spokesman for America’s PAC talks about the ads they’ll run—“REAL hope and change!”—on “black and Spanish radio.” K. Carl Smith, the black founder of Frederick Douglass Republicans, talks about the “90 percent success rate” he has converting someone to the cause.
“This is a fantastic networking opportunity,” says Craig Bergman, the head of the Tea Party of America. (Its big moment came last year, when it drew Sarah Palin and her obsessive press detail to a rally in Indianaola, Iowa.) “You’ve got the leaders of all the second tier conservative groups in one place.”
This is a compliment. The second tier groups actually do things. Cain’s two-day rally is sponsored by Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition and a pack of local, mostly Southern groups—Gibson County Patriots (Tennessee), Georgia Young Republicans, Columbia Tea Party (South Carolina), Conservatives for Action East Tennessee. “Too many of the so-called Tea Party groups,” says Judd Saul of Iowa’s Cedar Falls Tea Party, “are jerking off Mitt Romney.”
Saul and Bergman are not entirely convinced that the Cain movement has its activism figured out. It’s just outside the GOP establishment, and outside the Romney campaign. That’s enough for now. They join the rest of the activists, jump on the bus, and head to Cain’s Capitol Hill rally. Chris Burgdon, Cain’s cowboy-hatted videographer, boards another one of the six chariots and tells its occupants to get revved up.
“Gimme a 9-9-9!”
“Now say, we’re not stupid!”
We’re not stupid!
The bus chugs along I-395 into Washington, past the museums on Constitution and Independence Avenues. There are three congressional candidates on my bus, two of them black Republicans. Corrogan Vaughn, who ran for Senate in Maryland, says that Cain’s organizations want him to run again next time.
“Compare him to this president, who says that Trayvon Martin looks like the son he never had,” says Vaughn. “He incites the black community in a way that makes this an issue of us against them. He’s a charlatan and a socialist. That’s the nicest thing I can say about him.”
Our badges display our names underneath a photo of Cain pointing at the Capitol and looking back at the camera, grinning broadly.
“Here’s what was accomplished,” says Cain, referring to the day’s rally. “This nucleus of people are gonna be part of the army we’re building to take the message back to their groups. A lot of them were leaders from various groups. What we accomplished was, we brought a lot of Tea Party citizen leaders together, even if their members weren’t here.”
When tallying up the size of the crowd, Cain tells me to be sure to “count everybody that was sitting in the shaded trees and everything.” Was he disappointed by all the people who didn’t turn up?
“No, I’m not disappointed. For one thing, they might be trying to finish their taxes.”