Michael Tomasky: How Herman Cain’s Vanity Sank His Campaign

People assume Cain’s campaign has been derailed by ineptitude. But the real culprit is the candidate’s boundless narcissism, says Michael Tomasky.

It now seems difficult to believe that Herman Cain, who once wrote a motivational book called CEO of Self: You’re in Charge, once ran a profitable pizza parlor, let alone a chain with hundreds of outlets. Cain’s campaign has been incompetent, all right. But that hasn’t been his core problem. That has been his vanity, which is of Brobdingnagian proportions, and his downfall serves conservatives right, because the only reason they embraced this buffoonish peacock in the first place was his race.

There have been two standard lines on Cain among the smart set. The first was that he wasn’t really running for president—he was running to increase sales of This Is Herman Cain!, his new book, and to jack up future speaking fees. The second has been the incompetence meme, a case made at length by Politico on Monday. The first assessment is plainly untrue, and the second is true but secondary.

Go read This Is Herman Cain!, as I did. Or better yet for both of us, go read my review of it in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, where we got it published just in the nick of time before the sausage grinder swallows him up for good. That book, it’s clear from page one, is not the product of a man who wasn’t serious about his candidacy. He thought that the presidency was his destiny. Actually, I wouldn’t be shocked if he still thinks it. I know—this makes no sense. But trust me. He believes he was called.

The incompetence charge is real, and it’s tempting to think that it was ineptitude, or maybe stupidity or naiveté about the political process, that enabled him to announce a presidential candidacy thinking that the Ginger White story and all these other allegations would not come out. But it was none of those things. It was his astonishing narcissism. Let’s quickly allow for the fact that maybe Cain is telling the truth, and that he called and texted White’s cellphone 61 times in four months because he was “trying to help her financially.” OK; allowed. But now let’s contemplate what is probably the case, that White is telling the truth. If she is, then Cain cut off the affair just eight months ago, right before he began running. That’s not ineptitude. That’s just chutzpah.

It’s the chutzpah of a man who thinks, as all these Tea Party people seem to think, that he did everything himself in life. Cain was born and raised in Atlanta and was a teenager during the early 1960s, when historic and dramatic civil-rights events roiled that city. You’d think he’d be aware that those events had some impact on his life. But if he thinks that, he sure doesn’t say so in his book. He was “too young to participate” in the Freedom Rides and didn’t go downtown to any sit-ins. So therefore, if he didn’t have any direct involvement, he writes that it basically had nothing to do with him. Obviously, that movement gave him opportunities he never would have had otherwise. The historical ignorance is jaw-dropping, and it’s exactly the kind of ignorance that leads to arrogance, a feeling that he can do no wrong.

It would have served conservatives right to be stuck with this haughty horse’s ass as their nominee just to score a racial point against Obama and his white liberal supporters.

Cain is too self-absorbed to see that he made it as far as he did only because he is black. Conservatives and Tea Partiers are desperate to prove they’re not racists. A white man with Herman Cain’s exact experience and résumé would have been respected by conservative voters but probably would never have cracked 12 percent or so. But a black man! And one who denounced Harry Belafonte and Cornel West to boot! Cain was never more than an instrument of right-wing self-satisfaction and a useful idiot for the Koch brothers, who took a shine to his candidacy and helped promote it by sometimes paying him for speaking gigs around the country through the Americans for Prosperity organization. But Cain never bothered to learn much about policy and government. This usually isn’t a liability on the right, but his Libya meltdown was too much even for conservatives.

I only wish he could have held on longer. Contemporary conservatism is so fundamentally about rage against liberal society that GOP voters might well have nominated this man (remember, before these allegations struck, he was soaring). Cain could have been the nominee, and then been hit with the sex stories, and then said something on videotape to indicate that he hadn’t the foggiest idea where Libya was or what had just happened there. That really would have served conservatives right, to have been stuck with this haughty horse’s ass as their nominee just to score a point against Barack Obama and the white liberals who backed him. But even with Cain gone, I happily invite conservatives to continue to see the upcoming election as a revenge fantasy, which will only ensure that they won’t have the satisfaction of fulfilling it.