Michael Tomasky: Perry Racism Flap's Real Loser Is Herman Cain

You might think Perry would take a hit over his hunting club’s racist name. But Michael Tomasky says the candidate who will suffer most is Herman Cain, the only black man running. Plus, Wayne Barrett on Perry's rabbi.

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So the Rick Perry hunting ground story has been absorbed, and we’re now onto day two, when we start assessing more clearly how it’s playing. And the way things seem to be shaking out, the big loser from the revelation that the property bore the name “Ni**erhead” is ... not Rick Perry. It’s the black guy.

That would be Herman Cain, of course, the only African-American candidate among the GOP contenders, lately feeling cheery about himself because he won that meaningless Florida straw poll. Cain was the first—and as of Sunday night the only—Perry opponent to pounce on The Washington Post’s revelations published Sunday morning. “My reaction is, that’s just very insensitive,” Cain told Fox. “[There] isn’t a more vile, negative word than the N-word, and for him to leave it there as long as he did, before I hear that they finally painted over it, is just plain insensitive to a lot of black people in this country.”

You maybe wouldn’t think that white people would take issue with a black guy taking issue with a name like the one painted on that rock. Whether it was painted over fairly quickly or less so, it was there, for a while anyway, and some people who went hunting with the Perrys remember it. An African-American man thinking that’s insensitive would strike me as being within the realm of the reasonable.

But then, I’m not a commenter on the redstate.com blog. If you go read what they have to say, you'll find they’re a lot angrier at Cain than at Perry. Because first of all, you see, “ni**erhead” is just a word, a legitimate and perfectly respectable word. It’s an old British term for a black iron post used for mooring ships. It’s an antiquated term used by loggers to describe a large rock jutting out of a road. It’s a winch or a capstan. A boiler head on a steam locomotive. See? All completely innocent! And they’re mad at or at least disappointed in Cain for giving oxygen to the scurrilous accusation that Perry may be (in that horrifying, politically correct cliché) “racially insensitive.”

And it is instructive, is it not, that no other candidate jumped on this revelation? Think about the conversations that must have gone on in Mitt Romney’s camp, or in Rick Santorum’s. I bet they weren’t even very long conversations. It’s a charge that emanates from the liberal media, and the last thing in the world, and I mean the very last thing, a candidate chasing Republican primary votes wants to do is sound like that. It’s a dead certainty that we won’t hear another peep about this story from them.

As for Cain, one wonders what synapse snapped into action there. He has been reliably on message on such matters, saying things like (as he said even yesterday) two thirds of black Americans are victims of “brainwashing” against conservatism. I guess he just doesn’t know his steam-locomotive history. But he said what he said, and now he’s going to have to prove to these people, just as he was gaining a little momentum, that he isn’t morphing into Al Sharpton.

As for Perry himself, he seems unlikely to be hurt very much. One supposes it is possible that some group of GOP panjandrums will send up a smoke signal, gather in lower Manhattan, and decide that this is another sign that Perry isn’t the man to put forward next November. If he’d been coming off three dominant debate performances and was still running away with it, he could wrap himself in the highest possible dudgeon and try to chop the Post to pieces for the amusement of a salivating base constituency. But since he’s on the downswing for now, he needs to play defense, which is what his camp did yesterday. This charge may make some conservatives feel that Perry is a tad embarrassing. But how many will it personally offend? Let’s face it, based on the evidence of the last debate, the GOP base thinks Perry isn’t racially insensitive enough, giving $100,000 college-education discounts to all those illegal brown children.

Meanwhile, in the real world: If Perry’s people are really telling the truth, that he saw the word on the rock and immediately expressed his discomfort to his father, then good for him. But if, as the testimony of a few people the Post interviewed suggests, that isn’t exactly the whole truth—one ranch worker thinks he saw it as recently as 2008—then we obviously have to wonder what sort of man we’d be considering for the presidency. If the story is true in its worst light, it maybe doesn’t make him a racist. It does make him a person who doesn’t care what people who aren’t just like him think—and who doesn’t even bother to be friends with anyone who cares. I have a word for that: Texashead. But it’s OK. That used to be a kind of railroad spike.