Stephen Colbert, Herman Cain turn spotlight on super PACs in South Carolina

Not everyone hooting Herman Cain at the Stephen Colbert rally here Friday was laughing with him. But he didn’t mind being the butt of jokes, he said, if only Americans could learn how to take one. His message? “As I said in one of the debates, America needs to lighten up.”

Colbert’s message, on the other hand, was as serious as its delivery was lighthearted. Politicians in both parties promise to bring Americans together, but Colbert actually does, through comedy. And this rally on the campus of the College of Charleston, the day before the state’s presidential primary, was an extended riff on the serious subject of money in politics.

With Spanish moss framing the backdrop of a campus that not only looks like an Old South movie set but has served as one many times, the Comedy Central host bounded onstage, sang “This Little Light of Mine,” with a gospel choir as backup, then gave a history lesson.

Calling himself the “Martin Luther King of corporation civil rights,” Colbert said that in a time maybe not everyone in the audience could remember — two years ago — corporations were sadly limited in the amount of money they could pour into political campaigns.

But that changed, he said, when “five courageous justices” on the Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United decision that “corporations are people,” that people are entitled to free speech, that free speech equals money and that corporations should thus be entitled to dump as much money as they like into the political water table, provided they don’t coordinate with the campaigns they’re funding.

It’s the super PACs that are funding the flood of negative ads that the candidates all say they hate, even though the Citizens United decision was widely praised by Republicans.

Then Colbert asked the crowd, which included people of all ages and political persuasions, to send a message about super PACs by voting for Cain, who is still on the ballot here, though he suspended his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. And, somehow, both Republicans and Democrats were charmed.

Joe Wright, a college sophomore and a Republican who said he was torn over whether to support Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, said that while super PACs “are not a good thing,” the main point of the rally, for him, was that “Colbert makes the campaign a little lighter” and less nasty.

“I love that he’s making such a mockery of Republican politics and the super PACs,” said Cookie Washington, a Democrat who grew up in the District but has lived here for 25 years. “But this is South Carolina, so I’m not 100 percent sure people know it’s satire.”

Eleven-year-old Avi Goldschmidt, whose mother had driven him here from their home in Myrtle Beach, was not in that camp: “I like the way he’s pretending to be a Republican and is really a Democrat,” he said. (“He’s in the gifted and talented” program at school, said his mother, Natasha, who said she saw his day off from class as a “social studies field trip.”)

The event — dubbed the “Rock Me Like a Herman Cain South Cain-olina Primary” — began with a gospel rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” with Colbert harmonizing, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and the crowd shouting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

“It’s good to be home,” yelled Colbert, who grew up in South Carolina. “Whoever said you can’t go home again didn’t have a friend with a private jet. . . . And I don’t need to pander to the most beautiful people in the world!”

Among those he thanked, as he mocked one after another of the conventions of politicians, were the media — “You gotta thank the bloggers just for coming outside!” — and the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, who wasn’t there. “Thank you for cheering” for her, he said enthusiastically in answer to booing.

To those who had skipped school to be there — he was talking to you, Avi — he offered to write a doctor’s excuse, as he has an honorary doctorate in fine arts. “And most of all,” he said, poking fun at the self-admiration of candidates, “I want to thank Stephen Colbert.”

He promised not to make nasty remarks about any of Cain’s former rivals for the GOP presidential nomination — for example, that “the only difference between Mitt Romney and a statue of Mitt Romney is the statue never changes its position.” Nor would he dream, he said, of suggesting that “Ron Paul’s real name” is the same as that of the guy who “turns straw into gold.” Under no circumstance would he respond to a “gotcha question, like am I interested in open marriage, though I am flattered Newt Gingrich asked me.”

Then “the Her-man with a plan, the Mad Max of the flat tax, my brother from another mother, Herman Cain” appeared in his signature black hat. Not to let Colbert outdo him, Cain said, he sang a tune from “The Wiz,” revealed that the first of his four grandchildren had been born in the year “1-9-9-9” — yes, just like his famous 9-9-9 tax plan! — and once again, as he had during his speech when withdrawing from the campaign, he quoted from the Pokemon movie.

“Mr. Colbert cannot get on the ballot, and I can’t get off of it,” joked the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive who withdrew from the primary race after facing a series of allegations about sexual harassment and infidelity and making foreign policy gaffes that included not seeming to know what actions President Obama had taken on the Libyan uprising.

One thing Cain has that Colbert doesn’t, according to Cain, is “complexion perfection.” When even a crowd primed to laugh had no reaction, he added, “That was a joke, y’all.”

Throughout Cain’s remarks, protesters from the Occupy movement interrupted with shouts of “Occupy!” and “We are the 99 percent!” On Friday, the movement’s participants were occupying courthouses across the country to mark Saturday’s second anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that made super PACs possible.

In Cain’s telling, it was his challenge to the status quo that caused the media to run him out of the race: “Someone called me David going up against Goliath, and that’s what happened.”

Though Colbert had asked the crowd to vote for Cain, Cain asked them not to follow Colbert’s advice: “I’m going to ask you not to vote for Herman Cain,” said Cain, fond as ever of referring to himself in the third person. “Because every vote counts.”

Near the end of the event, Colbert said that “pundits keep asking me if this is a joke,” but if that’s the case, of course, “then they are saying our entire campaign finance system is a joke!” (Nah, couldn’t be.) As Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, Colbert added, “Give me some money!”

We must stand for corporations, he said, mock solemnly, “because they have no legs.”

In his final message to the crowd, Colbert urged those attending to fulfill their civic duty. Whether they voted for Cain, as Colbert had asked them to do, or not for Cain, as Cain had asked, the most important thing was that they vote.

Afterward, Amanda Brueser, a Republican and a freshman at the college who grew up here, said she might end up voting for Cain if she can’t decide among the candidates.

“When he broke it down, it made more sense,” she said of Colbert’s pitch against super PACs. “And, of course, it was just funny.”

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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