Kathleen Parker
Opinion writer July 22, 2011

Politics Rule No. 1: Never say what you really think, especially before you think.

GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain learned this lesson hard and fast when he asserted recently that communities have a right to thwart construction of mosques in their neighborhoods. Cain, who hails from Atlanta and is best known as the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, made those comments during a visit to Murfreesboro, Tenn., where residents have been trying to block a mosque for the past couple of years.

Kathleen Parker writes a twice-weekly column on politics and culture. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary In 2010. View Archive

A few months earlier, a reporter asked Cain whether he’d be comfortable with a Muslim in his Cabinet, and Cain said, well, no, not really. He elaborated, but too late. The bell had gonged, the die was cast and the meme had become truth.

If anti-Muslim rhetoric is tonic to the far right, it is gold to those on the left looking for a nugget to chew on. Cain had stepped in it, and every effort to extricate himself has made things worse. As dozens have noted, Cain’s anti-mosque position doesn’t jibe with the U.S. Constitution he aims to defend.

I sat down with Cain recently and offered him an opportunity to clarify his position. After half an hour or so of discussion, he eventually acknowledged the error of his comments while offering the usual litany of explanations. Microphones in face, questions lobbed like grenades, words taken out of context.

He also correctly recognized that no matter what he says, those who want to demagogue this issue will continue, and the evidence bears him out. The original question, he says, was would he feel comfortable? And the immediate, reflexive, impolitic answer was that he wouldn’t . . . unless the Muslim Cabinet member is committed to the Constitution rather than sharia law.

What followed dot-dot-dot got lost in the ethers, but never mind. When you run for president, you run with the big dogs.

The surpassing truth, of course, is that Cain was just plain wrong. The law of the land prevails every time, and Muslims, like everyone one else, either play by the rules or they don’t play. The reason things keep getting worse for Cain is because when he tries to explain, he’s really trying to justify — and you can’t justify “wrong.”

What is also probably true is that on a deep-brain level, Cain, like many Americans, fundamentally distrusts Muslims for all the reasons we know. But, as Cain conceded, fear of Muslims and the Muslim-thrashing that certain politicians have engaged in is an exercise in stereotyping that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other case. (Well, except for white males, but that’s another book.)

Cain’s own trashing from critics is, as we say, a teachable moment, and fairness requires that we treat it as such. Politics Amendment No. 1: Everybody gets to say one stupid thing and stay in the race. Cain isn’t a bigot or a hater, but he was uninformed and reacted as the relatively inexperienced politician that he is. He has thought better of it, as people are allowed to do, and his final statement is that all Americans acting within the law may practice their faith as they please. There now, that wasn’t so hard.

A mathematician by training, a preacher by vocation and a successful businessman by occupation, Cain is at square one when it comes to media sophistication. One may reasonably argue that anyone running for president should know better, but those whose votes Cain is courting don’t care about this type of sophistication. In fact, the more the lamestream media come after him, the more they like him. See Sarah Palin.

But it’s a great big country, the president serves the many, not the few, and Cain will become a smarter politician. Meanwhile, his strength as a candidate is in his considerable business acumen. How he would lead as president is evident in his campaign structure. He’s the CEO, naturally, and his top aides are vice presidents. He’s developing a board of advisers (economy, agriculture, foreign policy, health care, etc.), and the chairperson of each advisory group will become his board of directors.

Cain’s criticisms of President Obama largely focus on a management style that leads to lethargic decision-making (the Afghanistan surge, the BP oil spill). Whether Cain will get to test his own management style will depend foremost on whether he masters his tongue. In the meantime, he has some interesting ideas that are more compelling and urgent than whether Murfreesboro gets a mosque. He deserves a second hearing.

kathleenparker@washpost.com