Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank
Opinion Writer

The Herman Cain crack-up

Video: Trying to stay on message at an event Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain got testy with reporters asking him about sexual harassment charges against him during his tenure at the National Restaurant Association.

The Hermanator is now the hunted.

Herman Cain, the long-shot Republican presidential candidate turned frontrunner, has done just about everything wrong since news broke Sunday night that his former employer had paid two women to settle sexual harassment complaints against him.

Dana Milbank

Dana Milbank writes a regular column on politics.

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Cain denied it. He said the women didn’t understand his humor. He said his accusers fabricated the charges. He said he couldn’t remember the details, then suddenly he could. He said he had no knowledge of the settlement, then suddenly recalled some details, which turned out to be vastly understated. He publicly predicted more allegations would surface. He blamed his opponents, he howled about racism, and he accused the media and the entire city of Washington of trying to do him in.

On Wednesday morning, he raised the paranoia dial another notch. “There are factions trying to destroy me personally, and this campaign,” he announced, revealing this conspiracy to a group of technology executives at the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner.

At his next stop, a Hilton hotel in Alexandria, the amiable candidate finally blew his stack – and the scene quickly escalated into violence. It began when a reporter asked Cain if he would release his accusers from their confidentiality agreements.

““Don’t even bother asking me all of these other questions that y’all are curious about,” Cain snapped. “Okay? Don’t even bother.”

“It’s a good question,” the reporter pointed out. “Are you concerned?” asked another.

Evidently, Cain was. “What did I say?” he hissed at the reporters, then attempted to break through the pack, shouting: “Excuse me. Excuse me! EXCUSE ME!” At that, his bodyguards began throwing elbows and shoving the reporters and photographers. “Stand back! . . . Do not push me! . . . Pushing is against the law! . . . Watch out! ... Get a grip on yourself!” In the melee, a young boy and his father were shoved up against a wall. “What part of ‘no’ don't some people understand?” Cain grumbled.

His campaign’s fisticuffs with Washington journalists probably won’t do Cain any harm among his supporters in Iowa; in fact, it will probably help. But Cain’s loss of control is a reminder of why he’s never going to be president, no matter how high he rises in GOP primary polls.

His presidential bid was meant to be a lark, likely a gambit to increase speaking fees and book sales, perhaps to gain him a gig on cable news. At first, he was in on the joke, gaming the primary process and making up policies as he went along. He drank alcohol during public appearances, even in the morning. He allowed the release of a bizarre ad showing his chief of staff blowing smoke. He greeted female interviewers as “sweetheart” and occasionally gave them hugs. His staff celebrated his quirks in a don’t-feed-the-animals memo to those aides traveling in a car with the candidate: “Do not speak to him unless you are spoken to.”

It was, at its very core, a preposterous premise: That a man who, as the former head of a big Washington trade group, was at the very heart of this town’s lobbying culture, would run a campaign as the ultimate political outsider. He would claim that running for president “didn’t start as a consideration until after President Obama took office” – even though Cain ran for president once before, in 2000.

But like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in the Peter Sellers film “The Mouse that Roared,” Cain found himself triumphant against all odds. “We are surprised we’re doing so well so fast,” he acknowledged to the business leaders in Tyson’s Corner.

But now, under the scrutiny that comes with being a top-tier candidate, Cain’s lark has become hard labor. The sunny candidate is now snarling and shouting, and obviously not enjoying himself in the least.

He arrived about 45 minutes after he was expected for his breakfast speech at the Ritz, and aides made sure to clear the hallway so that reporters couldn’t get within 30 yards of him. He wasted little time getting to his persecution complaints. “There is a force at work here that is much greater than those who would try to destroy me,” he said, “and that force is called the voice of the people. That’s why we’re doing as well as we are in the campaign thus far.”

There was silence in the room. “Y’all were supposed to applaud,” the candidate said.

At the Hilton, his campaign called off the “news conference” it had scheduled with reporters. Instead, Cain gave a few perfunctory words about health care while surrounded by people in white coats; they said they were doctors opposed to Obamacare, but there was no need to wear their white coats to the Hilton ballroom unless they were concerned about coffee spills.

To give the reporters the slip, Cain left the room through a service door, then used a service elevator to escape from the hotel. His chief of staff, the cigarette aficionado, was chased by reporters until he slammed the door of his chauffeur-driven Cadillac, which peeled out.

Next stop: a meeting to discuss health care with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where a media mob of more than 50 was waiting for him.

“Can you tell us why you lost your temper this morning?” Fox News’s Chad Pergram asked, as Cain and his entourage walked through the hall.

“Should a man whose company paid $35,000 for a woman to keep quiet be president?” asked NBC’s Luke Russert.

This time, Cain ignored them. As the party got to the meeting room, his bodyguard resumed his shoving and elbowing, blocking congressional staff and reporters from getting into the meeting. When challenged, the bodyguard explained himself: “I make the rules.”

Not anymore.

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