Can Cain?

Photo: Illustration by Martin Ansin

Like Ali and Frazier, two brothers for the championship of the world.” This was how it would be if, by some crazy chance, Barack Obama and Herman Cain wound up going head-to-head in November 2012, said Tommy Red, who was in the midst of getting his biweekly haircut at Levels Barbershop on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. His comparison was apt, Red insisted, buzz-cutters on the back of his neck. Ali was the artiste, the thinker with the pedigreed jab, “a mystical” individual, almost godlike. Smokin’ Joe, on the other hand, he was Everyman, the down-to-earth “grits and potatoes” grinder who kept on coming.

If Obama were Ali, and Cain took the Frazier role, that’s what it would come down to, said Red, who looked to be in his middle forties and said he was a “barely” employed construction worker. “You want Ali to win, but maybe you got more in common with Frazier.” It was Red’s position that a hypothetical race between Obama and Cain—straight up, with only black people voting, party affiliations excluded—might be “closer than you think.”

Red’s position was rebutted by his fellow patrons. “Herman Cain is nothing but a buffoon and a shill,” said Billy C., a 28-year-old in the middle of receiving treatment for his distressed dreadlocks. Billy had his problems with Obama, whom he wished had a bit more Frazier-like grit in his Harvard Goody Two-Shoes heart and soul. Billy was, after all, like many in the barbershop, and millions across the country, unemployed. He was onboard with the standard hood analysis that the Bushes had picked the country clean and then let the brother take the inevitable fall for it all. Still, you couldn’t totally absolve Obama. To do so would be to make him one more black victim of the white system, a self-defeating characterization at best. Still, Herman Cain? Cain was a leftover from another time, “a damn fool pizza CEO signed up to do whatever people in power say as long as he keeps getting his.”

Many felt Cain was little more than this year’s Jimmy McMillan, the candidate’s endlessly parroted “9-9-9” tax refrain holding no more water than McMillan’s “rent is too damn high” clown act. Cain was one more court jester, the Putney Swope at the table, and he wasn’t even good at it. He kept blowing the timing on the repeating punch line. The dude had allowed himself to be chumped by Michele Bachmann, who somehow came up with the crack about turning the nines upside down so everyone could see the devil in Cain’s details. On Fulton Street, few were willing to entertain the possibility of voting for a guy Bachmann could get over on like that.

It is a well-worn trope in the black community that once you get rich, you’re free to become a Republican. Even Jackie Robinson supported Nelson Rockefeller. But the idea that Herman Cain was supposed to be in the lead for the Republican nomination inspired widespread incredulity because how—just how—could a black man be in the lead for the Republican nomination during tea-party times? With Romney ceiling-glued at roughly 25 percent, Cain’s rise in the polls was in inverse proportion to the decline of Bachmann and Rick Perry. The huddled masses of Confederate-flag-flying Bachmann and Perry voters turning their yearning, hungry eyes to Herman Cain? Oh, yeah, that made a lot of sense.

There were times when to be black in America meant you could never be too paranoid. The fix was in, many people uptown and in Bed-Stuy thought. But which fix? A phone call to the Reverend Al Sharpton turned up the following quote: “You put Cain against Obama, straight up in the black community? Obama’ll win by about 95 to 3, with the rest staying home for rain. Cain’s not even running for the black vote. He came to New York, who did he talk to? Donald Trump! He didn’t go to Harlem, Brooklyn, anywhere black people live. What does that tell you? If Cain reminds any black person of anyone, it isn’t themselves, it is their grandfather, that old southern guy. Things have changed since then, just the Republicans don’t know it.”

Sharpton is in line with people who feel Cain is the GOP’s latest ham-fisted Frankenstein obsession to invent the perfect black Republican. In this scenario, they’d build Cain up, float fake stories about how he’s “in the running” to be Romney’s vice-president, and, when that dries up, use the former Pillsbury exec as what one person called “the No. 1 Negro in charge of Obama-­bashing.” If Cain succeeded in slicing 5 or 10 percent off Obama’s black vote, the operation would be a success.

Fair or not to Cain (who is already complaining that “liberal, leftist folk” in the black community are “racist” in their assumption that minority politicians cannot be conservative), one indisputable fact will remain: It was possible, at least for this fleeting instant in time, to have a halfway serious conversation about two black men running against each other for president. It won’t last, but it’ll be weird while it does.

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Can Cain?