By Kathleen Parker
WASHINGTON – 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.
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 was 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.
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 they’re committed to the Constitution rather than Shariah 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.
What is also probably true is that on a deep-brain level, Cain, like many Americans, fundamentally distrusts Muslims. 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. 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.
A mathematician by training, a preacher by vocation and a successful businessman by occupation, Cain is at Ground Zero when it comes to media sophistication. But it’s a great big country, the president serves the many not the few, and Cain will become a smarter politician.
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.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker(at)washpost.com.