Watching the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's video of Herman Cain's excruciating floundering on a simple question about Libya, I noticed that one of the questioners was Craig Gilbert, the newspaper's highly regarded, longtime Washington correspondent. I know Craig, so I called him up today to find out what it was like to have a Monday morning editorial board chat far from Iowa, New Hampshire or the Beltway blow up into a major campaign development. It turns out he had more of a close-up view of Herman Cain's bad day than I'd even guessed.
The first thing I wondered was why Cain was even in Wisconsin, which is not holding its primary until April. But Cain is not making his schedule based on old-hat notions like primary election order—he was in Wisconsin because, well, his campaign's got personal ties to Wisconsin. Most notably, his campaign manager, the cigarette-dragging Mark Block, hails from Wisconsin, where he led the state chapter of the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. And there was a big Monday Night Football game against the Vikings in Green Bay. So the Cain crew came to the state for some fundraising and a photo-op at the Green Bay tailgate, and at the last minute offered to swing by the Journal-Sentinel. This might seem suprising given that the paper was the one that recently raised serious questions about the financing of Cain's campaign, but Block's on good terms with Gilbert and apparently figured it was worth paying a visit.
As it happens, it was Gilbert who started off the dread line of foreign policy questioning with a broad query about how Cain viewed George W. Bush's approach to foreign policy, the tensions betwen realism and idealism, etc. (Funny, remember how the question about the "Bush doctrine" caused troubles for another Republican aspirant to the White House?) Gilbert's colleague Dan Bice, who led the investigation into Cain's campaign finance issues, followed up by narrowing the question to Libya. Thus began Cain's five-minute ramble. Gilbert told me he realized right away that news was being made, especially given that the interview was being video-taped, a practice the paper began in recent years. "It was so jarring," he said. "Having the recent example of the Rick Perry moment in the debate, you kind of knew it was trouble."
But it didn't become news right away, because the paper didn't post the clip until about 2 p.m. Central time, more than two hours later. Instead, Gilbert embarked on a bus trip with Cain, a few staffers and a few Wisconsin supporters, northward-bound toward Green Bay. Here and there they would pull over to shoot video of Cain with local supporters. On the bus, Cain was just holding forth with Gilbert and the others, while Fox News played in the background clips from the interview with Cain's wife defending her husband against sexual harrassment allegations. "It was pretty surreal because the first few hours of the bus ride it was almost like this thing hadn’t happened—there was no real pushback from them," Gilbert said. Cain was "relaxed and jovial," talking about the fact that "just because he's running for president he shouldn't have to be fluent on the finer points of foreign policy....It was just kind of a relaxed, loose conversation amid all this craziness."
Then, all of a sudden, Cain aide J.D. Gordon's* phone started ringing off the hook, and Gilbert could overhear him trying to "knock down" questions about the Libya answer. "At a certain point I asked Cain what he thought about the reaction to his comments, and not in a testy way, he said, 'this crazy system, the crazy media,' and then in a tone of amusement he talked about the absurdity of people 'making a big deal not just of my phrases but also of my pauses,' and a suggestion with a smile that maybe he should be flattered by that, that even his pauses were worth dissecting."
By the time the bus arrived in Green Bay for the tailgate party, there was a big media scrum waiting for the bus. Cain waded into it, barraged by questions. He went off to tailgate under the tent for a bit. But then Gilbert watched as Cain wandered out around the parking lot for quite a while, where, Gilbert said, the candidate "encountered a lot of people dressed in Viking and Packers clothes who were really into Herman Cain."
*UPDATE: I accidentally referred to Cain's spokesman as J.D. Hayworth, when in fact his name is J.D. Gordon.