Herman Cain, who has been under intense pressure for the past week to explain 12-year-old charges of sexual harassment, lost his cool with reporters Saturday night after a tamped-down policy discussion with Newt Gingrich.
Following an entirely civilized, 90-minute discourse on entitlement reform before a big crowd of tea party supporters in a large hotel ballroom, Cain met calmly with reporters upstairs for about 10 minutes before the encounter devolved into a standoff.
Members of the media had been warned ahead of time not to ask Cain about the sex harassment story, which had dominated the week’s political news. A sheet of instructions had requested them to “focus and report on reality, not gossip.”
Reporters, however, are not known for taking orders from campaigns trying to avoid unpleasant topics. Still, it took almost six minutes for a scribe to lob an unwelcome question at Cain.
“Mr. Cain, the attorney for one of the women who filed a sexual harassment complaint …”
He didn’t even get the full question out before Cain snapped: “Don’t even go there!”
“No gossip!” interjected Gena Cook of the Texas Patriots PAC, the event’s organizer.
As the reporter persisted, Cain ordered his chief of staff, Mark Block, to send the him a copy of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. “Seek truth and report it,” is the code’s first tenet.
(Just after the debate, prior to Cain’s presser, Block forwarded the code to The Times. Block has asked his staff to forward the code to any journalists they come in contact with. As he hit the send button, Block said: “We’re not playing by your rules anymore.”)
Upstairs at the presser, Cain turned to another reporter: “You want to ask a good question?”
“May I ask a good question?” said a reporter, whose affiliation was unclear. “If you found as president that Congress was not going to follow your lead, would you go and try to legislate from the Oval Office like Mr. Obama indicates he is going to try to do? I think that’s a good question.”
After answering (“No, I do not believe in abusing the office of president”), Cain began to leave the room.
Reporters called after him:
“Are you not going to answer a question about this ever again, Mr. Cain?”
“Why are you not answering questions?”
“How can you run a presidential campaign if you won’t answer questions about this?”
Cain wheeled around. “OK, if you all listen, if you all just listen for 30 seconds,” he said, “I will explain this one time.”
He walked back into the room, but refused to sit, as he had done earlier.
“I was going to do something that my staff told me not to do and try to respond, OK? What I am saying is we are getting back on message. End of story! Back on message!” he said angrily. “Read all the other accounts, where everything has been answered. … We are getting back on message, OK?”
Well, not exactly.
TV producers around the land rejoiced at the minor outburst, as Cain gave them their defining Sunday morning moment.