WASHINGTON—Herman Cain's craggy-faced Chief of Staff Mark Block took a drag off a cigarette, blew smoke at the camera and sent the political class into coughing fits.
Theories about what Block intended have run the gamut from James Carville's "He was drunk" to amateurish campaigning to post-modern genius. Me? I'm leaning toward accidental brilliance.
For those who missed it, and who therefore probably are not reading this, the ad is a 56-second clip of Block talking about his commitment to his candidate, not unusual in a chief of staff. He ends by taking the famous drag.
Did he just blow smoke in your face? Kind of, but he's not just blowing smoke. He's saying, "Don't like me smoking? Tough."
Odder than Block's Marlboro-mannish toke was a final frame showing a tight shot of Cain looking at the camera with a "Here's looking at you" expression that morphs into a beaming smile held somewhat longer than most people can manage without a twitch of self-consciousness. One nanosecond longer and you expect the smile to morph into something else. Hysterical laughter? Maniacal cackling?
The message in Cain's strangely funny and wildly successful, viral campaign ad may not have had a target in mind other than to steal the news cycle from Rick Perry's flat tax plan, which it did. But it hit a bull's-eye right in the heart of a large demographic—older, bluer-collared voters who happen to be smokers, many of whom also resent the nanny state. What's 50 million smokers times a $20 donation?
No one associated with the campaign is saying this, of course. In fact, Cain has denied any subliminal intent. "Mark happens to be a smoker. He knows it's a bad habit but he smokes," said Cain. And though Cain had nothing to do with making the ad, he says he supports the notion that Block should be Block, just as the candidate's supporters insist, "Let Herman be Herman."
No observer of political theater wants Herman to stop being Herman, but to claims of innocence one must protest: Nein, nein, nein. Not to give too much credit where none may be due, but Cain is now too deep in the dough to plead, "But I'm just a pizza man." The ad was sheer blinding brilliance, and denial will only serve to win him more fans.
The ad succeeded precisely because the sight of someone smoking in a political clip was so jolting. It was especially discombobulating to Americans under, say, 45. Except in movies, people smoking on camera is a relatively unfamiliar sight. No politician would dare smoke in public view. Older Americans, however, remember when cigarette commercials not only were commonplace on television, but TV personalities from Fred Flintstone to Johnny Carson smoked on air. To them, ol' Block doesn't look strange or ridiculous with that cigarette. He looks familiar. The nostalgia for a bygone America that Cain is tapping into includes an ashtray.
He's also mining the widespread resentment of big government that has hit smokers hardest, casting them as pariahs and banishing them to the sidewalks. In the nanniest state of all, smokers have been kicked out of Central Park. Yet despite the war on smoking, 50 million Americans choose to enjoy a legal product—"choice" being the operative word that both Cain and Block have used in explaining the ad.
One doesn't have to smoke (I don't) or sympathize with smokers to think the nation's regulatory bureaucracy has become a bit thick. What better way to make that statement than by blowing smoke in nanny's face? The devil may care what people think, but Herman Cain doesn't. He's not a slick politician, he likes to say. He's just a guy who knows how to run a company and let people be people.
The tape, indeed, was unpolished, but there was certainly nothing unsophisticated about the timing of its release. And there's nothing dumb about Cain playing rope-a-dope while Mitt Romney and Rick Perry duke it out.
Those who want to take this country back, as Block puts it in his smokin' flick, may well have found a kindred spirit in Cain, whose previously low-budget, skeletally staffed campaign suddenly seems like a gold mine of blind luck. He's blowing smoke rings around the competition in polling (24 percent to Romney's 21 percent), and the cash is flowing at a rate of $1 million per week. If you view political campaigns as entertainment—and you may as well—Cain's crazy ad was a lucky strike.
Kathleen Parker's email address is email@example.com. (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group