The Godfather's Pizza in Federal Way is in a stand-alone building in the parking lot of a strip mall. Walking in, you're immediately struck by a horrible musty stench (possibly emanating from the browning ceiling tiles in the corner by the bathroom) and the sense that the place hasn't been renovated since the 1980s. There are outdated video games along the far wall of the restaurant, and everything is done up in some putrid shade of brown. Even the Godfather's Pizza website copy feels like it was written in a time before the discovery of nutrition: "Suddenly, salads don't seem so bad," they say, adding that their pizzas are "just like mom used to make, only much, much bigger!"
A friend and I arrive half an hour into the all-you-can-eat pizza dinner buffet. The restaurant is empty. The teenage girl takes our $6.99 apiece—refillable drinks are extra—and shows us to four pizzas shimmering under bright yellow heat lamps. If you prefer your food to be cheap and in huge quantities, if health and flavor simply don't matter to you, this is your Shangri-la, a bottomless fountain of fat and carbohydrates, kept slightly above room temperature for six solid hours—from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. every day. Iceberg lettuce beckons from the salad bar, along with quivering bowls of creamy slop. Every flat surface in the place is sticky.
Herman Cain, the CEO of Godfather's Pizza in the late 1980s and early '90s, made his name by turning failed fast-food franchises around into profitability. And now he's running for president. In current presidential politics, the platform barely matters; a campaign lives or dies based on the candidate's story. In a May Gallup poll, Cain ranked higher than any other Republican presidential candidate in terms of "positive intensity," a term identifying how strongly supporters stand behind a candidate (Mitt Romney came in second to last, just a hair in front of poor, doomed Newt Gingrich). And last weekend, in the first credible poll of the 2012 primary season, the Des Moines Sunday Register placed Cain in a very strong third place, behind a neck-and-neck Romney and Michele Bachmann, but way in front of Gingrich, Ron Paul, and supposedly more respectable candidates like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman.
What is it about Cain's biography that makes him so compelling to Republicans? As a Pillsbury vice president, he made a group of 400 Burger Kings in the Philadelphia area profitable, and then got put in charge of Godfather's Pizza and made that profitable, and then bought Godfather's Pizza from Pillsbury with some other investors in 1988 and ran it until 1996, when he decided to get into politics. His one senatorial campaign ended after being drubbed at the primary level, though he has had more luck as a behind-the-scenes figure; in its September 19, 1994, issue, Newsweek credited him with a large role in the derailment of Hillary Clinton's universal health care plan. And for several years, Cain hosted a popular right-wing talk radio show in the Atlanta metro region, which accounts for his tendency toward blowsy, insubstantial thinking; he's got the undisciplined opinions of a man who's accustomed to filling two solid hours a day with hot air.
Which is to say that every time he opens his mouth, something stupid falls out. He said he believes that Barack Obama was raised in Kenya. He proudly declared that he will refuse to sign any bill longer than three pages. In a Fox News Sunday interview with Chris Wallace, he was blindsided by a simple question about what right of return means for the Palestinian people. When Sean Hannity later asked about this stumble, Cain said he didn't anticipate the question. He then tried to turn his lack of understanding into a strength by talking about himself in the third person: "The thing that you're gonna learn about Herman Cain: If he doesn't know something, he's not going to try and fake it or give an answer he doesn't know what he's talking about." (Of course, Cain did try to fake it when Wallace asked the question, and his bumbling quickly erased any doubt—even among the friendliest Fox News viewers—that he had no idea what he was talking about.)
He has proudly announced that no Muslims will be allowed to work in a Cain administration. Let's set aside the illegality of that for a minute and admire the shit that Cain backed into when asked about his no-Muslim policy at the second Republican presidential debate:
First, the statement was "Would I be comfortable with a Muslim in my administration?" not that I wouldn't appoint one. That's the exact transcript. And I would not be comfortable because you have peaceful Muslims and then you have militant Muslims, those that are trying to kill us. And so when I said I wouldn't be comfortable, I was thinking about the ones that were trying to kill us.
Translated: He can't tell the difference between someone who wants to kill everyone in America and a normal human being. Replace the word "Muslims" with "African Americans" or "Asians" or, hell, "Scientologists," and you have a media hurricane of career-ending proportions. But because Cain attacked the bogeyman of the moment, every presidential candidate on that stage, with the exception of Romney (who issued self-interested boilerplate about religious freedom), let his statement stand unchallenged.
Cain also admitted in an interview with John J. Miller for conservative newsmagazine National Review that he doesn't know anything about the wars in Libya and Afghanistan; our free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea; or what George W. Bush's immigration policies were. That last hole in Cain's knowledge is especially problematic because he has praised Bush's administration as practically flawless—when pressed to name a single mistake George W. Bush made, Cain said that Bush should have moved forward on his stated desire to privatize Social Security. (Obviously, if our Social Security accounts were tied up in stocks during the economic collapse of 2008, old people would have been diving headfirst into traffic.)
Even the policies that Cain touts on his website are stupid: He is in favor of reducing regulations and corporate taxes across the board, eliminating the income tax, and instituting a 23 percent sales tax. In debates, he sounds like an isolationist—again, not a very consistent position for a man who thinks 2000–2008 was the golden age of American political history. If there were still teabaggers—a few deluded morons still cling to the "movement," even though the Tea Party dissolved the minute Republicans stopped needing it as a rebranding tool, in November of 2010—this would be their platform; it's contradictory, delusional, and built upon a foundation of fear.
Though Pillsbury doesn't own Godfather's Pizza anymore, it's still written into the DNA of the chain: Specifically, the crust of all the pizza could have been rolled out of a Pillsbury tube. It's flabby and pale and tastes like a few drops of artificial baked-bread flavoring were added to fifty thousand gallons of the stuff, long ago in a factory far away. Ketchup would make a better tomato sauce. The cheese is kind of cheese-colored and covered over in a greasy blanket of beef pellets, "sausage" crumbles, and off-tasting bacon. I can get only a few bites down before my gag reflex kicks in. The breadsticks, served with cold trays of "tomato" "sauce," are edible.
More trays of pizza are pushed out under the lamps.
Because I'm here for journalistic purposes, I feel we must sample as wide a variety of the product as we can. We hide the remains of the first round under napkins and go sample the new flavors. (When we return, the napkins will be a translucent, radioactive orange.) Somehow, the taco pizza is the best of the lot; at least the "taco sauce" tastes like something, though the towel-like dough soaks it up before I can get more than a few bites in. Worst of all is the chicken pizza with "white sauce," which my friend says tastes "like garlic took a shit." The dessert pizza-sticks (which online reviews rave about as the single best part of the Godfather's Pizza experience) are just repurposed Pillsbury cinnamon rolls without the cinnamon, basted in a chunky, lardy sugar sauce.
In order to salvage something from the experience, we decide to play a few video games, but there's no fun to be had there. All the buttons and joysticks are gummy with years' worth of children's mucus, machines eat quarters indiscriminately, and we discover after feeding quarters into the air hockey table that somebody stole the puck. We leave as a large Hispanic family settles in for their meal; they're the only other people who've walked into this Godfather's in an hour.
The Pizza Man's pizza is inedible, unless you are an idiot or desperately poor. While it's true that Herman Cain made the company financially stable and independent, he clearly didn't provide any sort of plan for a thriving future for the organization; there's a whiff of death around Godfather's Pizza. (The whiff is quite literal in Federal Way.)
What can Cain fans possibly expect their man to do to the American economy? Will he cut costs again and again, until we're left with whatever is the national equivalent of that meal that I tried to choke down? If Cain is proud of his connection with the pizza chain, he clearly doesn't care about the lack of quality attached to his name; he's just concerned with the spreadsheets, the bottom line. Do Cain fans really want someone who would treat the economy like some sort of a video game—who'll keep working the numbers until unemployment gets as close to zero as possible, with no concern for the quality of the jobs that Americans are forced to get, or until the economy booms to never-before-seen levels of prosperity, even if the quality of life for 95 percent of the population plummets?
If that's what they want, he's their guy.
But I don't think that's why Republicans are excited about Herman Cain.
There's something much more insidious than that about the Cain candidacy, and it's such a delicate subject that most members of the media are too polite (or frightened) to mention it. To untangle the secret of Cain's success, we first have to start with teabagger House freshman Joe Walsh, a Republican from Illinois, and his comments to Salon about Barack Obama late last month:
Why was he elected? Again, it comes back to who he was. He was black, he was historic. And there's nothing racist about this. It is what it is. If he had been a dynamic, white state senator elected to Congress, he wouldn't have gotten in the game this fast. This is what made him different... [The media] was in love with him because they thought he was a good liberal guy and they were in love with him because he pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt, all of that.
Nobody is really color-blind; it would be idiotic to suggest that race had nothing to do with the man who Barack Obama has become. But some right-wing radicals really do believe that Obama became president based solely on his blackness. Consider all the right-wing jokes about President Obama's reliance on teleprompters, even though every modern president has used teleprompters when giving prepared speeches, and even though Obama has proven time and again—particularly on January 29, 2010, when he nimbly debated congressional Republicans about health care and the economy with no teleprompter in sight—to be a gifted extemporaneous speaker. Consider the conservative pundits—including best-selling right-wing mudslinger Jerome Corsi—who believe that Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, was ghostwritten by white academic (and 1960s revolutionary) Bill Ayers. Consider the insane, and thankfully discredited, crusade to prove that the president of the United States wasn't even an American. Republicans refuse to give Obama any credit as his own man; they believe he coasted to the presidency because of the color of his skin.
That's why Republicans keep pushing men like Michael Steele and Herman Cain for prominent positions. They believe that voters—especially black voters—will get confused if they're faced with more than one black guy on a ballot. (A similar line of thinking led to the fiery ascendance of Sarah Palin: McCain staffers believed that putting a woman on the ballot could confuse female voters upset over the failure of Hillary Clinton's campaign.) And not only is Cain a black guy, but he's a black guy who came out of virtually nowhere to run an outsider's campaign, couched in the language of Martin Luther King Jr. and propelled by a media praising him for the high quality of his public speaking. (The 1994 Newsweek article that credited Cain with a role in torpedoing Hillary Clinton's universal health care plan also unfortunately referred to Cain as "articulate.") Sound familiar? He's a twisted mirror image of Obama riding high on the cresting wave of a bunch of white folks who can't manage to believe they lost the election in 2008 to a black man. Cain's candidacy is ultimately powered by nothing more than ignorance and hate.
Looking on the bright side, Cain's explosive popularity is good news for Democrats. Considering the volatile economy, Republicans would probably be able to take Obama on if they were willing to recognize his formidable talent, but institutional racism could conceivably prevent them from making that realization. If the party can't refute the stupid things Cain says, they will have proven that they can't get past this issue. If they can't turn their backs on a candidate as laughably bad as Herman Cain, the 2012 elections will be all about race. And when the Republican Party leads a conversation on race, the Republican Party always loses.