Shop Talk: Cain Ad To Fire Up Or Burn Out?

In this week's Barbershop, the guys talk about GOP presidential aspirant Herman Cain's campaign video, which features his top aide smoking a cigarette. Also up for discussion: the recent recommendation that adolescent boys and young men receive the HPV vaccine. Host Michel Martin checks in with author Jimi Izrael, columnist Mario Loyola, sports reporter Pablo Torre and political science professor Lester Spence.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barber Shop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.

Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are author Jimi Izrael, Johns Hopkins political science professor and author Lester Spence, Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, and from National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mario Loyola.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing today?

PABLO TORRE: Yo.

MARIO LOYOLA: We're chilling.

LESTER SPENCE: Cold, indeed.

IZRAEL: Right. You know what? Well, let's get things talking about - let's get things started off talking about Herman Cain's new video that was released this week. Now, I'm not sure if it's smoking hot or just kind of sending up some flares, but people are certainly talking about it. Michel, we got some clips, right?

MARTIN: Yes, we do. And I think you've alluded to what it is that's interesting about it. It's not just what the president's chief of staff does. It's - well, he's - you're going to hear his voice, but I'll have to explain, you know, what is going on. Here it is. This is Mark Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN VIDEO)

MARK BLOCK: We've run a campaign like nobody's ever seen, but then America's never seen a candidate like Herman Cain. We need you to get involved because together, we can do this. We can take this country back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

IZRAEL: Wow.

MARTIN: So then - okay. So that's Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block. But then after he's finished talking, the camera pushes in for a tight shot, and he's taking this long drag off of a cigarette, and then the video cuts to Herman Cain. He's got this kind of mischievous grin on his face. So...

IZRAEL: Wow. Yeah, yeah, Michel. Well, hold on. I want everybody - thanks for that, Michel.

MARTIN: Sure.

IZRAEL: I want everybody to kind of follow me on this right quick. You know, for me, I look at this ad as kind of like a gorilla - as kind of like a gorilla-Dadaist facade, you know. And follow me - hold on, hold on. It's kind of the anti-ad that succeeds by speaking to its constituency precisely because it's kind of flying in the face of comparable contemporary tropes. Now, it's kind of like low-fi, dog-whistle politics for dummies, in my opinion. You know, and I think it's an excellent political strategy. Doctor, what do you think?

SPENCE: You know what? Except for the for-dummies part, I would - I agree with you. You know, the first time - when I first saw the ad, the first character that came to mind was the cigarette man that was popularized in "The X-Files" more than 10 years ago. And it's this kind of - it was kind of an outsider who speaks truth to power.

IZRAEL: Right.

SPENCE: And if think about it, you're right. That ad isn't for all of us. That ad's speaking to a very specific demographic who's interested in speaking truth to power in a very certain way. So him blowing smoke into the camera is an equivalent of saying - well, I...

IZRAEL: Right, right.

SPENCE: You know, it's the equivalent of being - of making a really aggressive stance that speaks to, I think, white, working-class Southern voters really, really well.

IZRAEL: Well, it's definitely a hand well-played. Go ahead, Pablo.

TORRE: Yeah. I was going to say, I mean, you know, I respect those textural readings of it. To me, I just think Herman Cain is this viral marketing genius, you know. I mean, the video's been viewed a million times. It's talked up by everybody, not just us - cable news everywhere.

Mitt Romney is spending around seven figures on his digital advertising budget. Herman Cain gets his chief of staff to stand outside a Vegas casino and he gets a million views. And do I think that these ads are actually substantively helping him win, potentially, a general election? No. But I do think that Herman Cain is leading the polls - a lot of the polls for a reason. That's because he's one of those names that's becoming more and more legitimate by attrition. He's just around so much, and his name is being repeated and talked about in the popular culture.

And just by hearing it over and over again, people are realizing that this guy is this character that is becoming more and more familiar and legitimate, just because he's around so much. So I think he has a second career for himself.

Do I think he's going to be president? Not at all. But I do think that he has this whole other career for himself as this political figure, and it's due in part to these really weird videos and his weird marketing scheme.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Well, you know, you say tomato, I say Dada. Go ahead, Mario.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: Well, I was just going to say, there's another reason I think that he's becoming legitimate, which is this is - you know, I met him a couple of hours after I was with you guys in the studio a couple weeks ago, and this is really like an outsized personality. I mean, this guy is - you don't notice it at first, but he's really like - he's in a room, and he fills the room. I mean, it's a gigantic, American personality. And that's, I think, what's giving him some compelling force.

You know, the commercial is - the thing that I liked about this commercial is, you know, you guys - we conservatives admit that we have a deficit in the area of coolness. You know, and Michel knows that I...

IZRAEL: Really? No way. No way.

MARTIN: Michel knows that I work hard to do...

TORRE: That's an amazing quote.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: Yeah. You know, Michel knows that I work hard to do what I can to fix that, but I'm only one...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's true. You're only one man.

SPENCE: That's gangster stuff. That's gangster.

LOYOLA: I'm here in Austin, Texas. I'm all about local attractions.

IZRAEL: You down with GOP?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: But, but look, you know, I mean I saw this and what it reminded me of wasn't the smoking man, although now that I think about it, but what I saw was it reminded me of the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard's "A Bout de Souffle," which launched the French New Wave at the beginning '60s...

IZRAEL: Right. Right.

SPENCE: Oh wow.

LOYOLA: ...where the guy is smoking and he's about to steal a car, you know, and he's looking as cool as anybody in the history of film. And he's smoking a cigarette and he keeps taking a puff and then touching his thumb against his and lips and then taking a puff then touching his thumb against his lips. And if he had just touched his, you know, if the chief of staff had just touched his thumb against his lips once, I would have been like now that's cool. That really is really cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Can I just say this, you all are just so NPR, despite yourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You can't even help yourselves. It's like so NPR. Like...

TORRE: I feel ashamed.

MARTIN: I can't even help you. But you know what? You know what? I'm going to laugh so hard when the book is written because there's always a book. After the campaign there's always a book, sometimes not even before the campaign is over, and it's some intern that would say, hey Mark, want to check out my new video camera, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCE: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: And that's all that happened, you know...

SPENCE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The guy had some coffee and was goofing around and he put it on YouTube. I'm going to laugh so hard. But we'll see. We will see.

IZRAEL: Okay.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit to the Barbershop. And we are joined by author Jimi Izrael, political science professor and author Lester Spence, columnist Mario Loyola and Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. All right, well, we're going to move from one GOP candidate to another. Texas Governor Rick Perry received attention this week for his 20 percent flat tax plan. But his - it was his campaign manager's statement that Perry might skip some of the future debates, that's kind of raising some eyebrows now, Michel. And you know what I think? I think this is kind of a case where it's like you have a boxer and he's not doing so hot so you tell him to sit out a few fights and you season him a little bit. You know, I mean it's one of those things where you've got to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold em, Jack. Lester, you know, is he trying to avoid an arena where, you know, he hasn't done very well?

SPENCE: Yeah. The debate as a format just doesn't fit for him at all. And it's really clear that he's not - it's not just that the debate as a format that doesn't fit for him, it's that in some ways is kind of not really fit, he doesn't really quite understand the job he's, or the office he's running for, right? So it's not just that he comes up with a 20 percent flat tax plan, it's a tax plan he just came up with. And he doesn't even know all the details. Now granted, you could make that kind of critique against Cain's 9-9-9 program, but it's, I mean, the way he was caught kind of flat-footed it just signals that he really needs to take some time and reconsider, and that's what he's doing.

TORRE: And, you know, actually Jimi, your boxing analogy I think is actually kind of brilliant because in the world of boxing...

IZRAEL: Thank you. Thank you.

TORRE: ...what you do is you'd set him up, a recovering slider with some tomato cans, you know, some guys to beat up on. So maybe we schedule Rick Perry against some old-time local Texas politicians, guys he knows before, getting back into the swing of things...

IZRAEL: Right.

TORRE: ...and then he can come back to the big boys and actually debate presidential candidates, because at this point it's kind of embarrassing, right? I mean the fact that the guy had to admit that, you know, in a self-deprecating way that he actually isn't perfect in these debates, that's what he had said recently, you know, that's a big, I mean that's significant, right? I mean the fact that he has to joke about his own weaknesses, Rick Perry of all people, seems like a pretty big step. And the fact that he, you know, honestly, the fact that he can't hold his own in these debates, I don't think these debates are the greatest forum for democracy, by no means do I think that, but I do think the guy has to be at the stand and take questions because he wants to be president. I mean that's kind of one of the basic requirements.

MARTIN: Wait, can I just ask Mario...

IZRAEL: You know...

MARTIN: Let me just ask Mario this, though...

IZRAEL: Go ahead.

MARTIN: ...because you're in Texas. And Mario, I'll just mention that the organization, one of the organizations you work for, the Texas Public Policy – sorry, the Texas Policy Foundation, which is a conservative think tank, does receive proceeds from one of the governor's books. So I do know that, I want to be sure to mention that because I know you want us to mention that. But do you - is this a technique that he is employed in the past, like when something isn't working for him he'll just say I'm not doing it? And has that been - has that worked for him?

LOYOLA: He - the governor is somebody that a lot of people have counted out in previous elections and all of those people turned out to be wrong. So he has a...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: ...he has a, you know, I just a point that out. It's just - I'm just pointing out history. I mean this guy has never lost a campaign. And part of, I'll answer your question this way. One of the things, I rain against him. I was Senator Hutchinson's domestic policy adviser during the primary challenge to Governor Perry two years ago, and one thing that really impressed me about the governor's campaign is that he would rise seemingly without doing anything, you know. As we would be doing all kinds of things to try to get up in the polls and they would seem to be doing nothing and that like works. And they would just - their numbers would just get better and better. And so, he's got a very good sense of timing and the people around him are really, really smart strategists.

And so, you know, and there's, you know, the problem with the debate format for any leading candidate is that it flattens the fields. You know, you can have a couple of crackpots up there and some major heavyweights, you put them on the same stage long enough and they all start to look more or less the same size, you know what I mean?

MARTIN: Sure. Mm-hmm.

LOYOLA: So the debates, having too many debates when you are in a frontrunner position is or when you want to be in a frontrunner position is a tricky, a tricky...

MARTIN: You're right; it does tend to elevate the back of the field.

IZRAEL: You want to know what I think.

MARTIN: You know it really does tend to elevate the back of the field. So Jimi, let's - mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: I think Rick Perry is like the lost love child of Jane Stockdale and Cosmo Kramer, but that's just me, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, thank you. You've gone from Dada to (unintelligible). Okay, let's move on...

IZRAEL: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to another issue.

IZRAEL: Right. Right.

MARTIN: So this week...

IZRAEL: To more important matters. To more important matters.

MARTIN: That's right.

IZRAEL: Yeah. We...

MARTIN: This week this health advisory panel made this interesting recommendation. It said that the HPV vaccine, which is aimed at preventing diseases like well, the human papillomavirus vaccine, which causes cervical cancer, shouldn't just be given to girls but also to boys and young men. The advisory committee says the HPV vaccine can also protect against anal and throat cancers and both can be a result of sexual activities. I should've warned parents here that, you know, this is a - there's some adult conversation here going on, if that's not appropriate for everybody to listen to right now.

So Jimi, I don't know. What are your thoughts about this? You're a dad.

IZRAEL: Well, I am a dad and, you know, my wife and I feel differently about this so it's kind of an ongoing discussion. But me personally, I'm on team shot. I mean, you know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

SPENCE: Mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: It's not that I want my son to be setting it out all like that, because I don't, but better safe than sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: I mean Lester; I mean come on, man. You're with me, right? You're with me, Lester. Ride with me.

SPENCE: You know what?

TORRE: Team shot.

SPENCE: This is what, so what's going on here is they want to give everybody the shot because there are certain populations that will be kind of scared to take the shot because they'll be stigmatized. That's right.

IZRAEL: Right.

SPENCE: So you give it to everybody and you will hit that target population. Like, but...

MARTIN: But it's expensive, isn't it?

SPENCE: But, this is the thing, it's a very - it's a $300 shot, right, and they're only talking about 5,000 cases a year, I believe. So if they're talking about giving everybody $300 shot to save 5,000 - to deal with 5,000 cases, I'm not sure those numbers work. I have to think about that.

LOYOLA: Yeah, I think that's - you put your finger on it right there, man. I think one of the biggest questions we're facing this in all kinds of different areas: environmental protection, CDC. You know, we like to trust that these people that are in charge know what they're doing when they're making recommendations like this. But American, the civilization - American society has gone way off the deep end of precautionary principle, which we're imposing huge costs left and right on the society as a whole to eliminate really marginal risk of loss to, you know, some small population of people. And we're doing that all across the board, and it's really expensive and it's not good and it's something we should think about more carefully. So, that's why a decision like this, a recommendation like this, needs to be looked at carefully to make sure that they've actually done some kind of rational cost-benefit analysis and aren't, you know, imposing widespread costs on everybody just to avoid the stigmatization that somebody might associate with something. I mean that's what worries me.

TORRE: Well, just real quick.

MARTIN: Okay.

TORRE: To me I don't - I mean if the practicality of it is, you know, the cost benefit and all that is certainly a valid point. I mean just for me the incentives for why people might be uncomfortable with this, you know, as long as it's done, I mean as long as it's not because, you know, obviously there's a correlation between homosexuals getting what we're talking about, the condition and disease we're talking about, as long as that's not the stigmatization, this mental stigmatization which really has no root in science at all...

MARTIN: Okay.

TORRE: As long as that's not the motive then, you know, I'm on board with that.

MARTIN: Well, there's also, there's also the whole question of insurance and whether these recommendations drive the insurance market, you know, or not.

TORRE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: That is obviously an issue. But before we go, got to ask you about T.O., Terrell Owens. He had an open workout this...

IZRAEL: Terrell.

MARTIN: Terrell Owens. I always get that wrong. That's why I a go with T.O, Jimi.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He had an open workout this week. He wanted to impress people, secure an NFL contract. Not one team showed up.

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Pablo, what's up with that?

TORRE: No. No.

MARTIN: What's up with that?

TORRE: He needs to take a page from the Rick Perry playbook and just sit the next couple of workouts out I think. I mean look, listen, Michel, we talk about Brett Favre forever on the show. If Bret Favre can play at age 40, then Terrell Owens can play, Terrell Owens can play at age 39. And the guy, you know, he's one of these controversial figures. The NFL is built on characters, right? I mean at some point there are so many bad teams out there who are struggling that you get T.O. and you get tickets. I mean it's going to happen at some point. It's only a matter of time. Every NFL - no NFL team is above signing a character for Q rating and we'll see it again this year.

MARTIN: Why do you think that nobody was there? Why didn't anybody?

TORRE: You know, I spoke to...

SPENCE: Can't they see the video feed?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOYOLA: They're just following the Twitter feeds and they're getting it on Ustream about that (unintelligible).

TORRE: No, I mean T.O. is, he's a controversial character. He's not likable. He's not liked by a lot of people. He's burnt plenty of bridges but that has by no means stopped anybody in the past. Brett Favre again being exhibit A in that regard.

LOYOLA: You know, it's funny you mentioned Brett because I'll never forget we were - I think it was about 10 years ago that there was a playoff game between San Francisco and the Packers and we were about to win, we were headed straight to the NFC Championship and Terrell Owens caught - they were losing by four points...

TORRE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

LOYOLA: ...and Terrell Owens catches a 35-yard pass from Steve Young with six seconds left that sent me into like therapy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TORRE: Well, I mean and that's what's sad is that they say like every athlete dies twice. You know, you die when you actually die and you die when you retire, and T.O., like Brett Favre does not want to meet his maker at that second regard just yet.

MARTIN: I love me some me. That's my favorite.

TORRE: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I love me some me. I should get buttons made up for all of you that say I love me some me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SPENCE: I'd rock that.

MARTIN: You'd rock that?

SPENCE: I'd rock that.

MARTIN: Jimi, I did not hear from Jimi on that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Well, yeah, I mean I guess I'd rock it.

MARTIN: Jimi, do you love you some you?

IZRAEL: Yeah, I'd rock it. No problem.

MARTIN: Do you wonder - where should he go?

TORRE: Do you want the Browns to take T.O., Jimi?

IZRAEL: You know, I don't - you know what? This is in the case of his skill at all. I think, you know, he just doesn't know how to make friends, get along with people. I think maybe he should buy donuts. He needs to buy donuts more for the staff then...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: You know, because I mean he kind of, I mean he's really alienated so many people. I mean and, you know, you don't go to work to make friends but you don't go to work to make enemies either. So I mean I think that's where T.O. is standing right about now and it's hitting him in the pockets.

MARTIN: So spoken like the sage of Cleveland. Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist...

IZRAEL: That's (unintelligible).

MARTIN: ...author of the book "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He was with us from our NPR studios in New York. Lester Spence is a political science professor at John Hopkins University and author of "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Rap, Hip-hop, and Black Politics." He was with us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor. And Mario Loyola is director of the Center for 10th Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a conservative think tank and he was with us from member station KUT in Austin. Thank you all so much.

TORRE: Thank you.

LOYOLA: See you guys.

SPENCE: Peace.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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