Craig Gilbert, Washington bureau chief for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, witnessed firsthand Herman Cain's fitful mental search for an answer, any answer, to a routine question about Libya.
Gilbert spoke Tuesday with All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block about the episode, which has become the viral video of the week, and what happened later on Cain's campaign bus when it became clear that Cain's bumbling response was becoming a major story.
GILBERT: "It was weird and it was painful. I think you knew immediately that this was a bad moment that was being captured on videotape. In the back of your mind you thought about the Perry moment recently when he froze up on an answer to a debate question. And this was like that. It was strange, it was bizarre. We all know he's had trouble answering questions about foreign policy but Libya's a subject that's come up again and again and come up in debates. And he was just at a loss..."
At some point after Cain left the Journal Sentinel's offices and returned to his campaign bus (Gilbert joined Cain on the vehicle, too) it became clear that Cain's mental lapse was drawing plenty of attention
"... Well, when I talked about it on his campaign bus, he kind of gave me a look like 'This is the craziest thing in the world.' He uses the word 'flyspecking' to describe this sort of media obsession over gaffes and 'got you' moments. And he says 'Thery're not only flyspecking my words but they're flyspecking my pauses.' "
Being on the bus, Gilbert also got to watch Cain's spokesman, J.D. Gordon, try to manage the fallout:
"The campaign went through a flury of spin about this. I could hear his spokesman field phone calls when this thing went viral on the bus. And one of them was (he only got) four hours of sleep. He's getting questions from A to Z, from upteen different reporters on umpteen different issues. It was taken out of context. At one point, he suggested that the video had been edited, which it hadn't. So you know that's par for the course, I guess. But in this case, we know the power of video and this was pretty straightforward. I mean, he got a pretty simple question and we could see the answer."
Melissa asked Gilbert if he thought that the Journal-Sentinel debacle would come to be seen as the beginning of the end of Cain's presidential campaign.
"I think it's pretty hard to say any one moment is the tipping point for Herman Cain's campaign because it's a different kind of campaign that's already absorbed some blows. And it's trying to operate on its own rules. And some of the Herman Cain followers are people who aren't going to hold this against him. I think he's been slowly dropping as a truly viable nominee but I think he's going to be with us for a while.
Gilbert also told Melissa that as a veteran political reporter, he had never seen a presidential candidate seize up like Cain while discussing a policy matter:
I've been there when there've been awkward moments before candidates have been put on the spot and gotten tough questions on uncomfortable subjects. But I've never seen a candidate just lock up and freeze over a simple public policy question. And it was really not like any experience I've had up close with a candidate before.