Never Look Back: Herman Cain and Il Duce

We’re living through an interesting juncture in history. On one hand, there’s the amazing bottom-up Occupy Movement, and no one knows quite where and how far it will go. Then, there’s the field of Republican neo-Know-Nothing, nativist candidates with each one tripping over the other to be more divorced from facts, history and reality. The strutting, cock-of-the-walk Herman Cain is currently the most interesting of this pack.

For a week now, Cain has been denying the obvious, that as leader of the National Restaurant Association he “sexually harassed” — ie, hit on — three women who worked under him who were offended by the attention and wanted nothing to do with him. Now, a fourth woman has gone public with a story of Cain’s intimate groping in a car. Despite all his vague and contradictory dismissals, his prurient assertiveness was persistent and obnoxious enough that the Restaurant Association felt it had to pay a total of $80,000 to two women — who are now legally silenced from telling their side of the story.

Herman Cain never looking back and dealing with the futureHerman Cain never looking back and dealing with the future

Instead of adhering to what seems his usual instinct of waving off questions as politically-correct, liberal nonsense, in this case Cain has followed the more traditional route of denial and cover-up, which as we’ve all learned only makes the press hungrier.

At this point, Cain and his Campaign Manager Mark Block — he of the bizarre You Tube smoke-break commercial — have decided to drop the cover-up and, instead, have declared it’s time to move on “to the real issues impacting this country.” That is, issues like Cain’s famous “9-9-9 plan,” which has been shown to be corporate-friendly and to increase taxes for the poor, and his lethally-electrified fence along the Mexican border, a program that was serious, then a joke, then serious again.

As far as any pain and suffering he may have caused his three silenced women accusers, at least one of whom is married, his new tack is: Never look back. The past is what it is, and it’s more important for the nation that he look to the future.

Cain knows the polls suggest his right-wing, Tea-Party base doesn’t give a damn about sexual harassment charges, or at least they don’t give the charges much credence and see them as a liberal conspiracy to smear the man — a “high tech lynching,” to slip Clarence Thomas’ famous race card from the bottom of the deck.

The more interesting reason for his never-look-back approach is the character quality he exhibits that makes the tactic workable, and that is the very palpable and insouciant sense of imperiousness he exhibits. He’s a guy used to giving orders, very unlike President Obama, who may be smart as a whip and a good speech-maker, but who is personally short in radiating an aura of dictatorial power. With Cain, you feel he’d be quite comfortable giving a strong-man speech from an ornate palace balcony – a speech absent of any truth or facts, but heavy on what the great leader has decided for his people.

This aloof, imperious quality in Cain made me recall an analogous incident in the life of one of history’s most beloved imperious politicians, Benito Mussolini, who also took a “Never look back” approach to his past actions and their consequences. In Mussolini’s case, he meant “Never look back” both figuratively and literally.

So pardon a little side trip into history. It’s hopefully an instructive encounter between an amazing and under-appreciated American hero and a notoriously imperious personality.

Historical Interlude: Smedley Butler and Benito Mussolini

Smedley Butler was raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania, as a Quaker. His father was a US congressman there who helped his 16-year-old son Smedley join the US Marines. As a very green second lieutenant, young Smedley served at the end of the initial phase of the Spanish American War in the hills around Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Butler went on to the Philippines, where he had a Filipino carve a large Marine globe, anchor and eagle emblem into his skinny chest. He went on to serve in China, Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti and Europe in WWI. Over his 33-year career, he earned two Congressional Medals of Honor and reached the top rank in the Marine Corp of two-star, Major General. He was a classic soldier’s soldier.

His Quaker upbringing may explain the amazing loyalty he was shown throughout his career from men in the enlisted ranks and for his ability to use wit, non-violence and arbitration to accomplish his missions. It also explains why he ran afoul of stuffed-shirt political types and at the end of his career wrote a pamphlet called “War Is a Racket” about how in Central America he had been “a gangster for the Brown Brothers Bank.” He wrote: “I could have taught Al Capone a thing or two.” The pamphlet ends with: “To Hell with War!”

Smedley Butler, Benito Mussolini and Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.Smedley Butler, Benito Mussolini and Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.

Butler was a very colorful and entertaining public speaker who used obscenities and didn’t mince words; if he felt someone needed to be raked over the coals, he was unafraid to do it. When he was the commander at Quantico Marine base, he introduced Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams, a man he did not like, to some of his officers by saying, “Gentlemen, I want you to meet the Secretary of the goddamn Navy.”

It was in such a frame of mind that Butler took on Benito Mussolini. It was 1931, and Butler was giving a breakfast speech on “how to prevent war” to a gathering at the Philadelphia Contemporary Club. In the speech, he told about an unnamed journalist who had interviewed Mussolini while riding with him in a speeding Fiat touring car. When a peasant child dashed into the street, the car plowed right over him.

“My friend screamed,” Butler told his audience. “Mussolini put a hand on my friend’s knee. ‘It was only one life,’ he told my friend. ‘What is one life in the affairs of a State?’”

Smelling gossipy blood, the US press ran the story heavily, and Il Duce was furious; he denied the story categorically. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry Stimson sympathized with Mussolini and defended him. General Butler was ordered to publicly apologize to Mussolini. When he refused, he was court-martialed. In the end, the raw and eloquent Butler went public and won the day, humiliating Stimson and Hoover and keeping his rank and position in the Marine Corps. [See Maverick Marine: General Smedley Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History by Hans Schmidt for a wonderful account of Butler’s life.]

The anonymous journalist Butler cited riding with Mussolini turned out to be Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., the magnate’s son who traveled the world as a journalist during a time when the US business class was keen on people like Mussolini.

The New York Times and Time magazine both supported Mussolini’s side of the story and editorialized that Butler and the US government owed him an apology. The New York Tribune wrote this: “The Fascisti movement is – in essentials – a reaction against degeneration through Socialistic internationalism. It is rough in its methods, but the aims which it professes are tonic.”

Colliers magazine published stories that emphasized the post-WWI chaos in Italy and Il Duce’s strong-man charms that “represented the triumph of law and order over anarchy and radicalism. …‘Normalcy’ was the catchword of the times, for Italy as well as for America.” [John Higgins, Mussolini and Fascism: The View From America.]

Vanderbilt insisted on remaining anonymous during the Butler episode in 1931, but in a 1943 book – after Mussolini became an official “bad guy” in the US capitalist pantheon – Vanderbilt ‘fessed-up and recounted the tale, supporting Butler’s story. What Mussolini actually said was apparently a bit different from the words Butler had put in his mouth. Here’s Vanderbilt’s version:

I heard a shriek and saw a group of children waving flags. I turned my head quickly. There was a shapeless little form lying in the road back of us.

“Look, Your Excellency,” I shouted.

“Never look back, my friend. Always forward,” he answered without turning his head, and we roared on into the night.

Herman Cain and the Imperious Personality

Herman Cain is no Benito Mussolini, and he didn’t run over anybody with a car; all he did was try a little imperious power seduction, which of course has been the right of imperious personalities since the days of Caligula. So what does all this have to do with Herman Cain?

If you’re of the school that history and facts don’t matter – then, of course, it means nothing, and I’m just a cheap-shot liberal using a tired fascist analogy to attack a great man seeking to save his nation from a terrible fate. But if you think that how a person treats others, especially those who work under him, is important — especially for someone with the audacity to want to be President Of the United States — then such a historical analogy becomes, at least, interesting.

The way Butler and his revelations about Mussolini’s behavior were treated is certainly analogous to how attorney and press reports of Herman Cain’s behavior have been treated. In 1931, in some circles in the US, Mussolini was quite popular and many refused to believe Butler’s tale, or they saw it as trumped up and unfair. Cain and his allies are now assuming a similar posture of “Never look back … Always forward.” Plus, it’s important to realize the early fascists in Europe were seen by many Americans as admired politicians who fit right in with right-wing, nativist thinking here.

Cain’s denials and cover-ups show a man who feels it’s a waste of his time to concern himself with the consequences of his actions. His behavior may have really messed up somebody else’s life, but he’s too important to slow down to see what he’s done. He’s a self-made businessman, and the rules of profit and loss explain his motivations; things like facts, fairness and the legal rights of others — as long as they don’t hinder the bottom line – mean little or nothing.

To paraphrase the great Fannie Lou Hamer, Americans should be sick and tired of bein’ sick and tired of imperious men like Herman Cain sitting in the White House. Think of all the grave national screw-ups we’ve had to live with. Start with the Vietnam War, then ponder the Iraq War and the roots of the on-going economic debacle. The list of imperious crimes is long.

As for race, the fact Cain is an African America is a convenient and profitable distraction that somehow camouflages the imperious character question. While his ancestors may have been slaves, once the race cards are shuffled, it’s not hard to conceive of a man like Herman Cain running a modern economic plantation.

Cain has been dubbed the “anti-Obama,” the most pure Tea Party candidate in the Republican race. His relationship with Charles and David Koch, the oil billionaire brothers famous for funding the Tea Party “insurgency,” seems much more intimate than the other GOP candidates. Champions of top-down leadership in the guise of a bottom-up movement, the Koch Brothers must revel in this African American’s pro-capital imperiousness.

In a show of fealty to money that any “normal” candidate would feel was embarrassing, at a Koch-Brother’s-funded Americans For Prosperity dinner recently, an in-your-face Cain enthusiastically declared, “I am the Koch Brothers’ brother from another mother … and proud of it!” At this point, David Koch stood up and pumped his fists in a gesture reminiscent of those Black Power athletes back in the Mexico City Olympics.

We are living in very strange times. Fortunately, the sun and moon will probably have to alter their orbits before Herman Cain is ever elected President. So we probably won’t find out if Mr. Cain would make his staff — and the rest of America, for that matter — refer to him as Your Excellency.

In the meantime, let’s hope the women Mr. Cain sexually harassed do what they have to do to protect their privacy — while they follow the lead of Smedley Butler and reveal the dirty details about his imperious behavior.