Cain Gets Tough Treatment for Video’s Cigarette Scene

John Boehner

WASHINGTON – Had Herman Cain known he would be running into a human buzzsaw named Bob Schieffer on Sunday, he might have had second thoughts about including a now infamous scene at the end of his new campaign video that shows his chief of staff, Mark Block, coolly smoking a cigarette.

Or so it seemed on CBS’s “Face the Nation” when Mr. Cain, the former pizza company executive known for his perpetually cheerful disposition, found himself being sternly dressed down by Mr. Schieffer almost like a misbehaving schoolboy – not the treatment presidential candidates normally expect from a Sunday television interviewer.

The Internet video, posted last week, has a quirky ending – the scene of Mr. Block blowing smoke is followed by one of Mr. Cain breaking into a slow grin — and it has already been viewed by close to 1 million people. But Mr. Schieffer failed to see the humor in it.

“Was it meant to be funny?” he asked bluntly. “It’s not funny to me – I am a cancer survivor, like you. I had cancer that’s smoking-related. I don’t think it serves the country well – this is an editorial opinion – to be showing someone smoking a cigarette, and you’re the front-runner now and it seems to me that as front-runner you would have a responsibility not to take that kind of a tone.”

Mr. Cain at first tried to explain. A central theme of the campaign, he said, was to “let Herman be Herman” or, more broadly, “let people be people” – so that if Mr. Block’s choice was to smoke, then so be it. “This wasn’t intended to send any subliminal signals whatsoever,” Mr. Cain said.

“But it does,” replied Mr. Schieffer. “It sends a signal that it’s cool to smoke.”

Mr. Schieffer, who is 74, blames his own bout with bladder cancer on years of smoking, plus a tobacco-chewing habit that began when he was a 16-year-old ballplayer and rodeo buff. When he suggested that Mr. Cain might want to pull the video, the candidate explained that it was impossible to do so with a viral video.

Well, then, Mr. Schieffer continued, why not just tell young people they should not smoke? Replied Mr. Cain, “I would have no problem saying that.” Mr. Schieffer pushed on: “Well, say it right now.”

Mr. Cain, retaining his cool, turned to the camera and complied: “Young people of America — all people — do not smoke. It is hazardous and it’s dangerous to your health. Do not smoke.”

But Mr. Schieffer wanted more, and prompted the candidate: “…and it’s not a cool thing to do.”

“It is not a cool thing to do.”

In all, Mr. Schieffer devoted nearly 4 minutes of his precious air time to the smoking issue – while also grilling Mr. Cain on his seeming shifts in position on issues including abortion and illegal immigration.

Had Mr. Cain done his homework, he might have been better prepared for the smoking lecture. It turns out that when Representative John A. Boehner, speaker of the House and a long-time smoker, appeared last fall on the same program, he got similarly direct treatment.

Mr. Boehner tried to argue that “the American people ought to have the right to make those decisions on their own,” but Mr. Schieffer again got the last word.

“They have a right to shoot themselves if they choose to,” he said. “But I mean, shouldn’t we do something to try to encourage them not to?”

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