American politics either peaked or hit a nadir on Friday afternoon, depending on one's perspective.
A mock presidential rally held by a comedian, Stephen Colbert, and an ex-candidate accused of serial sexual harassment, Herman Cain, drew far more attendees than any actual presidential event in this election cycle's South Carolina primary. But for the first time this election, someone theoretically running for president engaged in sustained discussion on the rising influence of money in politics.
"If corporations are people ... I'm proud to say I'm a people person," Colbert declared, before an audience estimated to be around 3,300. He went on to call himself "The Lockheed Martin Luther Burger King" of the corporations-are-people civil rights movement. He thanked the Supreme Court for taking a stand in favor of corporations "while technically still sitting" in the damaging Citizens United case, and waxed gleefully about the whole state of modern campaigns.
"As Lincoln said at Gettysburg: 'give me some money,'" Colbert said. "They don't teach that at school anymore. They've replaced that with gay Mexican history month."
For the past week Colbert has been spearheading a satirical presidential bid in which he's assumed Cain's candidacy without Cain actually still running. The super PAC he launched was, for legal purposes, handed over to his boss Jon Stewart. The PAC then aired ads accusing Mitt Romney of being a serial killer before ultimately turning on its creator and questioning why the T was silent in Colbert.
But if all the satire was meant to educate, it seemed a bit lost on Cain, who gave a speech that, at some points, symbolized the type of campaign vapidity that was being subtly skewered. A day after he had "unconventionally" endorsed "the people" during a speech in South Carolina, the former Godfather's CEO was keeping to the platitudes.
"Sign up to be a member of this army of Davids," he declared, as he urged people to visit his cainconnections.com website.
It was as if Cain didn't realize the whole thing was a show until, finally, he ended it with a Pokemon quote ("Oh, I know me some Pokémon words," he said) and a rendition of "Believe in Yourself" from The Wiz Cast.
"We're having some fun. It's as simple as that," Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block, told The Huffington Post's Jon Ward before the event. "America, lighten up."
It wasn't all comedy for comedy's sake, however. Cain, the one-time Republican frontrunner, may now be Colbert's sardonic sidekick, but he's a willing one at least. Even before taking the stage, Cain offered a straightforward validation for what Colbert has been arguing through satire.
"I happen to believe that the campaign finance laws are flawed and they need to be changed," Cain said on MSNBC. "One of the flaws is the ability for super PACs to have the kind of impact that they've had. We saw the impact in Iowa. We saw the impact all over. So [Colbert's] right that they are flawed but we need to overhaul the entire campaign finance law in order to make it much more equitable such that big money does not determine who actually gets the nomination."
Cable news ignored the Colbert-Cain event in real time. But the celebrity and stage craft did make it far more entertaining than anything happening with actual candidates, who drew half-filled rooms and skipped campaign events throughout the day. The duo of Colbert and Cain entered Friday's event to screaming throngs as the Coastal Carolina University Marching Band played LMFAO. On stage, a gospel choir sang "This Little Light of Mine," before Colbert joined them for a deeply off key national anthem. After thanking Gov. Nikki Haley and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) for not coming ("He must still be looking for parking," Colbert cracked), Colbert listed all the attacks he would not make.
"I'm not going to answer the gotchya question: 'Am I interested in an open marriage?'" he said. "Though I'm flattered that Newt Gingrich asked me."
Cain then gave his standard stump address before Colbert came back to the stage. This was Colbert's one day of on-the-ground campaigning for President of the United States of South Carolina and the person he is asking people to vote for -- Cain -- had stumbled in his pitch to get them to cast ballots on Saturday.
"Now the experts say he can't win," said Colbert. "They've been wrong before. Not this time, this time they are spot on. But just because you lose that doesn't mean you surrender ... the fight goes on. The dream endures. Eyes on the prize. Enter the octagon."