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Herman Cain, the Godfather’s Pizza boss who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2011, has died at age 74 of complications from the coronavirus in his hometown of Atlanta, where he had been hospitalized for four weeks after he appeared as a warm-up act for President Donald Trump at a June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Cain’s final public appearance—at an event where masks were scorned and he didn’t wear one—was arguably ironic, but it was undeniably typical: The boisterous businessman turned politician turned conservative political commentator was all in for Trump, whose rise to power was forecast in several telling ways by Cain’s own career.
It was Cain who first accustomed voters to the idea of a malaprop-prone outsider with no political experience. Like Trump, Cain was a businessman who had never served in elected office. Years before Trump and his MAGA base, there was Cain, tapping into Tea Party fervor and holding political rallies that, with their blues bands and attendees attired in historical garb, called to mind variety shows and pageants more than political events. As Trump would later, Cain cast himself in the role of outsider. “I’m a problem solver, not a politician,” he claimed in 2011. He pitched himself as a common-sense businessman tilting against lifer bureaucrats and pols mired in the Swamp.
Both men were famously averse to the printed word. “We need a leader, not a reader,” Cain said on the campaign trail, quoting, consciously or not, “President Schwarzenegger” from The Simpsons Movie. Expanding on that thought, Cain decried lengthy regulations and legislation: “I am only going to allow small bills—three pages. You’ll have time to read that one over the dinner table."
And, like Trump, Cain was accused by many, including his own staff, of caring less about issues and more about his time in the spotlight.
The comparison only goes so far. Unlike Trump, Cain didn’t need to obfuscate about his business career or his net worth or a string of bankruptcies. Cain was provably a successful executive who rose from humble beginnings: When Cain was a child, his father held down three jobs simultaneously, including chauffeuring the president of Coca-Cola. Cain would ultimately run one of the largest pizza chains in the country, chair a regional branch of the Federal Reserve, and head the National Restaurant Association. Jack Kemp called him “the Colin Powell of American capitalism.”
But ultimately the most crucial difference was that while both Trump and Cain were dogged by accusations of sexual infidelity and harassment from women, only Cain suffered any consequences: Those accusations doomed his campaign for the presidency.
Not that candidate Cain wasn’t often his own worst enemy, given to gaffes (in Miami, after enjoying a cup of Cuban coffee, he exclaimed, “How do you say ‘delicious’ in Cuban?”) and inflammatory statements (he said that if elected president he would refuse to allow Muslims into his cabinet). And race was always the elephant in any room Cain entered. On that subject, he seemed to want to have it both ways. He would call himself “the black horse” in the race, then coyly insist, “I don’t need to play the race card.”
Herman Cain was born December 13, 1945, in Memphis and grew up in Atlanta. He was a lifelong member of the Antioch Baptist Church North, a theologically conservative church whose political positions were diametrically opposite from Cain’s.
Cain graduated from Morehouse College in 1967 and got his Master’s degree from Purdue in 1971 while working full-time for the Navy in a civilian capacity as a ballistics analyst.
After finishing grad school, he worked for Coca-Cola as a computer systems analyst. In 1977, he joined Pillsbury, where he worked in the subsidiary companies Burger King and then Godfather’s Pizza. Before his arrival at Godfather’s, it had slipped from third to fifth among pizza chains. Under Cain’s leadership, the chain closed around 200 outlets and shed thousands of jobs on the road back to profitability. In a leveraged buyout, Cain headed a group of investors that bought Godfather’s from Pillsbury in 1988. He remained CEO of the company until 1996 when he left to head the National Restaurant Association, a trade group and lobbying organization, where he remained until 1999.
Cain made his debut on the national political stage in 1994, at a town meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, when he challenged President Bill Clinton’s defense of the proposed Health Security Act.
Cain wanted to know what to tell the workers he said he would have to lay off to absorb the cost of the “employer mandate.” Clinton mentioned subsidies for small businesses, to which Cain responded, “Quite honestly, your calculation is inaccurate. In the competitive marketplace, it simply doesn’t work that way.”
Cain’s performance at the town hall impressed Kemp, who appointed Cain to the Kemp Commission, an NGO formed by Kemp and Newt Gingrich to study tax reform. Thereafter Cain became a rising star in Republican circles, advising Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and making an exploratory run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, although he claimed at the time that his candidacy was less about challenging George W. Bush and more about raising issues like tax reform.
Cain made a serious bid for the U.S. Senate in Georgia in 2004, finishing second in a three-man race in the GOP primary. In 2005, he went to work for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-backed political advocacy organization, where he worked with Mark Block, the Republican strategist who in 2010 convinced Cain to run for president and later managed the campaign.
Following the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Cain’s enthusiastic involvement with the Tea Party gave him the base of support he needed to become a strong contender in the early days of the next presidential election cycle. In the summer and early fall of 2011, Cain made a surprisingly strong showing against GOP candidates with far more political experience. He did well in debates and won several early straw polls, including the Florida Republican Party’s.
The centerpiece of his campaign was his “9-9-9 plan,” a tax reform scheme comprising a 9 percent income tax, a 9 percent corporate tax, and a 9 percent national sales tax. Critics pointed out that the proposal’s simplicity was undercut by the fact that its burdens would fall most heavily on the middle-class people that it promised to help.
But two months before the 2012 campaign even got to 2012, Cain dropped out of the race once the sexual allegations began—including one woman who claimed that her affair with Cain had gone on for more than a decade.
Cain never again ran for office, but he refused to fade away. He spent the decade since leaving the campaign trail writing a syndicated column and hosting a series of conservative radio talk shows. Always something of a ham—in his CEO days he recorded a gospel album, Sunday Morning, and sang at charity fundraisers—he even participated good-naturedly in Stephen Colbert’s 2012 mock campaign for president of South Carolina, in which Colbert urged citizens to cast their votes for Cain, whose name was still on the GOP primary ballot in South Carolina even though he had already dropped out of the race. Colbert said that voting for Cain would be a vote for him and even composed a slogan, “Rock Me Like a Herman Cain.”
Most recently Cain threw in with Trump. In September 2018, Cain formed a pro-Trump PAC called America Fighting Back whose mission was to “protect Donald Trump and his agenda from impeachment.” The next year Trump rewarded the favor when he floated the idea of nominating Cain to the Federal Reserve Board, until Cain, threatened anew by the old charges of sexual harassment, withdrew his name.
It was as co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, a coalition of Black Trump supporters, that Cain attended the president’s flagrantly mask-less rally in Tulsa in June. Twelve days later, having tested positive for coronavirus, he was admitted to the hospital in his hometown of Atlanta, the same day he had earlier applauded South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem for not requiring masks at the president’s upcoming Mt. Rushmore rally. “Masks will not be mandatory for the event,” Cain crowed in what would be his last public announcement.