When it was reported on Thursday that Herman Cain had died at the age of 74 after contracting COVID-19, the response in many quarters was celebratory. Instead of politely suggesting that there is something ghoulish about this, it seems to me more worthwhile to consider Cain's life and career, both of which are inherently interesting.
Cain was born in Memphis in 1945, the son of a cleaning woman and a janitor. Much of his childhood was spent in Atlanta, where his father would eventually become a chauffeur for Robert Woodruff, then the president of Coca-Cola. While acknowledging that he grew up in grinding poverty, Cain always spoke fondly of his early life. Upon finishing high school, he attended the historically Black Morehouse College, where he studied mathematics; later, while serving as a ballistic engineer for the Navy, he would earn a master's degree in computer science at Purdue in 1971, only two years after Clarence Ellis had become the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in the subject.
In the 1980s, Cain made his reputation in business as a turnaround artist. He was put in charge of reviving the fortunes of some 400 Burger King franchises in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. His solution was to encourage employees to be friendlier and smile more. It worked. After this, he was named the president and CEO of Godfather's Pizza. In what would become only too typical of the sorts of things for which we give businessmen credit, he returned the chain to profitability by closing hundreds of restaurants and firing thousands of employees.
In the ensuing decades, Cain would turn his attention to politics as chairman of the National Restaurant Association. One little-remembered incident was his attempt to run for the Senate in Georgia in 2004, which failed in part due to his support for affirmative action. If Cain had won the primary, he would have been the second African-American Republican senator elected since Reconstruction and entered the upper chamber alongside Barack Obama.
For good or ill, it is not as a pioneer of Black computing or as a businessman that Cain will be ultimately remembered. There is no way around it: In the popular imagination Cain was the oddball presidential candidate who quoted lines from Pokémon: The Movie 2000, initially under the impression that they were the words of a famous, albeit unnamed, poet. In the speech in which he announced the suspension of his campaign in 2011, however, he embraced the origins of what he had come to consider words of wisdom: "Life can be a challenge. Life can seem impossible. It's never easy when there is so much on the line. But you and I can make a difference."
Many years later, in 2016, Cain returned to the subject of Japanese gaming franchises in an interview with a reporter from the Toronto Star. While describing the recently launched Pokémon Go as an "excellent, brilliant, entertaining concept," he urged players to "Be careful out there. It's been used to lure people into situations where they've been robbed."
Personally, I will always associate Cain with another incident from the same campaign, the release of an advertisement featuring Mark Block, Cain's chief of staff, standing in front of a building and smoking a cigarette while making a (perhaps deliberately) affectless pitch for his boss. It is one of the strangest and most memorable campaign commercials of modern times and a forerunner of what political discourse would look like in the internet video era.
The actual content of Cain’s ill-fated campaign for the Republican presidential nomination was somewhat less edifying. His memorable 9-9-9 tax plan would likely have been a disaster if adopted, not least for working families. But he was right in intuiting that the United States should not be the last member of the OECD without a federal value-added tax (though he was loath to describe his proposal as such). Cain’s early primary success reminds us, if nothing else, that politicians with serious policy ambitions should do a better job of marketing them.
Cain withdrew from the 2012 primary race after being accused of sexual harassment by several women, many of them former employees of the National Restaurant Association. Another woman, Ginger White, claimed that she had been engaged in an adulterous relationship with Cain for more than a decade. Cain denied all of these allegations, but he also seemed to acknowledge that they were serious enough to prevent him from accepting a position on the board of the Federal Reserve, to which President Trump nominated him in 2019. At the time, they were gleefully seized upon by his Republican primary opponents, who were only too happy to employ grotesque racist tropes about lascivious Black men preying upon white women. We will likely never know the truth about them.
Herman Cain remains in many ways the most representative figure of a bizarre era in American right-wing politics, one in which the old fusionist conservatism was being replaced by something ostensibly more “populist,” a strange alliance of peasants carrying torches and pitchforks on behalf of CEOs whose enrichment remained the Republican Party’s animating principle. One wonders how remote from the Tea Party we really are today. The man himself was more interesting than the movement.
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