The Magazine

A Cain-Do Candidate

The pizza magnate Republicans are flipping for.

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” serenades long-shot Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain as he makes his way to the stage in the Turf Valley Resort’s ballroom. He offers perfunctory thanks to the cheering crowd, but the 300 Howard County, Maryland, Republicans continue to applaud, and applaud, and applaud. “Awwww shucky ducky!” says Cain. “That’s an old saying from back down home, folks. You all just don’t know how welcome you make me feel.”

Herman Cain

Herman Cain

Thomas Fluharty

Cain is feeling great, as a new round of polls have shown him surging in the Republican presidential race. In a rich baritone voice that was destined for a microphone, Cain tells the Lincoln Day Dinner crowd the good news. 

When his campaign began in January, Cain says, “the skeptics .  .  . and the critics .  .  . were skeptical .  .  . and critical, that a guy that did not have high name I.D., did not have a kajillion dollars, had never held public office before” (applause for his lack of government experience) “they basically wrote off the dark horse candidate.”

“And then just this week, all of a sudden the dark horse candidate shows up tied for second in an Iowa poll,” says Cain. “Do you know who I tied? Sarah Palin.”

The big question: If the not-very-well-known Cain is tied for second in Iowa with Palin, what happens as more voters get to know him? If candidates were judged by biography alone, Cain’s star will continue to rise. The 65-year-old has built an impressive résumé of a successful businessman-turned-Tea Partier: ballistics analyst at the Department of the Navy, pizza magnate, National Restaurant Association chairman, Kansas City Fed chairman, (unsuccessful) Senate candidate, talk radio host, associate Baptist minister. 

Five years ago, he earned another title: cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and given a 30 percent chance to live, but he beat the odds. “If God gives you an opportunity to stick around here, it’s not to try to improve your golf game,” he said during a June 4 speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C.

Before his keynote that evening, Cain and I met for lunch. He ordered a crab cake, a small Caesar salad, and a glass of Chardonnay. “I like it because it’s nice and delicate, not too dry,” Cain told me. “You know, a midday wine.”

Life wasn’t always so comfortable for Cain. “I couldn’t afford to buy lunch in the school cafeteria every day when I was in elementary school,” he said. His father gave him a quarter each week for lunch.

Luther and Lenora Cain, the grandchildren of sharecroppers, worked hard to give Herman and his younger brother Thurman a better life. Both of Cain’s parents grew up on subsistence farms in the South and left home in their teens to strike out for Mansfield, Ohio. When his parents moved back to Atlanta his mother was a domestic worker, and his father worked three jobs: janitor, barber, and chauffeur. Luther eventually found himself driving R.W. Woodruff, the president of Coca-Cola, who tipped his chauffeur with stock.

“I didn’t come from a well-to-do family economically, but we were well-to-do spiritually and emotionally,” said Cain. “I grew up poor, but I didn’t know it.”

Growing up, Cain attended segregated schools, English Avenue Elementary and S.H. Archer High School. “I still remember riding the buses, and they had the sign in the front, ‘Whites seat from front. Colored seat from rear,’ ” Cain said. “It didn’t say, ‘White folks sit in the front, black folks sit in the back.’ That would have made too much sense.” 

Heading into his senior year of high school, Cain had the opportunity to be in the first class of black students to integrate Atlanta high schools. But he didn’t choose the path of the Little Rock Nine. “I was a good student, and my principal and my counselor came to me and asked if I would be willing to be one of the kids to be bused to another part of town,” Cain said. “I talked to my dad about it, and he didn’t say ‘Don’t do it.’ But he said, ‘Well, you could do that if you want to, but that’s not your fight by yourself. You’ve got a chance to go on to college,’ which he couldn’t do.”

How could leaving Archer have kept him from college? “I could have gone over there, and they could have made it so unbelievably difficult that I might not have graduated. We didn’t know what to expect.” He paused to take a few bites. “Remember, the world wasn’t fair then. Okay? So I prayed about it, decided not to do it.”

Cain went on to graduate second in his class, became the first person in his family to attend college, and graduated from Morehouse with a major in mathematics and a minor in physics. 

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