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.”
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.
“I had 25 job offers when I graduated,” Cain said. He listed a few: “Amoco Oil, Department of the Navy, Kellogg’s company, some of the biggest banks in America because they were all trying to diversify their workforce because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and they were actively going to black campuses.”
Cain took the job at the Navy Department as a civilian ballistics analyst and was granted deferments from the draft. In 1971, he earned a graduate degree in computer science at Purdue and went back to the Navy, making considerably more money. He then began to climb the corporate ladder at Coca-Cola, where he worked for four years, before heading to the Pillsbury corporation. While there, he managed 400 Burger Kings in the Philadelphia area. Then he was placed in charge of Godfather’s Pizza, a company on the verge of bankruptcy, and turned it around. In 1988, he bought the company with a group of investors.
His experience at Godfather’s is when he started “to make the turn to conservative,” Cain said. “When I took over Godfather’s Pizza, started to make some real money, . . . I started to see how much I was paying in taxes. I started to see how minimum wage legislation was impacting my ability to keep Godfather’s going.”
Cain’s first experience in the political spotlight came at one of Bill Clinton’s 1994 town hall meetings on health care. Cain told the president that he would have to lay off employees if Hillary-care became law. Clinton disputed Cain’s claim. “Mr. President, with all due respect, your calculation on what the impact would do, quite honestly, is incorrect,” Cain replied.
Cain became active in Republican politics and served as an adviser to vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp in 1996. In 1999, he briefly opened up a presidential exploratory committee before dropping out and endorsing Steve Forbes. In 2004, he ran for Senate in Georgia in a three-way primary with two sitting congressmen, Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins. Isakson won the primary with 53 percent of the vote. Cain came in second, at 26 percent, 5 points ahead of Collins.
If Cain couldn’t win a Republican Senate primary in Georgia, why might he fare better in a presidential primary? First, the mood of the party is far less establishment-oriented now. And in 2004, Cain didn’t have much of a profile in Georgia, when he was hammered by Isakson for having given money to “pro-choice Democrat Senator Kerrey” (that would be Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, where Godfather’s is headquartered) and for endorsing “Bush’s opponent” (that would be Steve Forbes).
After working as a talk radio host in Atlanta for the past few years, Cain is now riding the talk radio and cable news circuit and drawing a lot of attention. “There is a real interest in Herman Cain,” says conservative Iowa congressman Steve King. “He has all the right positions, and he’s a personality that people are attracted to.” King, a close ally of Michele Bachmann, said that both candidates “have good relations with Tea Parties across the country, and I don’t know whether one of them has an advantage there.”
King adds that people underestimate “how much strength Mike Huckabee [who won Iowa in 2008] got from his support for the Fair Tax”—abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a 30 percent national sales tax.
While Cain’s support of the Fair Tax and Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform may endear him to some Tea Partiers, one issue that could hurt Cain with that cohort is his endorsement of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which Bachmann voted against.
“The concept of TARP, I did support because I studied the financial meltdown,” Cain says. “It’s about understanding a little bit of economics. So the Bush administration, they were giving us the correct assessment of the financial meltdown. . . . We had to do something drastic.”
But, Cain says, he disagrees with how TARP was administered and insists his initial support for the multi-billion-dollar government bank bailout won’t hurt him. “TARP didn’t inspire the Tea Party, runaway spending inspired the Tea Party,” he says. “Then it was the legislation forced down our throats with the health care bill.” Whether or not TARP “inspired” the Tea Party, most conservatives don’t seem to be holding it against Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan, and Tom Coburn, who also supported it.
Cain’s service as chairman of the Kansas City Fed is another source of criticism from some Tea Partiers. Cain is unapologetic about his work but says the Fed now needs to be fixed. “They’ve inflated the currency too much,” he says. But saying we should get rid of the Fed is “like saying, ‘Let’s just get rid of the air traffic control system,’ ” Cain told me. “You’d have planes running into each other all the time. It’s stupid. Okay? It’s crazy.”
Cain is cautious, critics would say evasive, on a number of issues. On Afghanistan, Cain says he doesn’t know what he would do until he has classified intelligence information. “There’s more that I don’t know than I know,” Cain said. “I’m not going to pull a plan out of my ass.”
“I’d want to know what do our intelligence sources tell us about the state of the Afghan government. I don’t know whether I can trust Karzai or not. It’s a divided government. How divided is it? What parts can you depend upon?” Cain said. “Can we win in Afghanistan? If the answer is yes, after assessing all of this, then we’d figure out what it would take and whether we’d be willing to make that sacrifice. If we can’t I’d want an exit strategy.” Asked for a couple of potential foreign policy advisers, Cain mentions John Bolton and K.T. McFarland.
Should ethanol subsidies be abolished? “It depends,” Cain said. “I want to talk about a complete solution, ’cause I can see it now, ‘Cain does not support ethanol subsidies.’ I’m not falling into that trap.”
Are there circumstances under which he thinks abortion should be legal? There’s a four-second pause. “Ahhh,” he sighs, going silent for 16 seconds. “You’re asking, are there circumstances in which it should be legal?” Yes. “Let me get back to you on that. I need to mull this over because that question can be a trap either way you go. I don’t want to be inconsistent with what I have said in the past.”
In 1998, Cain said in an interview, “I am pro-life with exceptions, and people want you to be all or nothing.” He added: “I am not a social issue crusader. I am a free-enterprise crusader.” It’s not clear what the exceptions were in 1998; in 2004, he supported only one: when the life of the mother is at stake.
Cain tied himself in knots when asked in March by a Center for American Progress Action Fund blogger if he would feel comfortable appointing a Muslim to his cabinet. “No, I will not,” Cain replied. He later tried to explain his comment, saying: “I did not say that I would not have them in my cabinet. If you look at my career, I have hired good people regardless of race, religion, sex, gender, orientation.” But then on June 8, he took two steps back, saying he’d require Muslims to “prove” they were faithful to the Constitution. “Would you do that to a Catholic or would you do that to a Mormon?” interviewer Glenn Beck asked. “Nope, I wouldn’t,” Cain replied.
Cain’s silver tongue is a double-edged sword. His rhetoric can be both uplifting and strident. He preaches the gospel of self-help, talking about “commonsense solutions,” the “spirit of America,” and how we need to move from an “entitlement society to an empowerment society.” He has also said that President Obama’s decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act is a “breach of presidential duty bordering on treason.”
“President Obama’s approval ratings are still hovering around 50 percent because that 50 percent has no clue. And you’ve heard me say ‘Stupid people are ruining America!’ ” Cain told the Howard County Republicans. “That means that the other 50 percent—us—have got to out-vote them, out-work them in order to take this nation back.”
Do his strident words make him seem less presidential? “Does it undercut my message with some people? Yes,” Cain said. “They’re not going to vote for me, so I’m not going to try to be politically correct. And I’m not going to try to pander and make statements like, ‘Well some people are just not properly informed.’ That’s trying to be politically correct and not sound so harsh. I happen to believe that the American people need some harsh talk.”
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.