Cain’s constant search for the next big thing
By Brady Dennis,
Herman Cain always was a man in a hurry.
Even before his improbable and peculiar presidential campaign, he had spent five decades restlessly, endlessly seeking the next big thing.
His resume, his writings, numerous people who have known him over the years all point to a man of ability, ambition and supreme self-confidence, a man who rushed through life in search of ever grander stages and ever brighter spotlights.
In the end, the allegations of sexual impropriety and his campaign’s muddled responses to them forced Cain to do what he almost never had done in his gold-plated career: Quit on someone else’s terms.
Cain’s announcement Saturday that he was suspending his campaign marked an unfamiliar and unceremonious end for a man who, until barely a month ago, had repeatedly overachieved in his professional and political pursuits. It was a rare moment of defeat, a tacit admission of failure, for a man who seldom has slowed down in his voracious quest for personal achievement.
Throughout his decades-long ascent, Cain followed a consistent pattern: He would focus with laser-like intensity and enthusiasm on each new role. Then, eventually and inevitably, he would grow bored and move on.
“At each destination point on my journey, I was always faced with the decision to take the risk of a new opportunity or stay comfortably where I was at the time,” he once wrote. “Sometimes I went looking for the opportunity and sometimes it found me . . . In either case, you never look back.”
In the 1960s, he kept his distance from the civil rights struggle swirling around him in Atlanta and focused instead on launching a career. He longed to earn $20,000 a year — enough to qualify for two American Express cards.
In the late 1970s, he left his analyst job at Coca-Cola after four years, fearing his rise would be hampered by the fact that his father was the chauffeur for the company’s longtime chief executive. “He knew he had to make it own his own,” said Bob Copper, Cain’s first boss at the company. “He was ready to sprout his wings.”
That led him to Pillsbury, where he oversaw construction of the company’s headquarters in Minneapolis, then felt deflated. “My motivation had collapsed,” he wrote later. Four years after he arrived, he packed up and moved to Philadelphia.
Cain became a vice president at Burger King – a Pillsbury subsidiary – and built the company’s 450-restaurant Philadelphia region into one of the company’s most profitable. Still, he longed to become “president of something, somewhere, for somebody, someday,” he wrote. When the call came to head Godfather’s in 1986, he quickly bolted for Omaha.
He threw himself into that role with gusto. His fervor shone through in a 1988 address to employees and franchisees, when he summoned references to Christopher Columbus, Charles Darwin, Henry Ford, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Benjamin Franklin. He made the mission of Godfather’s sound epic and sacred.
“As the Godfather’s Pizza system sets sail for the future, the key question is, ‘What do you believe?’ ” he said that day. “What do you believe about life? What do you believe about yourself?”
That was the magic of Herman Cain. He was the consummate salesman, single-mindedly dedicated to whatever product he was pitching at the time, whether Whoppers at Burger King or Jumbo Combo pizzas at Godfather’s.
“Herman is a great promoter. He can promote political policies; he can promote religious policies; he can promote causes,” said James Wordsworth, a Virginia restaurateur who has known Cain for more than two decades. “If he were at the circus, his booth would be sold out.”
The product he always promoted best, of course, was himself.
The mythology that rose up around Cain held that everything changed for him on April 7, 1994. That Thursday evening, he rose at a nationally televised town hall meeting and challenged President Bill Clinton over his proposed health care overhaul, arguing that forcing business owners to cover their employees would result in shrinking profits and lost jobs. The two men sparred for eight minutes and Cain became on overnight conservative hero.
Only it was never quite that simple or that serendipitous.
Cain’s transformation from business executive to political figure had begun years before he ever crossed paths with Clinton. In 1988, the same year he and a group of partners purchased Godfather’s from Pillsbury, he was elected to the National Restaurant Association’s board of directors. By the early 1990s, he headed the group’s government relations committee, which was charged with fighting its legislative battles in Washington.
His time and passion began to shift to Washington, where he fought against increases in the minimum wage and other issues affecting the restaurant industry.
Cain had long been a sought after speaker, with his booming baritone and inspirational message and preacher’s passion. Now his legendary addresses, once limited to pizza and pep talks, grew infused with political rhetoric about the perils of an overzealous government.
“We must begin to make profit a clean word, not a dirty word,” he said during a 1992 speech at a ceremony intended to mark African-American History Month. “Every time we add a new tax to American businesses, jobs and opportunities go away.”
Cain relished the role of crusader and reveled in the attention and the jet-setting life that accompanied it.
In early 1994, it was Cain who made the motion at a restaurant association meeting to start a $1 million political-action fund to lobby against the Clinton health care plan. It was Cain who hit the road on a 24-city “consciousness-raising” tour to raise concerns about the legislation. It was Cain who narrated a commercial saying the plan would cost jobs and who joined hundreds of restaurateurs who took their anti-mandate message to Capitol Hill.
“I’m not a politician,” he was fond of saying during his presidential run. Not only was that untrue, it sold short his talent for the job.
Cain undoubtedly was a politician, and not an entirely accidental one. Even his famous showdown with Clinton was no mere coincidence. He had known for more than a week that the president was coming to town and that he might have a chance to question Clinton. When that chance arrived, he made the most of it.
Afterward, senators and reporters lit up his phone line. Speaking engagements piled up. People urged him to run for office. One GOP consultant dubbed him “The Hermanator,” a moniker he gleefully embraced. All of it appealed to his ego, his restiveness, his need for constant inspiration.
“After the Clinton thing, he became more in demand,” said Eva Vachal, a long-serving receptionist during Cain’s days at the pizza chain. “He was gone more and more. I’d see him once and awhile . . . I thought that he was moving on to better, bigger things.”
Bigger things. Better things.
That’s what drove Cain, more than flat taxes or foreign policy, more than bottom lines and profit margin. If the next thing were bigger, better, if it held more risk with the possibility of more reward, he almost always signed up.
William Fisher, a former restaurant association president who worked closely with Cain for years, said the celebrity that Cain achieved during the health care fight merely poured gasoline on a flame that already was flickering.
“The fire in the belly was there at a low ember for awhile,” he said. “As people continued to admire him, almost to the point of adulation, I think he began to feel he could be successful in the political realm.”
Fisher recalled one morning after the health care bill had died and Cain had been all but canonized in the business community, when they met for breakfast in a hotel in Atlanta.
He was still a pizza man, but his thoughts drifted to what lay ahead. Maybe he would seek out a presidential Cabinet position some day, he said. Or he might just take the leap and run for office, perhaps for the U.S. Senate, perhaps for something greater.
“We were still in the middle of our bacon and eggs,” Fisher recalled, “and he said something about, ‘I always wondered what it would be like.’ ”
Cain found out exactly what it was like.
And even as he stood under the late autumn sun in Atlanta on Saturday and ended one chapter, he announced the beginning of another. He was launching The Cain Solutions, an organization he promised would work to change Washington from the outside.
What the world saw as an ending, he insisted was only the beginning of something else. Plan B, he called it.
The man who had never stopped moving promised he never would.