With his rich baritone voice and natural showman’s instinct, Herman Cain reinvented himself multiple times over his lifetime: computer analyst, millionaire business executive, political lobbyist, broadcaster, motivational speaker, author and presidential candidate, among others.
He was as successful and opinionated as he was unforgettable, but COVID-19 has silenced him. He was 74.
On Cain’s Instagram page Wednesday, one of his employees wrote: “We’re heartbroken, and the world is poorer: Herman Cain has gone to be with the Lord.”
He was born Dec. 13, 1945, in Memphis, Tennessee, moving to Atlanta with his working-class parents at an early age,. After high school, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Morehouse College. From there, his trajectory was all upward until a few bumps slowed him later in life.
He received a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue University in Indiana, then stormed the business world. He worked as a ballistics analyst for the United States Navy. Back home in Atlanta, he worked as a computer systems analyst at the Coca-Cola Company.
During the 1980s, he managed 400 Burger Kings in the Philadelphia area when the fast-food company was a Pillsbury subsidiary. He later became chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, a Pillsbury-owned chain in Omaha, Nebraska, dropping troubled franchises, launching inventive ad campaigns and dropping unpopular menu items. He held the position for about a decade.
In 1994, he made national headlines challenging President Bill Clinton during a nationally televised town-hall-style meeting over a proposed health care plan, which ultimately failed. Newsweek, at the time identified Cain as one of the plan’s “saboteurs.”
Soon after, he became CEO of the National Restaurant Association in Washington D.C.. While head of that trade group, he bolstered the group’s image and clout. He described his media strategy as “Mo, Me, Mo,” as in motivation, message, momentum.
He fought restaurant smoking bans, lobbied against reducing blood-alcohol limits to prevent drunken driving and fought minimum wage increases. He became friends with Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the U.S. House, and then-congressman from Georgia, Jack Kemp, who placed Cain on a congressional study group on tax reform.
After Cain left the group in 1999, he moved back to Georgia, focusing on motivational speaking and penning books. He briefly considered a presidency run in 2000, then sought a Senate seat in 2004, but lost to Johnny Isakson in the primary.
He battled and overcame liver and colon cancer in 2006 and 2007.
In 2008, he joined WSB radio as a night talk show host. In 2010, Cain addressed more than 40 Tea Party rallies, hit early primary states, and became Fox News regular.
In May 2011, he announced his candidacy for the presidency, requiring him to drop his radio show. He ran as an outsider, an anti-Washington conservative with business acumen. He called his appearances “The Hermanator Experience,” a phrase he trademarked.
He received a lot of attention promoting his 9-9-9 tax plan, which centered on a complete rewrite of the tax code that featured a flat 9 percent income tax, 9 percent business tax and 9 percent federal sales tax. He briefly was a leader in the polls for the presidency.
But in December 2011, he suspended his Republican presidential bid after more than a month of fighting allegations of sexual misconduct. At the time, he said the accusations were hurting his family.
He returned to radio in January 2013, taking over for Neal Boortz as a syndicated talk show host. Since then, he stepped down from that job in 2018, continuing to do shows online on his website. He also began hosting his TV show in 2020 with conservative cable network NewsMax.
Cain was the rare Black Republican who rose high in the ranks and seemed at times to take positions that were more conservative than many of his white colleagues.
That put him at odds with the Democratic politics of many of his alma mater alumni, Morehouse. Though some saw elements of his training as a Morehouse man shining through. He remained a life member of the National Alumni Association and a former member of Morehouse’s trustees’ board.
Marcellus Barksdale, chairman of Morehouse’s African-American Studies Department, argued in a 2018 interview that Cain is precisely what a Morehouse Man should represent. “I may not believe in his politics, but he has done what we have been taught to do,” said Barksdale, a 1965 Morehouse graduate. “He has had a wonderful career… He has the right to run for president and I respect his run.”
Although he overlapped Cain for three years as students, Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, told the AJC he watched him on television and debates. Even in studying his business accomplishments, he saw familiar tropes.
“The elements of what you see in Herman Cain today were seeds planted, developed and nurtured at Morehouse,” said Lomax, a 1968 graduate. “He is vintage Morehouse, as far as I am concerned. Strong personality. Forceful. Engaging. A supercharged ego. … Those are all elements of Morehouse. “