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The ‘CEO of Self’

Charlie Neibergall/AP/Corbis
Herman Cain, Waukee, Iowa, March 2011

How Cain came to his ultra-conservative views is worth consideration, although he is disappointingly oblique about this in his book (he did write another book in 2005, They Think You’re Stupid, about the Democratic Party, which goes into more detail about standard conservative policies than personal history). Race appears to be central, and specifically his own perception of how he overcame barriers. One often hears black conservatives say in one form or another that they were not about to let their race hold them back, that they asked for no favors, only the opportunity to prove themselves, which they received. His father, Luther Cain, “never allowed his starting point in life or the racial conditions of his time to be excuses for failing to pursue his dreams,” and he instilled in his son those same values.

Conservatives say things like that all the time, often with a whiff of self-righteousness, as if they are boldly challenging received liberal opinion. But of course there is nothing that is inherently conservative in such views. Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and any number of prominent African-American liberals believed and were taught many of the same things growing up.

The difference between the two is that while Obama and liberals generally sense a great debt to the civil rights pioneers who made their opportunities possible, Cain and other conservatives generally tend to persuade themselves that they have done it on their own. Cain was a teenager, living in the same town as Martin Luther King Jr. when King was rising to national prominence. He was a ten-year-old boy when King first gained fame in 1956, and a teenager throughout the tumultuous early 1960s. He must have been aware of what was happening around him. But he writes of the movement only briefly and remotely:

I was too young to participate when they first started the Freedom Rides, and the sit-ins. So on a day-to-day basis, it didn’t have an impact. I just kept going to school, doing what I was supposed to do, and stayed out of trouble—I didn’t go downtown and try to participate in sit-ins.

And that is that: because he had no direct involvement in the movement, he assigns it no meaning in his life. It’s a view that’s reflected in the Tea Party ideology, the idea that people have made it entirely on their own without asking for any handouts, and they don’t want “government” in their lives now. This is the story Cain has decided to tell himself about himself. And when he did encounter racism, like the time he went to get a haircut in Fredericksburg, Virginia, but was told the shop would not accept blacks, he vanquished it by reminding himself to behave like a you-know-what: “When I left that barbershop, I bought a set of clippers and cut my own hair. I continue to cut my own hair to this day, exercising my right as CEO of Self to do so.”

Cain appears not to have been especially political until the 1990s, when he won some notoriety among conservatives for confronting Bill Clinton at a public forum on health care, arguing to the President that new costs associated with the proposed changes would force him to lay off employees. He was the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza during this period, learning that the surest way to test the quality of a pizza was to order the all-meat pie: “If it tastes too salty, I know that the meat is not top quality.” (Cain recently told GQ that pizzas piled high with meats are “manly,” while vegetable toppings make for “sissy pizza”). He joined the board of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank and became its chairman in 1995 and 1996—the most impressive item on his résumé.

He left Godfather’s that year and came to Washington to head the National Restaurant Association, the chief lobbying arm of the restaurant industry, representing 380,000 high-end eateries, fast-food joints, suppliers, and other related businesses. The book devotes only about one quick page to this phase of his career, the period during which he is alleged to have harassed as many as five women. By 2000, he moved back to Atlanta, to concentrate on his “keynote-speaking and leadership consulting company,” T.H.E., Inc. (it stands for The Hermanator Experience) and to start a talk-radio show.

He ran for the Senate in 2004, for the seat of the retiring Zell Miller, finishing second in the GOP primary. He began working with Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Koch brothers–funded group involved with a variety of right-wing lobbying and grassroots activities. He then had to contend with cancer in 2006, after which he went back to talk radio.

The Cain–AFP relationship is mysterious—for example, it is not clear whether Cain was an actual employee. An AFP spokesman told The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer only that Cain has “spoken at our events sometimes without charge, and other times we might pick up travel expenses or give a modest honorarium.”2 At the least, the relationship appears to have enabled Cain to speak to conservative audiences across the country for a number of years. Cain’s campaign manager, Mark Block, is the former head of the Wisconsin AFP chapter. So there is good reason to think the Koch brothers view his candidacy favorably, a kindness Cain reciprocated at a recent conservative event by affirming, to the rapturous delight of the audience, that “I am the Koch brothers’ brother from another mother.”

In a field of extremists, Cain is as far out as anyone. His “9-9-9” tax plan would be a bonanza for the wealthiest taxpayers and would hit middle-income and poor people hardest. The Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center found that the plan would raise taxes on 84 percent of US households, by higher percentages the further down the income scale one goes. Meanwhile, households with more than $1 million in annual earnings would see their tax bills cut in half. Capital gains, under Cain’s proposal, would be completely tax-free. The 9-9-9 plan makes George Bush’s 2000 campaign proposal, which lowered rates on the highest earners the most but at least lowered rates for everyone, seem egalitarian.

Cain was also one of two GOP candidates at a November 12 forum to declare outright that waterboarding is not torture (the other was Michele Bachmann). In This Is Herman Cain!, the only foreign policy issue that gets him really worked up is Israel. He excoriates Obama on the topic as on almost no other, and he avows that the “Cain Doctrine” will hold that “if you mess with Israel, you’re messing with the United States of America. Is that clear?”

His extremism is combined with a plain ignorance that pops up from time to time. His November 14 stumble on Libya in a meeting with The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is worth quoting. Cain was asked simply whether he agreed or disagreed with Obama’s Libya policy, producing this un–CEO of Self moment:

OK, Libya. [Ten-second pause] President Obama supported the uprising, correct? President Obama called for the removal of Qaddafi. Just want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing before I say, “yes I agree,” or “no I didn’t agree.” I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason—nope, that’s a different one. [Ten-second pause] I gotta go back to, see…. Got all this stuff twirling around in my head. Specifically, what are you asking me, did I agree or not disagree with Obama on?…
Here’s what I would have—I would have done a better job of determining who the opposition is and I’m sure that our intelligence people have some of that information. Based upon who made up that opposition, okay, based upon who made up that opposition, might have caused me to make some different decisions about how we participated.

There was yet one more confused paragraph. Lurking behind these tangled remarks there may have been some pertinent questions: Just what groups, with what ideologies, and what motives, did the Obama administration support, and were they the ones most likely to run a workable democracy? But Cain fell far short of stating the problem or showing he had adequate information about it. His later explanation was true to form:

I call it flyspecking every word, every phrase, and now they are flyspecking my pauses, but I guess since they can’t legitimately attack my ideas, they will attack words and pauses. I’m kind of flattered that my pauses are so important that somebody wants to make a story out of it.

At the November 22 debate on foreign policy, Cain barely registered a pulse; all the old bravado was gone, so nervous was he about making another faux pas.

A clever and credible second-tier candidate who rises to the top through a series of unexpected fortuities, as Cain did in October, recognizes his good fortune and tries to capitalize on it. That might have been the time, for example, for Cain to schedule a major address, on foreign policy, say, attracting some establishment Republican mandarins who would be willing to vouch for the candidate’s character and seriousness of purpose to stand at his side. But the Cain operation didn’t think to do this sort of thing.

The political press ascribes such failures to Cain’s inexperience, but his real problem is his vanity. An accurate assessment of his rise would have attributed it to conservative voters’ distrust of Mitt Romney first and foremost, and their looking to Cain for some of the reasons that have been noted here. But This Is Herman Cain! persuades me that the candidate saw his ascendance as inevitable, an electorate finally but merely coming to its senses. So he didn’t think he had to do anything more to close the deal. All those burgers hawked, all those manly pizzas peddled, all those millions banked; and yet, at the one moment in his life when he needed discipline the most, the CEO of Self crumpled.

—November 23, 2011

Postscript, November 30: Whatever slim chances Cain had at reviving his candidacy in time for the caucuses and primaries seemed to disappear completely on November 28, when the Atlanta Fox News affiliate broke the story that a woman named Ginger White was alleging publicly that she and Cain had a thirteen-year affair—a relationship, she said, that he cut off just recently, right before he started running for president. The woman showed the Fox reporter cell phone bills with sixty-one calls or text messages from a number that she said was Cain’s. The reporter texted the number, and Cain himself called back. True to form, Cain denied everything. He acknowledged knowing White but said he was merely “trying to help her financially.”

White’s most interesting remarks, though, were not about sex, and they support the assertion that Cain’s core problem is not ineptitude but a vanity that has somehow insulated him from thinking that such mud could ever be slung in his direction. In explaining to the reporter that Cain never harassed her and always treated her well, she noted that the Cain she knew was “very much the same” as the Cain seen on the campaign trail: “very much confident, very much sure of himself. Very arrogant in a playful sometimes way. Very, ah—Herman Cain loves Herman Cain.”

  1. 2

    See Jane Mayer, “Herman Cain and the Kochs,” www.newyorker.com, October 20, 2011. 

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