In 1980, as Ronald Reagan was on his way to the White House, and as a college student still called Barry Obama was about to move from Occidental College to Columbia University and starting to think seriously about some kind of future in public service, Herman Cain was reporting to work at the Pillsbury Corporation. Cain had been working as a project manager at the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, where years before, his father, Luther, had been the chauffeur for CEO Robert Woodruff. He was thirty-two, an Atlanta native, doing quite well; but he felt that at Coca-Cola he would never quite shake being the chauffeur’s kid, so in 1977, off he went to Pillsbury, in faraway Minneapolis.
He was handed the task of integrating the management information systems of Pillsbury and the Green Giant frozen foods company, which his employer had acquired. Having completed this work (which included eliminating “obvious redundancies” in personnel), Cain was next charged with overseeing the construction of the Pillsbury world headquarters building, a charmless tower that still stands in downtown Minneapolis about six blocks from the Mississippi River. Construction was running late and over budget. But Herman Cain is, to use his pet phrase, a “CEO of Self,” and CEOs of Self not only don’t fear such problems, they welcome them as particularly fortunate opportunities to show their stuff. So Cain, after consulting with the company’s CEO and COO, knew what had to be done:
Given their input, I was not afraid to take charge, make decisions, and focus on the critical things I needed to do in order to get the project moving. Again, seeing myself as CEO of Self, I was determined not to fall into a comfort zone of letting other people, no matter how competent and well-meaning, make the decisions for me.
The headquarters project came in ahead of schedule and under budget, and the CEO later presented Cain with Pillsbury’s Symbol of Excellence in Leadership Award. So life has gone for Herman Cain, at least until the last few weeks as he has fended off sexual harassment charges and was embarrassed when, at a talk with a group of editors, he couldn’t articulate a view of Obama’s record on Libya. He has until recently succeeded at everything, mastered each task.
If one momentarily puts to the side his wildly extreme political views, his obvious and cringe-inducing knowledge gaps, and his alleged treatment of women, one can easily find things to admire in the man. Certainly, he does himself in This Is Herman Cain! It opens by describing how he “redefined campaign history” with his performance at a Republican debate last May, an event hardly remembered today; and it closes with Cain imagining what his first days in the White House will be like, taking the measure of heads…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.