He was an American original and everything good and bad about politics in one package. A self-made man of tremendous ambition and drive who learned how to play game of business and the boardroom and rose to the top level of that world, then set his sights on politics. He was less successful in the latter field due to personal flaws and some skeletons in his closet, but no one can say he didn’t give it his all.
A Morehouse College graduate, he rose through the ranks of business to become head of the Godfather’s Pizza chain, a chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, one of the more powerful trade associations in Washington D.C.
Cain never lost the sense of awe that such things were possible in the U.S. “My great, great grandparents were slaves,” Cain told columnist Deroy Murdock in 2003. “My great grandparents were sharecroppers. My grandparents were farmers. My father was a chauffeur. Most generations want to give the next generation a better start. That’s what my parents tried to do for me.”
He was convinced he could help other people if they gave him the chance. He firmly believed that they could do it on their own too; they just needed the government to get out of the way. He was a bitter foe of anything that extended the government’s control over the economy. He famously hammered President Bill Clinton in 1994 debate in Kansas City on health care, helping to bury that administration’s bid for a comprehensive health care system. The money for it had to come from somewhere, Cain noted, and entrepreneurs would likely take it on the chin. Newsweek called it a turning point. “It was as if the small business community—a very large and politically powerful group—h \ad been told to march on Washington.”
To Cain, nothing was immutable or unchangeable. Things like total reform of Social security were doable if only we tried. As an African American in the conservative world of politics, he had outsider’s view that forced people to think about things in new ways.
“You, by law, must contribute to Social Security, and you don’t own your contributions. I don’t call that liberty,” Cain told Murdock. “The fact that the life expectancy of an African American male is now 68 years of age, and the life expectancy of a white male is 75 years of age, says to me that there is not much liberty in African Americans subsidizing the Social Security system.”
Cain ran for president as a Republican in 2012 and for a brief time led in the polls, before an expose in Politico alleging sexual harassment undermined his bid. The story involved two cases where the Cain’s then-employer, the National Restaurant Association, quietly settled two claims against him. “Character assassination,” Cain claimed. He nevertheless suspended his campaign and dropped out of the race. He remained involved in politics, but his own ambitions never recovered.
He died Thursday, one month after contracting COVID-19, apparently as result of attending a Tulsa, Oklahoma rally for Donald Trump.
In the end, what Cain wanted was for other people to be as successful as he had had been in the world of business. After all, it had worked for him.
Maybe it was a dream, but it was a good dream.