Most Americans never took Herman Cain very seriously. He made that easy: He quoted Pokémon: The Movie 2000 in campaign speeches. He said goofy things (“Aw, shucky ducky!”) before it was “modern-day presidential.” His signature policy idea, the “9-9-9” plan, sounded more like a takeout special than a tax overhaul.
By the time he died today at 74, from COVID-19, he was remembered, if at all, by that last phrase. Yet although Cain’s 2012 presidential platform didn’t deserve serious consideration, his life traced a tragic arc. In his ascent, Cain embodied some of the greatest things about U.S. society; in his later years, and in his death, he exemplified some of America’s bleaker aspects.
Cain worked his way up from a threadbare childhood to great wealth, becoming a successful restaurant executive. He served his country, first as a civilian Navy mathematician and later as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. (He was also, it was later alleged, sexually harassing women during his rise.) Then he embarked on a presidential campaign and punditry career that catered to some of the basest, know-nothing instincts in politics, and may even have cost him his life.
He was raised poor—“a son of the segregated South,” in his words—in Memphis, Tennessee, and Atlanta. His father sometimes worked three jobs, though he was able to improve his finances while serving as chauffeur to the CEO of Coca-Cola, whom he persuaded to pay him in Coke stock. Herman was a gifted student and attended Morehouse College on scholarship, only to lose the funding when his grades slipped. He worked jobs on the side to pay his tuition, graduated with a degree in mathematics, and went to work as a ballistics analyst for the U.S. Navy, then later worked in the food business.