[Guest Post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]
Well, we can’t ignore him any longer. Lost in the flurry of Ponzi schemes and shotgun HPV testing, Herman Cain has quietly crept onto the leaderboard of the GOP presidential field with an upset in last week’s Florida Straw Poll and a strong third-place showing in a recent Fox News survey.
To get a better feel for the Man Who Would Be Second Runner-up, I read his forthcoming autobiography/campaign manifesto This Is Herman Cain! More exciting than Tim Pawlenty’s Pawlentian Courage to Stand and less ghostwritten than Rick Perry’s Fed Up!, it’s a rung-by-rung account of Cain’s corporate ascent, salted with random exclamation points (“Dr. Abdalla explained that the liver regenerates itself in about three months to 80 percent of original size! I DID NOT KNOW THAT!”) and forced GOP talking points (“Mom and Dad were able to achieve their dreams because we didn’t have government in the way as much as it is in the way today”).
The only interesting part is the very beginning, where the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO offers insight into his two most striking characteristics—a monomaniacal pursuit of high-level corporate status and a revulsion at black “victim mentality,” which together help explain his GOP appeal.
Cain was born in Memphis in 1945 and moved to Atlanta shortly thereafter, where his family lived in a public housing project, before moving to a “half-a-house” duplex, and eventually to a home of their own. “I didn’t grow up wanting to be president of the United States,” opens Cain, saving his best line for first. “I grew up po’, which is even worse than being poor.” Herman’s father Luther held several jobs, his most lucrative one as private chauffeur to Coca-Cola CEO Robert Woodruff.
Luther and Herman admired Woodruff not only because he was a “good businessman” and a “risk-taker” but because he was “very benevolent.” This is crucial: Luther’s proximity to Woodruff provided Herman with a vivid portrait of the American Dream and instilled in him a surprising snobbishness about lower-level businessmen (about one of his successful fundraising efforts, Cain wrote, “An accountant would never have made that decision; only an entrepreneur could have”). But it also gave him the idea that social justice and a social safety net are best provided by the private sector and personal favors, not the government.
For example, when the University of Georgia was blocking two black students from matriculating in the early 1960s, Cain writes admiringly that Woodruff called UGA President O.C. Aderhold to chide him: “We aren’t having that here in Georgia. We’re not going to make fools of ourselves like George Wallace did down in Alabama.” Cain, of course, fails to note that it was only through court order that UGA became desegregated.
Cain’s family, too, benefitted from Woodruff’s selflessness. Cain’s father once asked Woodruff for Coca-Cola stock, in addition to the cash gifts his boss regularly gave him. When one of Woodruff’s white subordinates complained, Luther threatened him: “If you ever tell Mr. Woodruff not to do something for me again, you’re going to find out how good I am with [my] gun!”
Luther Cain’s indignant (and no doubt rightful) sense of entitlement comes across as strange in light of the fact that Cain highlights the episode as a testament to his father’s belief in “self-determination” and never playing the “victim.” Cain doesn’t entertain the notion that his father was being appeased, since Luther considered the gifts rightly deserved. Indeed, throughout the book, Herman Cain chides blacks who depend upon government largesse, while proudly detailing the corporate perks he’s grown accustomed to, and complaining when he doesn’t get them. “The private plane arrived all right,” Cain wrote, relating a supposedly difficult stretch of campaigning. “But it was no bigger than a crop duster and we had assumed that they’d be sending a jet to pick us up. I guess we were naïve.”
This appears to be the lesson of the book, and of Cain’s growing popularity: He believes those in the business world deserve gold-plated perks simply for participating in the quintessential American pursuit of success. Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan, which makes life easier on the rich, and harder on the poor, is rooted in his belief that low-income “victims” should not only not be rewarded, but punished for not having done as well as he did.