Monday, July 19, 2010

Raising Cain, of The Hermanator sort

If you’re still a little woozy from Bristol Palin’s engagement announcement, brace yourself for another percussion bomb: Joe the Plumber, the 15-minute celebrity from the last presidential election, is already talking up a candidate for the next go-round.

But here’s the real stunner if you’re in the restaurant business: Joe’s preferred contender is none other than Herman Cain, a.k.a. The Hermanator, the one-time head of the National Restaurant Association, a familiar speaker at industry events, and a former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza.

Cain, now a talk-radio personality in the Atlanta market, has been drawing attention in the blogosphere as a potential candidate, even though he’s yet to say definitively if he intends to run. There’s already a Draft Cain website; an affiliated political action fund, The Hermanator PAC; and a Draft Cain Facebook page, with about 1,000 fans.

Don’t confuse the latter with three apparently older Draft Cain pages on Facebook: One for the U.S. Senate, one for vice president (under McCain, apparently), and one for the governorship of Georgia.

Significantly, the latter features a riff on the now-famous Barack Obama poster, depicting Cain instead of the President. Much of the online coverage underscores that Cain is an African-American and hence a Republican candidate who could erode the President’s popularity among blacks. “Herman Cain may be Michael Steele with out the baggage,” Matt Lewis writes on the website Politics Daily, referring to the beleagured chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Regardless of what you think of Cain, it’s a shame his race is figuring so prominently into the discussion of a possible presidential bid. During his rise to prominence in the restaurant business, at a time when the leadership was nearly all white and male, Cain downplayed his historic role. When he was named the first-ever black head of the National Restaurant Association, I asked him if he felt any additional pressure, or expected any greater criticism, because of his race. He hesitated and joked, “I’ve been black all my life. I have no basis of comparison.”

He would, however, talk about his humble beginnings. His father was a chauffeur for the top brass at Coca-Cola, a company that ironically would court Herman for business from Godfather’s and his previous employer and then-sister brand, Burger King. The senior Cain worked a second job to give his children a better life. In some of his addresses to the industry, Herman would recall his father’s pride at being able to buy the family a house.

Those of us who covered Cain came to realize that his charm and pronounced oratorical gifts could screen some shortcomings in other respects. We noted, for instance, that he always talked publicly about empowering employees, and how important it was to broaden their horizons. Yet I can’t recall him bringing low- or even mid-level members of his organization to any industry event. The only person who usually accompanied him was a member of the PR department.

Similarly, insiders reported that his remake of the restaurant association wasn’t as phenomenally positive as Cain and his supporters incessantly asserted.

Still, the man has an ability to excite people, and certainly makes an impression. If he does run for president, and many of the blogo-pundits are already predicting he will, then we’ll all be in store for a lively, interesting race.

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