Herman Cain, who died in July after contracting Covid-19, was a remarkable, one-of-a-kind American original.
I first got to know him in 1995, when I was speaker of the House. The House leadership wanted an outside advisory group of successful entrepreneurs and business leaders to help us develop a program of tax cuts and regulatory reforms to increase economic growth and jobs.
As the head of the restaurant chain Godfather’s Pizza, Herman had made a name for himself as an outspoken conservative business leader. He played a dynamic leadership role on the advisory group. He was physically big, always optimistic, consistently charming and constantly pushing conservative ideas. He was just a natural leader.
Since we were equally concerned about the U.S. economy, jobs, take-home pay for all Americans, welfare reform and efforts to help the African American community escape the cycles of dependency the Great Society and the war on poverty had created, Herman was a critical voice for developing ideas and articulating them to the country.
From that advisory group experience, he emerged as a national spokesperson for conservative economics, free markets, entrepreneurship and work ethic — becoming more involved in politics along the way by advising presidential campaigns, leading the National Restaurant Association, offering political commentary and running for president himself.
He was a great leader because he had a wealth of practical experience from his business life that he could easily communicate. This knowledge made him a great debater and spokesperson for the restaurant industry at large. It helped that he had a knack for making friends and using humor to make you glad you were spending time with him.
There were really three components to Herman’s unique personality and presence.
First, his father had been the driver for Robert Woodruff, the legendary chair of the Coca-Cola Company and the most important businessman in Georgia. Herman often said the lessons about business and investing his father learned from Woodruff while driving him around Georgia were more important than the salary Woodruff paid his father. So, in a real sense, Herman grew up with indirect tutoring from one of the greatest business minds in Georgia history.
Second, Herman was well-educated. He had a mathematics degree from Morehouse and a Master of Science in computing from Purdue University. This training enabled him to analyze situations far more thoroughly than most of his business competitors could hope to match.
Third, Herman had acquired from his family in Atlanta a positive attitude that earned him friends, made him a great salesman and ultimately shaped him into a profoundly effective leader.
Herman and I cooperated for years on conservative economic ideas, collaborated on Republican politics in Georgia and ultimately competed for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. (He endorsed me when he dropped out, but Mitt Romney’s millions overwhelmed both of us.)
But my strongest memory of Herman is that he was always upbeat, happy to be doing something useful and ever ready to work on a new project.
I was a guest on his radio show for years, and it was always a lively experience. Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was an instinctive part of Herman’s character. I don’t know if he ever read the book, but he clearly understood or intuited its message and themes. It made him a lot of friends, and it helped him get a lot done.
America was lucky to have had the guidance, insight and leadership of Herman Cain.