To Live & Die Herman Cain
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because strange bedfellows aren’t made, they’re born.
By George Seminara
It pains me to say that I spent some time with Herman Cain and loved it.
He was a unique individual with an arsenal of people skills. If I could have just 10 percent of those skills, my life would be significantly improved.
One of my favorite clients over the years was the National Restaurant Association — the other NRA, its members joke. Every year I made a film, took photos and created all the material to honor their Food Service Pioneer of the year. It could be a restaurateur, the president of a multinational food service, the president of a mass transit system, a hotelier or a food and beverage importer.
Each subject had a list of people I should interview, and I would crisscross the country to interview those folks. I got to eat in some of the nation’s best restaurants for free.
I’m like the smile at McDonald’s. The Black guy you can call a friend.
So I landed in Las Vegas to interview Herman Cain. He wanted to meet in the casino at the Venetian.
“Don’t worry, I’ll find you,” he had told me during a phone call beforehand.
I left the crew at the check-in desk and found the casino. The Venetian, like many hotels in Vegas, is outsize and noisy. I wasn’t sure whether I was in the right casino, as there were several. Out of the crowd, a man walked up to me and introduced himself as Herman Cain.
“How’d you know who I was?” I asked.
“That’s my secret,” he said, smiling, as I followed him back to his pai gow game. He introduced me to the dealer and told me that the dealer’s son was a student at UCLA and hoped to become a lawyer. Cain played a few hands and introduced me to about 50 people, all of whom he seemed to have intimate knowledge of. After a while, we returned to the front desk, where we picked up the crew and headed to Cain’s room.
We did the interview: Cain was articulate and as smooth as silk. His laudatory comments were perfect for the film, and we got sidetracked. He told me about McDonald’s and Godfather’s Pizza and his success. He asked me whether it offended me that his chain was named what some might consider an ethnic slur.
I told him I didn’t see it like that. Eventually, we dismissed the crew, and Cain took me to an ATM and advised me, “Never take out more money than you are willing to lose.” I withdrew $100, and then he taught me how to play pai gow.
Pai gow was kind of a racially insensitive name, I thought, especially as there were no Asians playing at a table festooned with Chinese characters and lanterns.
Cain guided my play as we continued to talk. He explained that, for him, casinos were a mental exercise. They were a place where he could meet people and ask questions. His was a singular memory, honed by these meetings. Over the course of a few hours, he became an old friend of complete strangers.
“It’s the best way I know,” he told me, “of gauging who the public is and what it is they want.”
Cain was charming, open and affable. I felt I was his friend, even though it had been only a few hours since we met. When he left the table to go to another meeting, I was up $175. Within 10 minutes after he left, I was down about half of my winnings. I decided to quit while I was ahead. I returned to the MGM Grand, had dinner, watched a movie and left Vegas the next morning.
A few years later, I was in Union Station in Washington, D.C. As I was crossing the rotunda — a fancy name for a fancy food court— I heard someone calling my name. I looked up to see Herman Cain waving me over to the restaurant where he was presiding over a group of middle-aged white men. I was stunned that he remembered me, and even more stunned when he asked after my family. By name.
He then introduced me to all the white men, telling them I was a very talented filmmaker with the National Restaurant Association. He told them that he was thinking about making a film himself. I smiled uncomfortably. Cain then excused himself to the men, grabbed his coat and walked me out.
While we walked through the main hall, I asked, “What was up with all the white dudes?”
Cain laughed. “They’re your people.”
“They aren’t my people.”
He told me that he always enjoyed talking to me because I always said something completely unexpected.
“When I started with McDonald’s, I had all my employees smile at the patrons,” he said. “Our return business increased, and profits went up. A simple thing that makes a difference.”
We got into a taxi.
“I’m thinking about going into politics as a candidate,” he said.
“Really? That’s what’s up with the white guys?”
White people, he explained, had the lion’s share of wealth in the country, and there were several things he had learned about white people. One was that no Caucasian wants to be called a racist.
“Even if they are one,” I chimed in.
“Exactly,” he said. “I’m like the smile at McDonald’s. The Black guy you can call a friend. There is a lot of common ground, so I’m pretty sure I’ll have their support.”
“As a Democrat?”
He laughed. “No, as a Republican!”
That was kind of new to me. Black Republicans. “I’m a conservative. Every successful person in business is a conservative,” he told me.
That was also new to me. “Cool.” I was stuck for a second. “What else is going on?”
“Have you heard my gospel album?”
“But I can tell you want to. Are you still living in the same place?” I was. “I’ll send you a copy.”
We got to my hotel, and we shook hands. A week later, a CD with six songs showed up. It was pretty good.
Herman Cain went after the white dudes’ money. He ran for office several times, unsuccessfully, and for president twice. The last time he met Donald Trump. Trump found two “good” Black men on the campaign trail: Ben Carson, a genius surgeon who lacked genius in everything else, and Cain. Watching Cain on Fox News as a Trump surrogate, I thought he had drunk the Kool-Aid. Trump’s white rage had replaced his charm and bonhomie.
He cozied up to Trump for his own reasons, ones that I can’t claim to understand. And it cost him his life.
Herman Cain died of COVID-19 on July 30, 2020. He contracted it in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at a Trump rally, where he showed his allegiance to the president by not wearing a mask.
- George Seminara, OZY Author Contact George Seminara