By Jeff Lipkes
It may seem like half a lifetime ago, but from late October through much of November of last year, an African-American businessman from Atlanta was leading the pack in the race for the GOP nomination. In one memorable debate in Las Vegas, he was front and center, being attacked repeatedly from both flanks over his plan to overhaul the tax code.
Unlike the rest of the folks on stage, Herman Cain was not a professional politician and never had held public office. His surge was a remarkable event in American politics, and I asked him about it when I caught up with him between interviews he was doing with Mike Huckabee and Wolf Blitzer at the convention.
To understand what took him to the top of the polls, it's important to understand Cain's background. After getting a math degree from Morehouse and doing ballistics analysis for the Navy, he got interested in computers and enrolled in a highly rated graduate program at Purdue, despite the skepticism of his boss and colleagues as to whether he would be able to cut it. He says he was fascinated by distributed processing, developing technology that would break down big-box computers -- a single processor in those days took up three floors -- and would lead eventually to smartphones. But in the end he decided he didn't want to be a computer engineer or teach the subject. He entered the corporate world, working as a mid-level executive for Coke, then migrated to the restaurant business, which he saw as the biggest growth sector of the economy. From the moment he settled into his office at Coke, he dreamed of being a CEO, and got his chance at Pillsbury. After successfully managing the firm's Burger King franchises in Philadelphia, Cain was made head of Godfather's Pizza, another subsidiary.
What drew him into politics? Cain had a famous confrontation at a town hall meeting with Bill Clinton in 1993. Herman, with his sledgehammer debating style, went after the slippery president on the costs of Hillary's health care plan. "Your calculation is inaccurate," he admonished Clinton. But he says he didn't consider entering politics until 2004. Then, "in a moment of temporary insanity," he ran for the Georgia Senate seat vacated by Zell Miller. He was "sick of seeing nothing fixed or solved by Washington." Cain came in a second.
He went into talk radio, and his frustration with political establishment of both parties mounted. He considered a run for president in 2008 and was not happy with the eventual standard-bearer. "I respect McCain, but everyone on the planet knew he was not going to beat 'Barackobama.'" When Cain referred to the president, he spit out the first and last name as if they were a single word.
What does he attribute his success to during November, when he surged ahead of Obama as well as his GOP rivals in some polls? He says, first, that he didn't sound like a typical politician, and people liked and respected that. They were also thrilled to see bold solutions being proposed to the tax code, Medicare, and Social Security. Given his training as a problem-solver, Cain was not about to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, he said. The 999 Plan was "conceptually simple and understandable." In the end it was a combination of his bold ideas and bold personality that galvanized voters.
But he became a threat to both parties, Cain claimed. At one point, he said he wasn't sure which side of the aisle launched the attack on his character. Later, he said he did know who orchestrated the charges, but he could not go public with the name. In any event, he hadn't anticipated, he said, "just how dirty politics was." The charges by several women led him to suspend his campaign on December 3.
Asked about the personal impact of his sudden fame, he said his thirteen-year-old granddaughter summarized the disadvantages when she said, "Poppa, we can't take you anywhere!" The obvious advantage is that he can now have an impact in shaping the national narrative. There are two classes of people now: the political class and "regular people," frustrated that neither party represents them. He wants to be a spokesman for these folks. He hopes to lead "a massive people's movement to put pressure on the president and on Congress for real solutions."
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