The GOP 2012 hopeful has some moving stories in his new memoir, like beating cancer, but offers nothing substantial. David A. Graham on the best bits from 'This Is Herman Cain!'—due out Oct. 4.
During the last presidential debate, frontrunners such as Rick Perry and Mitt Romney tied each other in knots debating the hermeneutics of each other’s political books—those ephemeral documents that are intended to impart gravitas but all too often end up providing embarrassing quotes.
Herman Cain—whose stock rose as Perry’s tumbled in the wake of that debate—needn’t fear a similar tangle in the next debate. That’s because there’s not much in the way of substance in his forthcoming book, which is helpfully titled This Is Herman Cain! What’s in the book, which is half memoir, half policy statement, is being published by Threshold Editions, and is due out Oct. 4? We speed read the tome and pulled out the most interesting bits.
Herman Cain’s Civil Rights Struggle
As a prominent black Republican, especially in the age of Obama, Cain cuts an unusual figure. In the book’s introduction, he promises to answer the question, “Why do I, a son of the segregated South, refuse to think of myself as a ‘victim’ of racism?” He doesn’t quite tackle that query head on, but he tells a moving story of how his father went from dirt-poor to middle class and how Cain himself went from middle class to millionaire. His implicit answer is that through self-empowerment and self-improvement, any barrier can be overcome (it’s inspirational, if perhaps not a governing platform). Along the way, we get emotional anecdotes about Cain’s own experience with racism: how he began cutting his own hair after even a black barber shop in late 1960s Virginia refused to serve him, or how an employee at Godfather’s Pizza laughed good-naturedly at him when he introduced himself as the new president, sure that the young black man wasn’t her new boss. But other bits fall flat: he describes boarding a bus as a teenager, seeing a sign directing blacks to the back of the bus, and complying. It’s no knock on Cain that he didn’t topple Jim Crow on his own, but one wonders why this story—which is neither climactic nor symbolically important—was included.
Selling His Business Experience
It’s tough to imagine someone who’s never been elected to office—and whose only attempt was a failed Senate primary bid—taking the White House, but Cain insists his experience running large corporations prepared him to run the country. So surely Cain would focus intently on what he did at the helm of Godfather’s Pizza and of the National Restaurant Association. Or not. His big insight about leading Godfather’s? “I said that rather than trying to be the biggest [pizza chain], ‘We should just be the best.’” Elsewhere, we learn that Cain listened to his lieutenants, got to know the business down to the ingredients, and insisted that the buck stop with him. That’s all well and good, but did he cuts costs? Increase revenues? You won’t find out here—and with reporters raising serious challenges to Cain’s claim that he turned Godfather’s around, this isn’t good enough. We learn even less about Cain’s two-and-a-half years at the restaurant group. All his accomplishments are boiled down to a single platitudinous paragraph. While Cain’s story of hard work earning reward is moving, it hardly tells us what he thinks about the direction of the country.
Food for the Soul
Warning: this book may cause sudden increases in appetite. As Cain’s story unfurls, the reader will begin to suspect that it’s no coincidence that Cain worked at Pillsbury, Burger King, Coca-Cola, and Godfather’s: food seems to be a passion. Cain visits pizza joints on the trail; he enumerates the produce from his grandfather’s farm (watermelon, cantaloupe, corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, collard greens, and cabbage, if you were wondering); he describes the dinner his father treated him to after he graduated from Morehouse; and even gives the menu for the meal he wants on his deathbed—“that is, if I can still eat” (it’s roast, collard greens, green beans, candied yams, hand-shucked corn, and homemade cornbread, all prepared by his wife, Gloria).
Those who mock Cain as a naïf seem to overlook the four years—two as chairman—that he spent on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. But here again, Cain seems determined not to say anything substantial. Does he favor hard or loose money? What is his read on current interest rates? You won’t find out here. The closest thing to wonkery is this: “[The Fed’s] critics claim that our money supply and the world’s supply will self-regulate. They won’t.” Elsewhere, phantom debating an unnamed Ron Paul, he says, “We need to fix the Federal Reserve, not end it. That would be a dumb idea!” But it’s anyone’s guess why he thinks we need the Fed and what needs fixing—because Cain doesn’t say. And he loses extra points for praising Alan Greenspan—apparently, he didn’t get the memo about that whole financial crisis thing.
Herman Cain, Survivor
Though the tales of Cain’s childhood are moving, the book’s strongest passage is Cain’s narrative of his diagnosis of and recovery from stage-four cancer. It’s heartfelt, gripping, and truly suspenseful, and the author’s gratitude at having a second lease on life is plain. “I do not know what it feels like to get out of jail, but this was the most liberating experience of my life,” he writes. “I was not even focused on whether it all worked or not, because I knew the doctors had done all they could do, and I had done all I could do. That was God’s plan and all was in His hands.”
The Cain Doctrine
The book’s 10th chapter is devoted to what Cain insists on calling “The Cain Doctrine,” although it’s really more a platform (memo to the Hermanator: if you can’t sum it up in a sentence or two, it’s probably not a doctrine). It is infuriatingly vague. Cain’s plan for immigration: “Secure our borders.” His plan for entitlements: “We can, and must, take this entitlement society to an empowerment society.” He says he’d replace “Obamacare” with “Caincare,” which he says would involve “formulating a compassionate approach to providing the best diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care for Americans of all ages.” Would he cut costs somehow? Expand coverage? No one knows! The problem isn’t that Cain doesn’t have a detailed prescription for health reform, it’s that he doesn’t even seem to know what his objective is. And keep in mind—domestic policy is supposed to be his forte. The foreign policy section is even rougher. Cain bashes President Obama’s treatment of Israel, but doesn’t explain why he feels Israel is crucial to U.S. national security or proffer a plan for peace with the Palestinians. As for the rest of the world, forget it—all he tells us is that his Afghanistan “plan would be to figure out: Can we win, or not?” Perhaps Cain should have considered following the very public debate on that matter over the last three years. And Latin America, Asia, Europe, Russia, Africa might as well not exist. An appendix adds a tiny bit of detail, but the book leaves the overwhelming impression that Cain doesn’t have any real sense of what policies he’d back as president.
A True Believer
What is most endearing about the book is Cain’s can-do spirit. Even as he surges in the polls following his Florida straw-poll victory, most observers treat Cain as a curiosity, the sort of character who adds entertainment to the primary season but won’t be heard from again. Cain has no such expectations: it’s clear throughout that he really does believe that on Jan. 20, 2013, he’ll be taking up residence in Washington. In fact, he even offers a plan for what will happen in his first 90 days in office. That includes canceling all but one inaugural ball; mandating that White House employees have a copy of the Constitution at hand; and convening a summit of all of America’s closest allies along with the opposition leaders from each. He ends on a high note, imagining himself in the Oval Office and reaffirming his identity: “But bear with me for just a minute more as I confirm who I am. It’s obvious: I’m the president of the United States of America!” Whether you support Cain or not, it’s hard not to be touched by his enthusiasm.
… And All the Rest
It would be a shame to leave out some of the delightful asides and digressions that fill the book. It’s not just the folksy wisdom and charmingly frequent quotations of his father’s and grandfather’s maxims on life. There’s an odd moment where Cain tells and then laughs off what appears to be a threat of violence by his father against long-time Coca-Cola executive Joseph W. Jones. There’s an entire chapter devoted to numerology—it turns out Cain’s lucky digit is 45. But the best of all is the photograph of an Afro-ed Cain at Disney World in 1971. Far out!