It was, to say the least, an exciting assignment when I first interviewed Herman Cain back in 2004. Covering the retired CEO of Godfather's Pizza, whose rags-to-riches life and unique charisma were right out of the movies, was nothing less than a journalistic feast.
Cain (who died Thursday at 74) was then one of the two Black candidates running for the U.S. Senate that the national press was carefully watching. He was seeking the Republican nomination in Georgia. The other was Barack Obama, vying for the Democratic nomination in Illinois.
In 1994, he had asked his celebrated question of Bill Clinton at a town hall meeting that was key to the downfall of the costly healthcare plan sculpted by the then-president and first lady Hillary Clinton.
Two years later, while campaigning with Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp in Harlem, Cain was stunned to find an angry crowd clearly organized by Democrats that showered Kemp and his entourage with boos and profanity — and that was as they were entering the storied Abyssinian Baptist Church.
"I said to myself 'how can anyone allow this to happen?'" Cain told me, adding he vowed "then and there" to become a fighting conservative.
He never made it to the Senate, placing second in a three-candidate primary. But Cain soon became a fixture at conservative events and in the budding "Tea Party" movement.
Speaking at the "Defending American Dream Summit" in Wisconsin March 12-13 in 2010, Cain predicted doom for the Democrats in the fall. Doffing a large cowboy hat he was wearing, he told the crowd that in November, "Obama's going to find out there's a new sheriff in town."
Two in the crowd moved by Cain's rhetoric and style were Mark Block and Linda J. Hansen, both seasoned Badger State conservative organizers. A week later, they managed to nail down the man they called "Mr. Cain" for lunch at the Capitol Grille in Las Vegas, Nevada. They wanted him to run for president in 2012.
"He looked at us and said 'you're both crazy,'" Hansen recalled, "I said 'maybe we are, but we can make your nomination happen.'"
Cain became intrigued and within a few months, he O.K.'d an exploratory committee with Block as chief of staff and Hansen as his deputy.
On May 21, 2011, Cain declared his candidacy to an overflow crowd of 15,000 at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia. He was soon hot on the Republican "rubber chicken circuit," espousing an agenda of smaller government, greater freedom, a pro-life and pro-gun manifesto.
While this was standard stuff for Republican hopefuls, Cain's likable nature and self-styled "outsider" status played well with Republican primary voters and he rose in the polls.
At times, Cain was confronted with issues he did not fully understand and often replied with a phrase he attributed to his grandfather: "I does not know and I does not care." (Asked by an interviewer if speaking in Black dialect sent a bad message to young blacks, Cain shot back: "Get a life!")
In owning what critics called ignorance of some issues, Cain also set out to remedy that. In one televised interview, his knowledge of Israel and the Middle East was clearly limited. The candidate promptly booked a trip to Israel at his own expense and met with various political and military leaders. Accompanied by right-hand man Block, he went to the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., and was personally briefed by the ambassador.
When he was next questioned on Israel, a colleague of mine who saw the TV program concluded Cain "sounded like a member of [Prime Minister] Netanyahu's Cabinet."
Covering the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in July of 2011, I watched Cain hold a crowd spellbound as he spelled out his agenda and expressed sadness that "my favorite columnist, Dr. Charles Krauthammer, says I don't have a chance [at the nomination]."
Addressing the Middle East, Cain declared: "When I'm president, I'll say to anyone in the world: 'You mess with Israel, you're on my bad side!'" The audience loved it.
By the end of the summer, the "pizza man" was inarguably a player in the Republican sweepstakes. He had won several straw polls, including at the Florida Republican convention and the National Federation of Republican Women. Conservatives nationwide were beginning to seriously eye him as the alternative to "establishment"-backed front-runner Mitt Romney.
"You can make history with me," Cain told a wildly cheering Western Republican Conference in Las Vegas in August. "When Obama walks across the stage at the first presidential debate and I look him in the eye, you'll know what I mean."
It was not to be. On Oct. 31, the first of several charges of sexual harassment and a claim of an extramarital affair hit the candidate hard. Cain strongly denied it all, but saw his poll numbers drop along with fundraising.
"I'm not going to be the nominee," he told campaign chief Block at a meeting in his office in Stockbridge, Georgia. Block told us, "he knew how to manage money and the campaign never spent money it didn't have. He knew we couldn't keep going on and have no chance of winning."
"If we had Twitter at the time and we had Donald Trump's money, we could have fought back at the charges and survived," said Block's deputy Hansen. "But we didn't. And Mr. Cain would not let anything hurt [wife] Gloria. So he got out."
Linda J. Hansen and Mark Block are proud of the parts they played with a candidate who, they agree, was on the path of changing history. For having the opportunity to report on it — and getting to know Herman Cain — this reporter is grateful.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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