ATLANTA — Herman Cain, with his rich baritone voice and natural showman's instinct, reinvented himself multiple times over his lifetime: computer analyst, millionaire business executive, political lobbyist, broadcaster, motivational speaker, author and presidential candidate, among others.
Cain, of Henry County, Georgia, was as successful and opinionated as he was unforgettable, but COVID-19 silenced him, his current and former employees confirmed Thursday. He was 74.
"We're heartbroken, and the world is poorer: Herman Cain has gone to be with the Lord," an employee wrote on Cain's Instagram page.
Cain had been hospitalized since July 1 after traveling to multiple places in June, including a rally for his ally President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20 in which he was photographed not wearing a facemask. His death immediately prompted a debate on social media over the GOP's attitudes on mask wearing and racial inequalities surrounding COVID-19.
Cain's supporters, including Trump, spoke instead of his charisma and how he emerged from humble beginnings to become an accomplished businessman and prominent figure within the GOP.
"Herman had an incredible career and was adored by everyone that ever met him, especially me," Trump tweeted. "He was a very special man, an American Patriot, and great friend."
Neal Boortz, a close friend and fellow radio host, said: "You combine his faith, a personality that enjoyed everybody and his accomplishments in his life, it's a pretty extraordinary package."
Cain is survived by his wife Gloria, his daughter Melanie Gallo, son Vincent Cain and several grandchildren.
Cain was born Dec. 13, 1945, in Memphis, Tennessee, moving to Atlanta with his working-class parents at an early age. After high school, he earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics at Morehouse College. From there, his trajectory was all upward until a few bumps slowed him later in life.
He received a master's degree in computer science from Purdue University in Indiana, then stormed the business world. He worked as a ballistics analyst for the U.S. Navy. Back home in Atlanta, he worked as a computer systems analyst at The Coca-Cola Company.
During the 1980s, he managed 400 Burger Kings in the Philadelphia area when the fast-food company was a Pillsbury subsidiary. He later became chairman and CEO of Godfather's Pizza, a Pillsbury-owned chain in Omaha, Nebraska, dropping troubled franchises, launching inventive ad campaigns and dropping unpopular menu items. He held the position for about a decade.
In 1994, he made national headlines challenging President Bill Clinton during a nationally televised town-hall-style meeting over a proposed health care plan, which ultimately failed. The confrontation made Cain a GOP star, and Newsweek at the time identified Cain as one of the plan's "saboteurs."
Soon after, Cain became CEO of the National Restaurant Association in Washington D.C. While head of that trade group, he bolstered its image and clout. He described his media strategy as "Mo, Me, Mo," as in motivation, message, momentum.
He fought restaurant smoking bans, lobbied against reducing blood-alcohol limits as a way to prevent drunken driving and fought minimum wage increases. He became friends with Georgia's Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the U.S. House, and also then-congressman from Georgia Jack Kemp, who placed Cain on a congressional study group on tax reform.
After Cain left the group in 1999, he moved back to Georgia, focusing on motivational speaking and writing books. He briefly considered a presidential run in 2000, then sought a Senate seat in 2004, but lost to Johnny Isakson in the Republican primary.
He battled and overcame liver and colon cancer in 2006 and 2007.
In 2008, Cain joined WSB radio as a night talk show host. In 2010, he addressed more than 40 Tea Party rallies, hit early primary states, and became Fox News regular.
In May 2011, Cain announced his candidacy for the White House, requiring him to drop his radio show. He ran as an outsider, an anti-Washington conservative with business acumen. He called his appearances "The Hermanator Experience," a phrase he trademarked.
Cain's inspirational speaker's fire and natural-born charm helped him build support during GOP debates, and his candidacy surged after a surprise win in a closely contested Florida straw poll. He was briefly a leader in the polls.
Cain received a lot of attention promoting his 9-9-9 tax plan, which centered on a complete rewrite of the tax code that featured a flat 9% income tax, 9% business tax and 9% federal sales tax.
But Cain also had several missteps. He said communities "have the right" to ban mosques, vowed to build an electrified fence along the Mexican border and told a cable TV interviewer that the government shouldn't tell a woman she can't get an abortion. Cain later insisted he opposed abortion in all cases, including rape and incest.
He suspended his campaign in December 2011 after battling allegations of sexual misconduct. Two women came forward saying Cain sexually harassed them when he was head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s and that he made financial settlements with both of them.
Cain called the allegations "false and unproven," but the damage was done, especially after a Dunwoody woman said she carried on a 13-year extramarital affair with him. Cain denied the accusation but acknowledged payments to the woman.
"These false and unproven allegations continue to be spinned in the media and in the court of public opinion so as to create a cloud of doubt over me and this campaign and my family," Cain said as he announced he was suspending his campaign. "That spin hurts."
Cain returned to radio in January 2013, taking over for Boortz as a syndicated talk show host. He stepped down from that job in 2018, continuing to do shows online on his website since then. He also began hosting his own TV show in 2020 with conservative cable network NewsMax.
Cain was the rare Black Republican who rose high in the ranks and seemed at times to take positions that were more conservative than many of his white colleagues.
That put him at odds with the Democratic politics of many of the alumni of his alma mater, Morehouse College, though some saw elements of his training as a Morehouse man shining through. He remained a lifetime member of the National Alumni Association and a former member of Morehouse's board of trustees.
Marcellus Barksdale, chairman of Morehouse's African American Studies Department, argued in a 2018 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Cain is exactly what a Morehouse Man should represent.
"I may not believe in his politics, but he has done what we have been taught to do," said Barksdale, a 1965 Morehouse graduate. "He has had a wonderful career ... He has the right to run for president and I respect his run."
Morehouse College President David A. Thomas said, "The Morehouse College Community is deeply saddened over the passing of alumnus Herman Cain."
In recent years, Cain became a vocal supporter of Trump's. He co-chaired Black Voices for Trump and launched a super PAC in 2018 to support the president's agenda and GOP priorities.
In 2019, Trump tapped Cain for a 14-year term on the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors, whose seven members oversee the nation's monetary policy and help set interest rates.
Before moving back to Georgia to launch a political career, Cain had served on the board of the Kansas City branch of the Federal Reserve, an advisory post typically reserved for local business executives.
Cain's nomination for the Board of Governors, however, was short-lived.
His beliefs and political ties were criticized even by critics of the Federal Reserve. Cain had previously called for a return to the gold standard, a controversial position, and the body, typically filled with bankers, financiers and well-respected economists, has a reputation for being independent and apolitical, often in the face of presidential displeasure.
When it became clear he couldn't win enough votes in the U.S. Senate to be confirmed, particularly given his past sexual harassment allegations in the aftermath of #MeToo, Cain withdrew his name from consideration.
Cain's admirers took to social media Thursday to share their tributes.
Gov. Brian Kemp called Cain an "unwavering patriot, a conservative stalwart & a deeply wise, thoughtful man who lived the American Dream."
U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who defeated Cain for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, called Cain a "formidable champion of business, politics and policy."
"St. Peter will soon hear '999!' Romney tweeted. "Keep up the fight, my friend."
Ellen Carmichael, a political operative who worked for Cain's presidential campaign, said her former boss was often misunderstood.
"He was a giant of a person in ways that people who would choose to see him merely as a caricature could never understand," Carmichael wrote on Twitter. "This is a man who grew up in a house that had three rooms in it ... His American Dream story is one for the history books."