Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Have a Coke and a smile.
Americans love a catchy slogan, whether it’s a bromide about good ol’ American values or a sappy sales pitch for soda pop.
And there you have an explanation of Herman Cain’s moment in the sun.
But are Republicans ready to back a presidential nominee who refers to himself as “the Hermanator?” Likely not. Cain is a fad. One that will fade fast.
Cain is a human infomercial, a walking jingle. He’s ready with catchy replies for every question he’s asked on television, and the message often boils down to “Keep your head down and work!” That’s not a bad mantra for getting ahead in the cubicle trenches, and it’s an attitude that has taken Cain far in life.
Nevertheless, this presidential contest, more than any in recent memory, will be about content, not style. Instead of motivational speechifying about individual achievement, we need to know what policy ideas a candidate has for getting this nation out of its intractable economic mess.
Cain’s biography is remarkable. The things that come out of his mouth are not. Leave aside 9-9-9, his unorthodox formula for taxation. The classic Cain comes through in his “CEO of self” mantra, his ordering people to get on the “Herman Cain Train,” his many motivational slogans.
But while he’s basking in his limelight as the Republican presidential frontrunner, he deserves a closer look. In fact, he’s dying to tell us more in his immodestly titled autobiography, “This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House.”
The book is not a literary triumph. However, it is revealing, offering some insight into Cain’s tendency to deride the less successful, particularly other black people. Cain didn’t succeed by hard work alone, by being his own CEO. He had a lot of help, like anyone who does well in life. Cain forthrightly credits these people as key to his success, but he doesn’t seem to grasp how the lack of similar supporters can hold others back.
Contrary to what many might assume for a man of his era born in the segregated South, the leaders and events of the Civil Rights movement don’t figure prominently in Cain’s autobiography.
In Cain’s writing, his family didn’t so much suffer under legalized segregation as it kind of quietly maneuvered around it. He says he refuses to think of himself as a victim of racism, but one wonders if this has blinded him to the ways in which it did harm others — and the ways that impact is still entrenched today.
Cain recounts being with his younger brother in Atlanta and daring to sip once from a “whites only” water fountain, making sure no one noticed. He talks about being a teenager and moving to the back of a bus, against his sense of dignity but with the intention “to avoid trouble.”
Against the violent backdrop of the civil rights movement and freedom rides and sit-ins, he writes, “Dad always said, ‘Stay out of trouble,’ and we did.”
That became an approach to life; keep your nose to the grindstone, monitor your own work ethic, don’t make a fuss.
Cain graciously acknowledges his parents for giving him a foundation, his faith and unyielding encouragement to pursue his dreams. His father especially loomed large. His father was the private chauffeur to the CEO of Coca-Cola, one of several jobs he juggled. A savvy man, Cain’s father asked for shares of Coke instead of cash bonuses, and his boss obliged.
Later, his father’s connections landed him a non-manual labor job in a laboratory during college. Cain went to work at Coke after graduate school, later following a mentor from there to Pillsbury, where Cain’s career took off. He was put in charge of turning around a lackluster sales region of the company’s Burger King subsidiary. He succeeding with flying colors, in part thanks to a program he instituted to urge employees to smile more. Later he pulled off a similar turnaround of Godfather’s Pizza.
Cain clearly worked diligently during his career. He demonstrated great talent for managerial problem solving. He knows how to motivate employees.
But those aren’t the same skills as handling delicate international relations where you are not the CEO, but one of many chieftans, addressing a $14 trillion debt with global financial implications isn’t the same as revamping assembly line configurations, and getting 16 million Americans back to work in growing industries won’t be accomplished with a sunny pep talk.
(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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