OPINION: Veteran reporter remembers Herman Cain on the campaign trail

When I heard that Herman Cain had died after battling COVID-19, I was transported back to a fall night in 2011.

Cain was running for president and had somehow found himself atop the polls in the Republican primary. I was a political reporter for The Associated Press who somehow found myself trailing after him as he rambled through his native Tennessee on a two-day bus tour.

The former Godfather’s Pizza chain boss surprised a lot of people when he began to raise wads of money and surge in the polls. I was scrambling to get to know him and his operation. If there was an operation.

“Is this guy for real?” asked my editor in Washington.

It sure didn’t seem like it as the campaign swing kicked off in Tennessee. Cain’s schedule was being hammered out on the fly. We in the media weren’t completely sure where he was going, and there was no transportation for the press. So, I did what any self-respecting journalist would do: I barreled through red lights trying to keep the candidate’s bus in sight.

The day was long and unseasonably hot for October. One Tea Party rally followed another. Cain was hawking his catchy 9-9-9 economic plan and likening himself to black walnut ice cream. The whole thing had an improvised and rebellious feel. But that was to be expected from a man whose most famous campaign ad showed his mustachioed campaign manager puffing on a cigarette.

The final stop that day was at a barn in the small community of Waverly, about midway between Memphis and Nashville.

I was already looking forward to relaxing at the hotel. But it soon became apparent that this event was different. It took on the feel of a revival meeting. The temperature had cooled and rather than being tired after the day on the road, Cain seemed to come alive in the moonlight on this rural Tennessee farm. The crowd rose to its feet again and again; Cain called and they answered. You could feel the energy buzzing like the cicadas.

And then, out of nowhere, Cain began to sing. In a silken baritone perfected through years of gospel training he belted out the spiritual “He Looked Beyond My Faults.”

It felt like a rare moment of grace. People closed their eyes and swayed. It’s worth noting that the crowd that night for Cain, a Black man, appeared to be completely white.

Shannon McCaffrey, longtime journalist and a former senior editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

Credit: Ryon Horne

icon to expand image

Credit: Ryon Horne

As it turned out, that night may have been the highlight of Cain’s candidacy. A few weeks later he would be accused of sexual harassment. Several more of such claims would ultimately emerge. He denied the allegations but they ultimately helped doom a candidacy that was improbable from the start.

Mitt Romney would go on to win the Republican nomination that year. But he would lose to Barack Obama, who sailed to a second term.

Cain remained a Tea Party darling and went on to star in a nationally syndicated radio show. His political action committee raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Republican candidates, and he was an ardent supporter of Donald Trump, whose own offbeat and showman-style candidacy seemed to be the heir apparent to Cain’s ill-fated bid.

Cain died after being photographed without a mask at Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Whether he contracted COVID-19 there is anyone’s guess. The rally was held against the advice of public health experts. And Cain, who had recovered from cancer, should have known he was in a high-risk category.

But I think of that moonlit October night in rural Tennessee when he moved a barn full of people close to tears.

“I’ll never know why Jesus came to love me so,” Cain sang. “He looked beyond our faults and saw our needs.”

Shannon McCaffrey is a former reporter and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who is now senior director of Health Sciences Communications at Emory University.