When the GOP presidential candidate circus began a few months ago, I heard a name that was in my personal contact list for years: Herman Cain. I worked for Herman at the National Restaurant Association when he became CEO in 1996. I ran media relations for the association and was Herman's press person.
Because of this connection I've been increasingly interested in how he's portraying himself and how he's being perceived by the media and voters. And, I've been waiting to be inspired and taken away by that orator I listened to so often.
As CEO of the 'other' NRA, Herman was a disruptive and creative force. He was great to work with, entertaining to listen to and always a good interview. I see glimmers of that person I used to walk down the hall to talk to when I watch clips of him now. But they are faint.
No matter how good I was at my job, I'm sure I wasn't the barrier between Herman and the bluster he's filling airwaves with now. Something changed and he decided that crazy and fearful is the way to win.
I don't think Herman is a crazy, bigoted man with silly ideas but that's how he seems and that's not an accident. It's the modern political playbook and it will be around long after this election cycle. Unfortunately, the playbook is much like reality TV -- the first woman to punch someone or the first guy to drop his pants becomes the star. Herman and his peers are willing to be that embarrassing reality star in their race to elected office and whatever power it still has.
Herman chose to leave behind his inspirational and engaging self and turn divisive to scare up some coverage, some donors and some votes.
He, however, also left behind his strongest connection to American voters: his story.
Through his stories, I know his family legacy includes freed slaves, sharecroppers and incredibly hardworking parents he used to talk about so often, so respectfully and so inspiringly. One of the stories he used to tell both small and large crowds was how his father finally saved enough to buy a home for his family. He would describe how his father commanded the family to get in the car and then drove them to a different neighborhood and parked in front of the house that would become their home, the first home of their own.
Instead his campaign themes are incendiary: keeping Muslims out of the White House -- or even from building mosques -- and keeping bills longer than three pages out of Congress.
Why rant and scare when you can connect with voters on common themes of family, hard work, striving and providing for your kids? Why not 'Speak As A Leader,' Herman? You wrote a good book about it once.
Maybe he just doesn't think his story and his genuine ideas deserve support.
I can still hear his booming baritone voice ring in my ears and can still entertain a room with stories about working with him, including the time I filled in for him at Colin Powell's 1997 Presidents' Summit for America's Future gathering in Philadelphia and was mistakenly introduced as the president of Godfather's Pizza.
At the end of the day Herman may be just a political footnote and some good clips for Jon Stewart. Whatever happens during our long election cycle and whomever is sworn in on a cold January day in DC, I undoubtedly will think about Herman Cain, the inspiring force he was and the cautionary tale he has become today.