On Father’s Day earlier this year, Melanie Cain Gallo drove to her parents’ house to drop off a gift for her dad, Herman Cain. He had just returned from a business trip that included a stop at a rally for President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he posed for a photo with other members of the campaign’s Black advisory board. A day later, Cain was back in Atlanta. Though he and his wife Gloria took precautions when it came to the coronavirus — Gloria has a heart condition and wore a mask, even around family — Melanie still gave her dad “big hugs,” she said, before driving back to her home nearby.
The next day, the father–daughter pair returned to their office in Stockbridge, a suburb south of Atlanta. Melanie had worked with her dad for 15 years and was responsible for recording videos he made for the Herman Cain Show, a daily web series hosted on the conservative website Western Journal. Throughout the week, they worked in their small shared office. By Friday, June 26, both were feeling sick. Cain, dressed in a deep blue Hawaiian shirt, with a portrait of Ronald Reagan visible behind him, filmed that day’s episode as planned, speaking for 14 minutes about the “Marxist” agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement, clashes with police in Seattle and Oakland, and new signs that the COVID death rate was finally dropping. “That’s good news,” he said in the episode, “but people have got to take it seriously. Social-distancing, sanitizing, washing your hands, and wearing masks — that’s how we really get our hands around this, folks.” By the late afternoon, both felt worse and decided to go home early.
Over the weekend, their conditions deteriorated further. “I thought he was just drained from the travel,” Melanie said. Neither of them ran a fever. They just “felt awful.” By Monday she was concerned enough to drive herself and Cain to get tested. As Melanie stood in line, her father waited outside by the car, too weak to join her. Suddenly, he fainted. Paramedics had to rush to the scene; later that day, both Melanie and her father tested positive for COVID-19. They returned to their respective homes to isolate and rest.
“Once he went in the hospital, he stayed there.”
Melanie, who is 48 years old, did recover, eventually. But Herman Cain never did. “His just got worse fast to the point where he needed to go to the hospital,” Melanie said. “Once he went in the hospital, he stayed there.”
The hospital didn’t allow anyone to visit Cain, making him one of the many thousands of Americans who have had to face the illness alone as medical providers fought to limit the virus’s spread. Cain’s family were only able to talk to him on the phone and via FaceTime, and for a while they didn’t think his case was outside the norm for COVID-19 patients.
“He was eventually on a ventilator,” Melanie said. “But the reports were similar to what you hear for other patients. You know, oxygen issues with the lungs, just things like that. Those things sounded, relatively speaking for COVID, normal.”
Cain stayed in the hospital for 29 days. The family, physically divided by the virus, kept a close hold on what information they released to the public. Cain’s wife and his son, 42-year-old Vincent, aren’t on social media much, but Melanie quickly saw the “range of reactions” inspired by her dad’s diagnosis. She monitored the conversation at home, unable to see her mother or visit her father in the hospital, and still self-isolating from her husband and kids at their house in Atlanta. “And then to have all the politicization piled on top of that,” she said. “It was one of the worst times that we’ve experienced.”
On Thursday, July 30, Gloria got a phone call. The doctors said Cain was “in distress,” according to Melanie, and though the family pushed to continue his treatment, Cain was doing badly enough that they were allowed into the hospital to say goodbye. It was too late.
“He was basically gone when we got there,” Melanie said. “We said goodbye, but we believe he had already passed.” Cain was 74.
Later that morning, Dan Calabrese, the director of Cain’s media company and the editor of his website, announced in a blog post that Cain had died. “You’re never ready for the kind of news we are grappling with this morning,” Calabrese wrote. “But we have no choice but to seek and find God’s strength and comfort to deal with it. Herman Cain — our boss, our friend, like a father to so many of us — has passed away.”
Trump told reporters that day that Cain “was a very special person.”
“Unfortunately,” the president added, “he passed away from a thing called the China virus.” That day, Trump called Gloria and the family to express his condolences. “I don’t really know how to describe it. It wasn’t an unpleasant conversation,” Melanie said. “At the time, we were just focused on other things.” It was, she said, a disorienting day.
Almost immediately, the bare facts of Cain’s diagnosis, his 29-day hospitalization, and eventual death, hardened into a simple and extreme political allegory: Cain attends MAGA rally, Cain doesn’t wear mask, Cain gets COVID, Cain literally dies. Among Resistance Twitter users, the alternate ending went even further: “Trump’s rally killed him,” wrote media critic Jeff Jarvis. “Joe Biden’s campaign events never killed anyone. Trump’s rally did,” wrote Oliver Willis, one of the left’s original bloggers. This vein of commentary birthed an equal and opposite reaction on the right. “It has not even been 12 hours since former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain was pronounced dead from COVID-19, and the usual partisans are already using his death as an opportunity to score political points,” said Washington Examiner writer Becket Adams. The usual tributes — obits in all the major papers, a panel on Fox News — got garbled in the noise.
That week, the team at his media company discussed what to do next. With the family, they decided they would keep the eponymous platform alive, rebranding as “the Cain Gang.” They didn’t make the change immediately, according to Calabrese, leaving Cain’s name and photo atop his Twitter account, which had been set up to auto-tweet certain content on the site, including syndicated posts from Western Journal. For a number of days, as the site published new material, it appeared that Cain was tweeting from the grave. The mistake, described by Calabrese as an “internal administrative thing” they corrected after about two days, lit up Twitter. Their eventual Cain Gang rebrand was also clumsy. A since-deleted Aug. 7 tweet, linking to a Western Journal article, argued that the virus was “not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.” A few weeks later, the tweet resurfaced, prompting another wave of headlines. “Herman Cain Tweets Coronavirus Not That Deadly — Despite Having Died From It,” one read. It was as if Cain, still somewhere on the campaign trail, had been caught in a bad gaffe.
Three months later, at least 70,000 more Americans have died of COVID-19, bringing the total to 227,000. The virus has reached the highest level of government and Republican circles, infecting the president himself earlier this month. Cain’s death became a footnote.
Lost in all the meta-commentary was the story of Cain himself. To rewind just a few years to the peak of his fame on the right is to be reminded that he played a key role in priming the Republican base for a Trump-like leader. Along with Sarah Palin and Ron Paul, Cain, in both his compelling successes and his failings, helped create the stage for conservatism in 2020 — a populist and media-centered politics, slogan-friendly and written off as a joke by the people who were supposed to be in charge.
The manner of Cain’s death, and the tumultuous year in which he died, overshadowed a story that stretched well beyond politics. In both life and death, Cain fit no one’s preferred narrative. Though he had lauded Trump’s approach to the virus, focusing in his columns on gradually reopening the economy, Cain wasn’t a COVID denier. Early on in the pandemic, according to Melanie, he convened a meeting with his staff to set down protocols for handwashing, social distancing, and wearing masks. He also got in the habit of opening episodes of his daily video show by reminding viewers to take the virus seriously and follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His advice early on in the pandemic, unlike much of the president’s, was practical and unequivocal. He suggested wiping down surfaces, as he said he had done at home and around the office — “cleaning all handles, cleaning all knobs,” he told his followers in March. He encouraged wearing masks and keeping a distance of 6 feet around strangers, as he said he did. “I think those things are gonna be with us for quite some time, folks,” he predicted of CDC guidelines in an episode in May. And though he attended the Trump rally that became a symbol of the president’s carelessness toward the crisis, his family and others close to him don’t believe it’s certain that he contracted the virus in Tulsa. There’s no way to know for sure.
“He was a real person,” said Karol Markowicz, a conservative writer who worked on Cain’s 2004 Senate campaign in Georgia. “He wasn’t like this character you see on TV. He was a good guy. It’s unfortunate.”
When he was just starting out in politics, Herman Cain used to tell a story about his grandfather, Eugene Davis, and the “dirt farm” he worked in Georgia. Aides knew this as the “big potatoes” speech, and when they heard their boss start in on the riff — recalling for the audience how the kids in the family would watch their grandfather load a wagon with potatoes and ready a mule to head out for the market in town — they knew he had read the room and felt the crowd was with him.
“Them that’s going, get on the wagon!” his grandfather would tell the gaggle of grandkids before heading out. “Them that ain’t, get out of the way!”
Every time, Cain and the other kids would scramble into the wagon, climbing atop the pile of potatoes. And every time, their grandfather would avoid the smooth center of the road, driving instead on the rough dirt, where ruts and bumps would jostle the kids and send the potatoes bouncing beneath them. One day, Cain would tell the crowd, he finally asked why his grandpa always drove on the rough part of the road. “And he said, ‘That way, by the time we get to town, all the little potatoes will be on the bottom, and all of the big potatoes will be on the top — and I want you kids to be the big potatoes.’”
By this time in his speech, Cain’s voice would be building and the crowd would be cheering and laughing. And then, his voice booming, a finale: “YOU ARE BIG POTATOES,” he would shout. “WE ARE THE BIG POTATOES — ARE YOU WITH ME?”
Cain was new to this, a first-time candidate in Georgia who had made the jump from the restaurant world to a three-way Republican primary for the Senate in 2004, but he had confidence and a natural way with people. “By now, it’s a rock concert and the stage is literally surging,” said Matt Carrothers, a former staffer who moved to Atlanta to work for Cain’s Senate campaign and later helped launch his media company.
“BE A BIG POTATO,” Cain would say.
The story, which Cain first used in motivational speeches in business and later adapted for the campaign trail, embodied much of what made him a magnetic and approachable figure in national politics: He was born in Memphis, the son of a chauffeur who then made a remarkable climb through the restaurant industry, moving up the ranks of the Pillsbury Company, from Burger King to Godfather’s Pizza, at a time when corporate America had yet to open up its deeply white boardrooms. He was a self-starting politician who launched his Senate bid in Georgia with close to 0% name recognition, finished in a distant second, and carved out a spot for himself on the national stage. He was a Black Republican who liked to buck political orthodoxy, telling aides, “I worked hard, made a success of myself, and learned to think for myself.” He was a man who’d wear suits to a “meat ‘n’ three” cafeteria lunch, and would insist on speaking to voters in plain English, the way he wanted to. And as a first-time candidate, according to Carrothers, he set three rules for his young staff: First, “check your ego at the door.” Second, “have a sense of humor.” Third, “no pessimists allowed.”
But the “big potatoes” speech was also exactly the kind of trademark Herman Cain style, with its big and borderline-goofy crescendo, that could disguise his own genuine seriousness, leaning into the punchline perhaps a little too far. When he ran for office the second time, in the 2012 Republican primary, his campaign became known for attention-getting slogans and stunts: Its most famous ad featured chief strategist Mark Block smoking a cigarette, and Cain pushed a catchy — some thought gimmicky — “9-9-9” tax plan. (The plan consisted of a 9% personal income tax, 9% federal sales tax, and 9% corporate tax.) Cain’s background outside of politics was an asset in some ways, appealing to conservative voters who distrusted career politicians. He got a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College, working for the Navy as a civilian ballistics analyst before receiving a master’s in computer science. Pillsbury eventually put him in charge of resuscitating its Godfather’s Pizza chain, a role that led him to stints running the National Restaurant Association and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. But it worked against him in others; Cain botched policy questions, once pronouncing Uzbekistan as “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” and his public image became that of a pizza magnate who was always talking about 9-9-9.
“He would go into places in Georgia, where as a kid, he couldn’t go.”
Matt Wylie, the campaign manager for the 2004 race, said Cain learned quickly as a first-time candidate and particularly loved retail politics; he was eager to get out and shake hands. A Black Republican running in the South was a rarity, and Cain’s personal history added resonance to his campaign. “He would go into places in Georgia, where as a kid he couldn’t go,” Wylie said. “And people would be inspired to hear from him. We would have crowds of people wanting to talk to him.”
He enjoyed playing with people’s expectations, aides said. Carrothers, the 2004 Senate staffer, recalled frequent lunches with Cain and the candidate’s childhood best friend, Joel Ricks, both of whom were then in their late fifties. When the waiter would approach their table and take in the group of three — watching “two impeccably dressed Black men,” usually in three-piece suits, sit down with Carrothers, who is white and was 31 at the time — Cain would look up and say, “My son can have whatever he wants.”
Though Johnny Isakson, then a member of Congress, won the 2004 Senate primary by a wide margin — 53% of the vote to Cain’s 26% — his campaign had seen Cain as enough of a threat to launch a direct-mail effort against him. Cain parlayed his increased fame into a career in conservative talk radio, hosting his own show on Atlanta’s WSB from 2008 to 2011, and filling in occasionally for host Neal Boortz’s nationally syndicated show. He launched a political action committee called the Hermanator PAC, and began speaking at events for conservative candidates running that cycle, including now-senator Tim Scott, the South Carolina Republican.
Markowicz, the deputy press secretary for the Senate campaign, said that when the 2004 campaign ended, Cain’s staffers were eager for him to run for another statewide office in Georgia. But he would eventually set his sights on a bigger prize, a move that Markowicz thought he wasn’t ready for. “Running statewide in Georgia just seemed to me a very different animal than running for president,” she said.
Cain made his debut at the first Republican debate of the 2012 primary, appearing in Greenville, South Carolina on May 5, 2011, alongside two former governors, a former US senator, and a member of Congress. Backstage before the debate started, he turned to his top aide. “Mr. Cain made a comment that all he ever wanted to do in life was to be financially stable,” Block recalled. “And he said, ‘Now look, I’m about ready to walk onstage for one of the highest offices in the world.’ And I turned and just said, ‘Let Cain be Cain.’” The line presaged Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s maxim: “Let Trump be Trump.”
Cain’s 2012 bid presaged Trump in other ways: He ran a media-centered campaign at a time when people viewed the strategy as a distraction from traditional organizing — intimate Iowa gatherings that propel “real” candidates — or as a ploy to get famous. The candidate appeared often in non-primary states, and employed only a handful of people in Iowa; three months before voting began, he spent much of October 2011 away from the campaign trail to promote his book This Is Herman Cain! “I remember one of the Iowa staffers said something along the lines of ‘people in Iowa have TVs too,’” said a former Cain staffer. “Like, being on Fox was going to be as much of a benefit as going to some pancake breakfast.” No one on the campaign seemed prepared or willing to give Cain negative feedback, this staffer said. “The people around Herman were so sycophantic,” they said. “They would never tell him he did anything wrong.”
Cain did plenty to distract from his own success: He made hateful and inflammatory comments about Muslims on the trail. He dared people to question his policy credentials, arguing that voters needed “a leader, not a reader.” His candidacy spiraled into full crisis at the end of October when Politico reported that two women who had worked for Cain in the 1990s while he led the National Restaurant Association had accused him of sexual harassment. Cain claimed he had been “falsely accused” but confirmed that there had been a settlement with the women. At the end of November 2011, Ginger White, an Atlanta woman, came forward with allegations that she and Cain had had a 13-year-long affair. Cain denied this, but his campaign quickly collapsed.
In the years after his presidential bid, Cain’s public presence seemed to shrink to the fringes of the party. But in his early seventies, he became one of President Trump’s most reliable supporters and remained a familiar face on the Fox News circuit as he traveled the country for speaking engagements. Trump nearly nominated him in 2019 for a seat on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, but Cain withdrew under expected Senate opposition. For the most part, you found him in daily videos on The Herman Cain Show, or writing in the pages of his own lo-fi website, HermanCain.com, or in the headlines for a provocative tweet.
On the evening of Wednesday, July 1, the day Cain was admitted to the hospital, one such tweet appeared on his account. At 5:44 p.m., next to his name, a smiling headshot, and his blue checkmark, @THEHermanCain shared a Western Journal article about the Republican governor of South Dakota, who had just declined to require mask-wearing and social distancing at the Mount Rushmore event where Trump was slated to celebrate the 4th of July holiday weekend. “Masks will not be mandatory for the event, which will be attended by President Trump,” the tweet read. “PEOPLE ARE FED UP!”
Like many of the tweets from @THEHermanCain, this one wasn’t written by Cain, according to Calabrese, the media company director. Instead, he said, material for the account “would originate through informal banter” between Cain and his staffers, drawn from office talk or group text messages, and crafted into tweets styled in their boss’s voice.
Calabrese declined to name the person responsible for the tweet, saying they had since moved on to another job. “If there was something [Cain] was fed up about, it was probably the way some people are so pushy and judgmental,” he said, “but not the masks themselves. He absolutely recognized the necessity of it — and I know he was careful.”
Melanie Cain Gallo believes he could have been more careful — after the Tulsa rally, she said, she questioned him herself about why he wasn’t wearing a mask in the photo he tweeted. He told his daughter that he felt comfortable enough to do so because of the event’s temperature checks, a measure that was popular early in the pandemic that scientists increasingly say offers little protection.
Cain had already been traveling in the lead-up to the rally — there was a trip to Las Vegas and a stop in Dallas before the Tulsa rally for the premiere of Uncle Tom, a documentary about Black conservatives. Some close to him believed he more likely caught COVID-19 in an airport or on a flight. Cain himself didn’t speculate on where he could have contracted the virus. “We didn’t really talk about it,” Melanie said. “I mean, the main thing we were talking about was the fact that we both felt so bad.”
Current and former staffers who were watching the public reaction sensed in it something they had observed for years — a familiar reflex, they said, to caricaturize Cain.
“So they acted like he was this idiot … The truth is, he completely understood what people expected.”
On his campaigns and at his media company, aides embraced a kind of “island of misfit toys” vibe, as Block, the 2012 chief strategist, put it, and a belief that Cain challenged people’s long-held expectations about presidential candidates. But it still bothers some of them that even during his rise to the top of the polls in the 2012 Republican primary, Cain was covered as half frontrunner, half joke. “The pundits would approach him as if he was just this goofball because he said things like ‘Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan,’” said Calabrese.
“So they acted like he was this idiot who didn’t seem to understand how to handle himself in the political world. The truth is, he completely understood what people expected — and he thought it was ridiculous and he wasn’t gonna do it,” he said. “He had a self-deprecating sense of humor. He liked to be kind of goofy and loud. And he wasn’t gonna stop doing that because some political image consultant somewhere thought that he would get disrespected by Politico. Who cares about Politico?”
If the dynamic troubled his staff, it didn’t seem to bother Cain. What did, Calabrese said, was the way in which race shaped people’s view of his politics. “He was considered by a lot of people to be an apostate,” he said. “This he did talk about. If you were a Black man who questioned or strayed from the Democratic orthodoxy — not just about race, but about economics, about the role of government — you were a heretic.”
He came from a tradition of Black conservatism animated by issues of economics, business, and, for Cain in particular, independence. He had said he first registered as a GOP voter after overhearing someone say, “Black Republicans? There’s no such thing.” The suggestion that “someone would dare tell me what party affiliation I should have,” Cain said, “haunted” him for days. Black Republican politicians operate in a complicated public space, caught between ideals and a party that can be less than welcoming, and sometimes outright hostile, to Black voters and their concerns. This has been further complicated by Trump — a president who, without irony, says he’s done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln while disparaging Black officials and overseeing a pandemic that’s disproportionately affected Black Americans.
Still, Cain’s pro-business posture and willingness to rebuke the establishment line made his support for Trump unsurprising. Cain spoke at a Trump rally in Georgia in December 2015; by March, he was encouraging the Republican establishment to “get over” their resistance to the presumptive nominee. Cain defended Trump’s record on race at a campaign rally on June 15, 2016, in Atlanta. “This sounds like a shucky-ducky kind of crowd on a shucky-ducky kind of day here to support an aww-shucky-ducky kind of candidate,” he said. “I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I know what a racist looks like when I see one. Donald Trump is not a racist.”
The Tulsa rally was important to the president. It was a public reset, talked up by the campaign for weeks — a show that Trump’s people would be behind him, pandemic or no. The event had initially been set for Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the day the last enslaved person was freed, in a city known for the 1921 massacre that’s considered one of the worst instances of racial violence in US history, as nationwide demonstrations over police brutality and racism continued. The scheduling decision was met poorly. The Trump campaign moved the rally to the following night and worked to ensure its Black surrogates would be in attendance. Scores of supporters flew in. It was almost a given that Cain, the chair of Black Voices for Trump, would be there, too.
That Saturday, he touched down in Oklahoma, and by late that afternoon, he was standing in line to enter the Bank of Oklahoma Center along with other members of Black Voices for Trump, the coalition of Black Republicans that Cain helped launch for the president’s reelection.
“Did people think it was safe? I know my dad thought it was safe,” his daughter Melanie said.
A few spots back in line, Dr. Alveda King, a GOP activist and former Georgia state representative, watched Cain, her close friend, get his temperature checked before entering the arena. “I think I didn’t even have on my mask, but there were times that I did,” said King, describing a relaxed approach to mask-wearing that night among VIP rally-goers.
With Cain was Corrin Rankin, a conservative activist based in California. They were part of a group that stuck together throughout the day as they participated in campaign surrogacy, appearing on a preshow livestream hosted by Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson. “We were kind of kept together to make sure we were on time for our interviews, and then we were escorted over to the rest of the group,” Rankin said. Cain appeared on Pierson’s broadcast with a member of the Texas legislature, Rep. James White. None of the three commentators wore a mask, though White sported one pulled beneath his chin.
Cain’s group at the rally included prominent Black Republicans like Baptist minister and host C.L. Bryant, conservative activist Deneen Borelli, and Republican National Committee adviser Paris Dennard. Eventually, they were shown to their seats. Rankin, who took “a bunch” of photos and videos that day, put her phone up and said, “Hey, everyone, smile.” She snapped the photo, and Cain asked her to text it to him. That evening, before the start of the rally, the photo was tweeted from Cain’s account. It showed the group seated close together, none of them wearing a mask.
The post sat on Cain’s feed that night. It wouldn’t become infamous until weeks later, generating tens of thousands of retweets and comments — the vast majority of which came in two bursts, first on July 2, the day Cain’s diagnosis became public, and again on July 30, the day of his death. Though no one in the picture had a mask on, Rankin said that the Trump campaign was providing masks and that Cain had been wearing one at other points in the day. “We would take them off for photos,” she said. On the day of the rally, Rankin posted a behind-the-scenes Instagram photo of a group of Black Voices for Trump surrogates including Cain, who was wearing a mask but had pulled it down beneath his chin.
Rankin defended the rally’s safety procedures. “I felt that the campaign was doing everything according to what we knew at the time, that we were safe.” She said that neither she nor anyone else in the photo besides Cain had gotten sick afterward.
“I’ve never really thought about how I feel about that photo in retrospect,” she said. “I think that it’s a moment in time.”
Trump’s Tulsa rally made news mostly for what it didn’t have: a large turnout or strict social distancing measures. Video obtained by the Washington Post showed event staff, at the direction of the campaign, removing social distancing stickers from seats in the arena meant to keep attendees separated. Despite the campaign’s refusal to enforce social distancing, rallygoers had plenty of room to spread out; the 19,000-seat auditorium wasn’t even halfway full. Trump rambled for nearly two hours. When he did mention the coronavirus, he was dismissive, calling it “the kung flu” and boasting that he had directed officials to “slow down” testing.
The next day, June 21, was Father’s Day. Back in Atlanta, Herman Cain received the visit from his daughter.
The Trump campaign had already announced that six staffers and two Secret Service members who were supposed to work the rally had tested positive for the virus and were self-isolating. An Oklahoma journalist who covered the event would also test positive.
When Cain got the virus too, few people knew until the first public statement. Even then, they didn’t know how sick he was.
Block, his chief strategist in 2012, was supposed to have a long briefing with Cain on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 30, one day after he tested positive. That morning around 11:30 a.m., he got a text from his former boss canceling the meeting. “Regrets today. I tested positive for COVID yesterday. Maybe Wednesday. Thanks, HC,” the message read. By the next afternoon, Cain was in the hospital.
“Once he had been hospitalized for a few days, I never heard from him again.”
The family wanted to keep certain details private. They were especially sensitive about the fact he had been placed on a ventilator, according to Calabrese, who managed press inquiries on behalf of the family throughout the month. “We were getting conflicting messages about whether he was on a ventilator just like the rest of the world was,” said Nathan Naidu, who served as the director of candidate operations (in effect, Cain’s body man) on the 2012 campaign. “And so I think there was still a certain amount of uncertainty there, but at no point did any of us ever think it was that serious.”
Cain wasn’t in a position to keep in touch directly for long, Calabrese said. “Once he had been hospitalized for a few days, I never heard from him again.”
Weeks went by, and Calabrese started to get a bad feeling. He got a call from Cain’s executive assistant early one morning, before 7:30 a.m. “As soon as I heard her voice, I knew,” he said. He spent the rest of that morning readying a public statement and responding to press inquiries. He scrolled through his Facebook timeline and saw intense speculation about Cain’s death from public figures and personal friends. “I’m like, dang it, do people really need to do that? But some people think they do,” he said. The question left Cain’s own former staff divided. Some admitted that the “optics” of the Tulsa photo, as Naidu put it, were “not great,” he said. “Candidly, the timeline is bad. I think we all know that.” Others harped on the press coverage, which largely glossed over the fact that Cain had been traveling that month and had regularly reminded viewers of his Western Journal show to wear masks. “The press made it seem like [Tulsa] was the only possible place he could have caught COVID-19,” said Linda Hansen, Cain’s former deputy chief of staff. “It’s just so unfair and it is I believe disrespectful to him.”
For Ellen Carmichael, a Republican consultant who was Cain’s top press aide in 2012, the reaction from both sides was frustrating. The characterizations from liberal commentators and Saturday Night Live, which portrayed Cain as the fly on Vice President Mike Pence’s head in a recent sketch, were “sickening,” she said. But in her view, Republican grandees didn’t give Cain his due either. “I don’t think he got nearly enough credit. I don’t think he got nearly enough respect,” she said. “I wish that more had been said to honor him. I wish more had been done.”
The day after Cain’s death, the question came up at a White House press briefing. “I will not politicize Herman Cain’s passing,” said press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. That afternoon on the White House lawn, a reporter asked the president if he worried about Cain catching the virus at one of his own rallies. “No, I don’t think he did. No,” Trump said before boarding Marine One for campaign events in Florida.
“All the public stuff — I mean, we can’t focus on that right now,” said Melanie.
“He was … so comfortable in front of any camera. You know, no fear. And we are not that. We are not public people.”
She said she understands why people have been critical of her dad’s decision to go to Tulsa. “I can’t fault those people for speaking against him not wearing the mask and all of that,” she said. Nor does she fault those who believe Trump has mishandled the virus — though she didn’t offer up her own thoughts on the subject. “What I do have a problem with is the way in which people express those things.” People had said “vile” and “nasty” things about her father, she said. “And I don’t think that’s necessary.”
All the while, three months later, the family has stayed silent.
In a way, Cain was always the outlier in their family of four. “He was so public and so outspoken and so larger than life — so comfortable in front of any camera. You know, no fear. And we are not that. We are not public people. We are not media people,” Melanie said.
“And I guess people expected that from us and viewed our silence as — I don’t know what they viewed it as. They didn’t view it as grief and a struggle. They viewed it as us not caring, which was even more hurtful, because we’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, they don’t even care.’
“Well, no,” she said. “We’re still trying to make heads and tails of what happened to our family.” ●
Correction: Eugene Davis’s name was misstated in an earlier version of this story.