Reporter's Notebook: The Rise and Fall of the real Herman Cain

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Story highlights

  • Herman Cain was a study in charm and contradictions
  • Since forming a presidential exploratory committee in January, he's captivated conservatives
  • He often made jokes, but later had to apologize

Who was the real Herman Cain?

Was he all of the fearless, savvy, politically cunning yet proudly politically incorrect man who appears larger than life on TV?

Or was Cain -- as his critics suggest -- deeply flawed, politically naïve and self-absorbed?

Now that the conservative businessman has suspended his Republican presidential campaign, some may wonder how much they really knew him.

What does 'suspending' mean?

What I know about Herman Cain comes from my time spent with him, his campaign, and from witnessing his unlikely rise and unfortunate fall.

I was there at the beginning of Cain's surprise White House bid, having followed him from tea party sensation to breaking the story of his presidential exploratory committee. And I was there at the end, Saturday in Atlanta, as he bowed out of the race. These were bookends to a triumphant and tragic year.

From talk show host to candidate

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I had an unusual introduction to his campaign.

Just last year, Herman Cain was a little-known political commodity with a sliver of conservative listeners on Atlanta talk radio. Back then, if you asked most people outside that group, "Who is Herman Cain?" the answer was often: "Who?"

I knew Cain because I was supposed to. I'd been covering the tea party movement for CNN and knew him to be popular with the activists.

From the start, he was a study in contrasts.

Cain was a proud graduate of the one of the most well-known historically black colleges: Morehouse College. But he also was a proud African-American conservative who did not want to be overly identified as being black. He was a child of racially segregated Georgia who witnessed racism up close. And, in later years, he staunchly defended the tea party against claims of racism.

He made bold political proclamations on important issues, though he'd never held political office and lost the only race he'd ever run, for a Senate seat from Georgia in 2004. As the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and head of the National Restaurant Association, he was an accomplished businessman who'd left behind the private sector to try to run the most powerful nation on the planet.

When I heard murmurs that Cain may jump into the presidential race, I called his office and asked for an interview. Days later, on January 12, he gave me an exclusive.

CNN broke the news that Cain would form a presidential exploratory committee in January. The interview introduced Cain to an entirely new audience.

I remember challenging Cain on some of his assertions. As a stage-four cancer survivor, why did he believe he would have died if the nation's new health care law had been fully implemented in 2006 when he was diagnosed?

"I was able to get my cancer diagnosed, treated in a period of nine months. That's what saved my life," he told me. "You won't be able to get the service as you can get today as quickly as you can get it. That's what I'm saying. It's that the law and the bureaucracy is going to slow the process down."

Another question I asked: "Aren't you, as political observers say, the longest of long shots to win the Republican nomination?"

He replied, "That's the problem with some people's thinking. There is the traditional, inside-the-box thinking about how to win an election as big as the presidency, and outside-the-box thinking.

"People who say that Herman Cain has no chance of winning the nomination for the Republican Party, or win the presidency, I simply say 'Thank you.' Because all my life, I have been in situations where I wasn't supposed to become VP of Pillsbury, I wasn't supposed to be able to turn Godfather's Pizza around. I wasn't supposed to succeed in climbing the corporate ladder in corporate America. So to the people who say I don't have a chance, I say 'Thank you.' Because that inspires me."

After the interview, his then-communications director told me that Cain felt it was a tough but fair line of questioning. It's possible I earned his respect. From there on, each time I saw Cain he warmly addressed me by my first name.

He did the same on Saturday as he bowed out of the presidential race, saying, "Thank you Shannon," and acknowledged our first interview.

Over the next year, I would interact with the candidate and his campaign frequently. I met, and ultimately became friends with, his then communications director Ellen Carmichael. I covered the official announcement of Cain's presidential campaign in mid-May from Atlanta. In a rare, behind-the-scenes moment, I spent time eating pizza with Cain and his staff on his campaign bus during the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa. I was there when Cain ambled over to our CNN Express during the Iowa State Fair, chatting with our staff and being interviewed by anchor Don Lemon.

Confidence and contradictions

A few things seemed to be true about the man. He was incredibly charming and it was not insincere. He was amazingly confident and self-assured, even when others thought he was lacking in some area of expertise.

But he was also a bundle of walking contradictions in a fedora. He owned the non-politician's label even as he made the embarrassing, rookie mistakes of a political amateur. He earned fans for speaking his mind even if he appeared to be unpolished. He was skilled at boiling down complex policy ideas into crowd-pleasing one-liners, even if it made those ideas sound over generalized or oversimplified. But he was always a brilliant marketer of his ideas and slogans -- selling the "9-9-9" plan and urging supporters to get on "The Cain Train."

Cain was also pleasant and enjoyed the jokester's role. But some of Cain's "jokes" he later had to clarify, like saying that an electric fence should be put on the U.S.-Mexico border with a sign warning illegal immigrants "It will kill you." Like a 2006 column that surfaced with Cain apparently endorsing golfer Tiger Woods for president in 2016. Like offering former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a job in a Cain administration.

And even as Cain was embroiled with sexual harassment allegations himself, he joked about Anita Hill, the law school professor who accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his 1991 Supreme Court hearings.

"Is she going to endorse me," Cain laughed in mid-November at a campaign event in Michigan, as the crowd laughed with him.

Watching all of this, either up close or from a close distance, it seems the question of "Who is Herman Cain" might best be answered: He's a bit of all the things his supporters and critics believe he is. He's part charismatic charmer and part flawed could've-been candidate. He's a visionary outsider and an unprepared amateur. He's both an American sensation and a political disaster.

But the real question may be, after the scandal, after the announcements, after the pundits and after the cameras turn off, who will Herman Cain become as his name fades from the headlines and the country returns to the business of picking a president?

Only Herman Cain knows.