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Authors: Scott Farris

Almost President







An imprint of Globe Pequot Press

For my marvelous and loving family: Patti, William, and Grace

Copyright © 2012 by Scott Farris

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, except as may be expressly permitted in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission should be addressed to Globe Pequot Press, Attn: Rights and Permissions Department, P.O. Box 480, Guilford, CT 06437.

Lyons Press is an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.

Ross Perot photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs; Al Gore official VP photo; John Kerry and John McCain photos courtesy U.S. Congress; all other photos courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.

Text design: Sheryl Kober

Layout artist: Justin Marciano

Project editor: Ellen Urban

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Farris, Scott.

Almost president : the men who lost the race but changed the nation / Scott Farris.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-7627-6378-8

1. Presidential candidates—United States—Biography. 2. Presidents—United
States—Election—History. 3. United States—Politics and government. 4. United States—Biography. I. Title.

E176.F23 2012


EISBN 978-0-7627-8420-2

Printed in the United States of America


In very rural northwest Kansas, midway between Kansas City and Denver, there is a shrine of sorts dedicated to losing presidential candidates. On a wall of the First State Bank in the wind-swept prairie town of Norton hang the portraits of fifty-nine men who have run for president as the nominee of a major political party and lost. The line of photos and short biographies begins with Thomas Jefferson, who became our nation's first losing presidential candidate in 1796, and ends—as of this writing—with John McCain, the 2008 “also-ran” with his loss to Barack Obama. The display began in the 1960s, after the then-president of the bank learned that Horace Greeley, the losing presidential candidate of 1872, had once stopped in Norton on his way by stagecoach to Denver and was likely the most prominent person ever to visit the small farming and ranching community.

How appropriate that the only place in America dedicated to honoring losing presidential candidates was established in such an out-of-the-way location and for such an obscure reason, for historical obscurity is generally the lot of those who run for president and lose. Names like Lewis Cass, Horatio Seymour, Winfield Scott Hancock, James G. Blaine, Alton B. Parker, or John W. Davis are unknown to all but the most obsessed political junkies. Even the better-known unsuccessful aspirants to the White House, such as Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey, or Adlai Stevenson, are not fully appreciated for how they changed American politics and how their candidacies continue to shape our political discourse.

These men actually have had a far greater impact on American history than many of those who became president. They created, transformed, and realigned our political parties. They broke barriers and taboos around religion and gender, ushered in new political movements, introduced sweeping policy changes that would, in time, become the law of the land, and changed our expectations of political candidates. Journalist Theodore White, chronicler of five presidential campaigns, agreed: “Again and again in American history it has happened that the losers of the presidency contributed almost as much to the permanent tone and dialogue of politics as did the winners.”

They were able to accomplish these things, in part, because they lost. How can losing have more impact than winning? As American political scientist William Riker noted in 1983, “Winners have won and do not immediately need to change things. But losers have nothing and gain nothing unless they continue to try to bring about new political situations.”

In the immediate aftermath of an election, it may appear there is nothing left of the losing campaign but scattered debris. Reshaping our political structure can be like remodeling a house—salvaged from the demolition is the framework on which to hang new construction. Those who lose, especially those who lose by a wide margin, are often accused of discrediting conservatism or liberalism, as was the case with Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, when years or decades later it is clear that their campaigns were not the end of something old and stale, but the beginning of something fresh and different.

Still, despite the enormous contributions made by some losing presidential candidates, it is the winning candidates who are lavished with attention by historians. Abraham Lincoln, our most revered president, has had more than sixteen thousand books and scholarly articles written about him. Even nonconsequential presidents such as William Henry Harrison, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur are the subjects of multiple biographies, while a historical giant like Henry Clay has, in times past, gone fifty years without a scholarly reappraisal. And poor Judge Parker, who lost to Theodore Roosevelt in a landslide in 1904, has never been the subject of a single biography.

History is written by and for the victors, true, but to ignore the contributions made by losing presidential candidates is to not merely ignore half the result of every presidential election, but also to warp our understanding of American history. No election is a referendum on a single person or party. In each election, voters make a
between competing personalities, programs, and ideologies. In understanding our history, and in using history as a guide to understanding the present and forecasting the future, it is as illuminating to know who and what voters did
choose as to know who and what they

It seems understandable not to dwell on perceived failure. Even though losing is a universally shared experience (most of us lose far more often than we win), we are a nation and a culture that simply worships winning and recent success. We are guided by maxims, such as that (falsely) ascribed to Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.” But winning is a narrow definition of success. A presidential campaign is a single battle in a much longer “war” over the policies and direction of the nation.

Like the scientific process, political struggles test hypotheses. Policies rejected by the public today often become the laws and regulations of tomorrow. New voter coalitions that seem to doom a political party to minority status evolve, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, into new governing majorities. It is often the losing candidate who is prophetic, while time proves it was the winning candidate who was stuck in the policies of the past.

Yet, in America a single lost election can seemingly wipe out a lifetime of achievement overnight and transform the image of an otherwise successful politician from gallant champion to pathetic goat. As we do with great athletes whose otherwise exemplary careers are overshadowed by a single, crucial error in a championship game, we often define losing presidential candidates not by their substantive accomplishments before, during, and after their campaigns, but by their failure on this one great stage of a presidential election.

Television exacerbates this tendency because, in politics as in sports, one recorded moment can become an enduring representation of failure. Michael Dukakis, who lost to George H. W. Bush in 1988, will always be pictured in the public mind looking terribly out of place while riding in an Army tank, even though Dukakis was an Army veteran. John Kerry's voice will always summon memories of the tape played endlessly during his 2004 campaign in which he articulates senatorial procedural gibberish about how “I voted for the bill before I voted against it.” When all eyes are watching and all ears are listening, an error can become a moment that encapsulates a career.

There was a time when America was more forgiving of failure and when a single loss did not define a person's legacy. In a study of changing American attitudes toward failure in business, Scott A. Sandage notes that before the nineteenth century, the whole concept of failure applied only to the world of commerce and even then “failure was an incident, not an identity.” In the early days of our republic, industriousness was admired, but ambition was not. Ambition would lead to corruption, extravagance, debt, and dependency. As Ben Franklin's Poor Richard admonished, in advice that would be scorned today, “In success be moderate.”

This republican ideal of industriousness without ambition was applied to politics as well. While we know that in truth Jefferson and John Adams jockeyed behind the scenes to succeed George Washington as president in 1796, the ruse was that no gentleman actively sought public office; rather, the public sought out the gentleman. If an individual did not strive for office, then not receiving the office meant no personal failure.

Our attitude toward ambition and failure evolved with the market revolution. Subsistence farming provided little opportunity for advancement, while crop failures, due to drought or war, were clearly understood to be beyond an individual's control. Commerce, however, rewarded ambition and provided opportunity for advancement, but if initiative bred success, then failure could be ascribed to a personal defect. By 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted a proverb popular among men of business that said, “Nobody fails who ought not to fail,” and then added his own thought, “There is always a reason, in the man, for his good or bad fortune.”

Unsurprisingly, these changing attitudes were applied to politics. Political ambition was no longer a disqualifier for office, but political failure was now ascribed to a defect of the candidate. Contemporaries who sought to explain why Henry Clay, one of the greatest Americans never to become president, failed in his three bids for the White House usually cited his character, noting that Clay was loved, but not trusted.

In the twentieth- and twenty-first-century world of mass communication and advertising, and with Dale Carnegie replacing Horatio Alger as provider of the roadmap for success, the fault of the individual was expanded to include personality as well as character. Style and assertiveness were valued and those who failed were assumed to lack both. Losing candidates internalize the idea that failure is the result of an active defect within the person. They eschew the likely fact that most election results are foreordained by factors such as peace, prosperity, or demographics, and instead take to heart Cassius's admonition in
Julius Caesar
, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.” Or as Dukakis put it more bluntly, “[I] ran a crappy campaign.”

Perhaps, but it is also true that America in 1988 was in a period of conservative ascendancy and Dukakis's best efforts might not have changed the final result. Because the fault is always ascribed to the candidate's shortcomings, losing candidates can come to resent the honor of being a nominee for president. What should bring status instead becomes a stigma. As John W. Davis, the brilliant Wall Street attorney who lost the 1924 presidential election to Calvin Coolidge, noted defensively, “I believe I have been a fair success in life except as a candidate for president.” They also resent the voters who made such a disappointing choice. Losing candidates everywhere no doubt smiled at Arizona congressman Mo Udall's wry comment upon ending his 1976 presidential primary bid: “The people have spoken—the bastards.”

Arthur Miller, whose 1949 play,
Death of a Salesman
, eloquently captured the American fear of failure, said we like to keep our distance from losers because they remind us of our fear of death. That may be extreme, but losers certainly remind us of defeat.

There was a time when a losing candidate might aspire to lead his party once more. Clay and Bryan were each rewarded with presidential nominations three times, and even in the mid-twentieth century, partisans saw fit to nominate Dewey and Stevenson twice each. But not since 1968 has a losing candidate been successful in securing another presidential nomination. Today, if you lose, it is one and done.

Losing candidates also once maintained the role of titular head of their party, their party's leading spokesperson. No losing candidate has remained his party's acknowledged leader or spokesperson since Stevenson, though, as will be discussed in a later chapter, John McCain tried to re-establish the role. Losing candidates are now often given some of the worst time slots to speak at subsequent political conventions, if they are allowed to speak at all, as parties fear their very appearance on television will attach the stench of past failure to the present campaign.

Nor are losing candidates anymore rewarded for their service with important appointments in other administrations. Charles Evans Hughes, loser to Woodrow Wilson in 1916, was later reappointed to the U.S. Supreme Court as chief justice, and Hughes was one of five losing presidential candidates, along with Clay, Cass, Blaine, and Bryan, who later served as secretary of state. But since the 1960s, the only losing presidential nominees to have been given any posts in a future administration were Stevenson, McGovern, and Walter Mondale, and they each received relatively minor ambassadorial posts.

Capturing the sense of abandonment losing candidates feel, Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee for president, who lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928, suggested that those who have lost the presidential general election be named a U.S. senator at-large. Those who lost the presidency served the nation well, and it is the nation's loss that we do not fully utilize their experience to the nation's advantage.

Small wonder, then, that Arthur Miller identified one other consequence of failure; losers worry that they have lost the capacity to be loved. And yet, many losing candidates retain their admirers generations after their defeat. Conservatives involved in Goldwater's uncompromising 1964 campaign against Lyndon Johnson still fondly recall Goldwater's candor, masculinity, and the self-deprecating humor that led him to conclude after his defeat: “[America's] a great country where anybody can grow up to become president—except me. ”

Liberals of a certain age have similar reminiscences of Adlai Stevenson. His two campaigns against Dwight Eisenhower ignited a passion that drew segments of the population into politics and public service for the first time. Stevenson's enduring image as the rare public figure who raised politics to a new and higher level of discourse was reflected in a panel of the Garry Trudeau comic strip, “Doonesbury,” published in 1984, nearly twenty years after Stevenson's death. In the strip, a character bemoans the current state of politics and pleads with his wife that if anything should happen to him, “You must tell our son about Adlai Stevenson!”

For all our love of winning, we still admire the underdog who competes nobly, and shared failure can create a powerful bond among those who experience it. Sportswriter Roger Kahn wrote in his marvelous book,
The Boys of Summer
, “My years with the Dodgers were 1952 and 1953, two seasons in which they lost the World Series to the Yankees. You may glory in a team triumphant but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought.”

Those who supported Goldwater, or Stevenson, or any of the partisan champions who never reached the White House cannot help but wonder what might have been, and the few previous books that have focused on presidential losers as a group are preoccupied with the question of whether those who lost would have made good presidents—or at least better presidents than the men who defeated them. Those are questions that cannot be answered. It is better to focus on what we do know and on what losing candidates did accomplish—and they have accomplished a great deal.

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