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“[An] engaging study of men who came up short in the presidential arena but still had a significant effect on the life of the nation….”
—Wall Street Journal
“Scott Farris shines a welcome spotlight on the neglected subject of presidential also-rans. In this impressive new book, Farris shows that the losers and their ideas have sometimes transformed their political parties, and moved the nation ahead. Meticulously researched, Almost President is rich in detail and anecdotes, and a pleasure to read.”
—Joseph Wheelan, author of Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress and Libby Prison Breakout
“Scott Farris has penned a series of fascinating portraits of candidates who triggered sea changes in our political process. Informative to readers at all levels.”
—David Pietrusza, author of 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory and the Year that Transformed America
"I absolutely lost myself in Scott Farris’s Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation. I loved the book so much that we invited Scott to be a guest on Saturday. I can’t wait for the chance to talk with him about how often we focus exclusively on winners and forget all of the ways that ‘political losers’ actually have the power to change conversations, set agendas and alter the course of history."
—blog post by MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry
“To those demoralized by today’s fiercely partisan political arena, take heart! Scott Farris’s superb history of losing Presidential candidates reassures us all that even out of bitter campaigns and defeats, losers do come back and contribute profoundly to major realignments, decency, and equality in American politics.”
—The Honorable David Abshire, former Ambassador to NATO, and current President, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress
“Farris writes with a lively flair, skillfully illustrating his solid historical research with revelatory anecdotes and facts.” –Publishers Weekly
“A lively, opinionated examination of the instructive role of the loser in presidential races…. [R]iveting, sympathetic treatments…. A most useful aide-mémoire for situating the upcoming presidential slugfest.” —Kirkus Reviews
An election does not end when the winner declares victory; it ends only when the loser concedes defeat. This may seem a minor distinction but it is what makes American democracy work.
Election night, November 4, 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain had one final opportunity to be the focus of the nation's undivided attention before his presidential campaign concluded. And even though the election returns indicated he would be the loser, McCain wielded a power whose potency even he may not have fully appreciated.
Before Barack Obama could give his televised victory address before 125,000 ecstatic supporters in Chicago's Grant Park, McCain first had to admit defeat. Until he did, the election wasn't over. By tradition, McCain would get to speak first, while Obama remained out of view, his supporters still stewing with anticipation, for he was not yet the president-elect.
There was a sense of real drama when McCain finally appeared at 11:18 p. m. EST, before the television cameras and seven thousand supporters who had gathered at a Phoenix, Arizona, resort. Tensions had been high during the campaign and the nation watched to see if McCain would say anything that might lead his supporters to question the results of the day.
Obama was the first African American ever nominated for president by a major political party. As the son of a Muslim father from Kenya, his background was exotic to many. His opponents had repeatedly labeled him a radical. The world economy was in a tailspin. American troops were fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two previous presidential elections had been remarkably close, and America seemed evenly divided by party loyalty and widely separated by ideology.
At campaign rallies for McCain and his polarizing running mate, then Alaska governor Sarah Palin, there had been shouts of "traitor!", "terrorist!", and even "kill him!" at the very mention of Obama's name. Throughout the campaign and through Election Day, there were allegations of voter fraud and voter intimidation from both sides.
But that Election Day evening, McCain, after first hushing the boos that erupted at every mention of Obama's name, graciously conceded his defeat and pointedly referred to Obama as "my president." Moved by McCain's words, the crowd stopped jeering the man now conceded to be the president-elect and instead cheered the historic nature of Obama's election as our first African-American president.
McCain, at least for the moment, had set a tone of reconciliation that helped legitimize Obama's election in the eyes of millions who had voted against him. This period of civility gave Obama time to reach out to those who had not supported him. Within a week of the election, nearly three-quarters of Americans professed to view Obama favorably. Certainly, Obama's own inspirational words, which followed McCain's that evening, had helped convince Americans to rally to his side, but the power and importance of McCain's address, by conveying to his supporters that it was his and their patriotic duty to be good losers, were an essential tonic to soothe the nation.
Had McCain expressed anger or bitterness at his loss, had he alleged that fraud had swayed the election, had he questioned Obama's fitness to lead, or continued his campaign assertions that Obama's policies would bring the nation to ruin, McCain would have widened the division caused by the passion of a presidential election Such a response would have created political chaos and even invited violence.
Yet, McCain had done nothing extraordinary beyond performing his role exceptionally well, for our losing presidential candidates have repeatedly chosen to be good losers, and, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, they have played a crucial part in making politics in America a source of unity, not division.
We may think election-related violence is inconceivable in the United States, even in today's highly polarized political environment. But there is always a thin line between a peaceful election and armed conflict. We acknowledge this close relationship in the way we use martial jargon to discuss our politics. Candidates battle for states, campaigns are run from war rooms, commercials are part of a media blitz, and campaign volunteers are foot soldiers. "Politics," the Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz said, "is the womb in which war develops."
Violent conflict is born out in other nations where the martial language of politics is not metaphorical. In the same year that McCain and Obama held their heated but ultimately peaceful contest, post-election violence in Kenya left some fifteen hundred people dead and a quarter-million homeless. Also in 2008, post-election rioting killed eighteen in India, the world's largest democracy, and five in Mongolia. Historic elections in Bangladesh led to rioting that injured one hundred. In 2010, there was post-election violence in Guinea, Belarus, Iran, and the Ivory Coast, and additional examples can be found in virtually any year to remind us, in the words of political scientist Paul Corcoran, "the transition of power is often a matter of life and death on a grand scale." And lest we think post-election violence is confined only to supposedly immature "Third World" democracies, riots in France protesting the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 injured seventy-eight policemen, caused more than seven hundred cases of arson, and led to the arrests of nearly six hundred people.
With the hubris that is part of being an American, we may assume our lack of protest is because, unlike other nations, our elections are fair and honest. Yet, American elections are rife with fraud, abuse, and incompetence, which are forgotten and ignored until a close election requires a recount and we realize how imprecise our balloting is.
We devote remarkably few resources to that cornerstone of American democracy: a free, fair, and accurate election process. Election standards vary widely by location, top election officials are elected partisans, and poll workers receive minimal training and compensation. There are multiple examples in every election cycle of outright corruption and concerted efforts to disenfranchise one set of voters or another (particularly minority voters), but violations of election law are seldom prosecuted, and the penalties are minimal for those that are. The result of virtually any close election could be in dispute because running efficient, professional elections is not a national priority. We have minimal interest in probing the question of the fairness of our elections. Few states even have a mechanism for challenging an election result.
Nor is the tradition of relatively peaceful elections in the United States due to any special American aversion to violence. Rioting is a time-honored tradition in America. We have had riots associated with race and religion. We have had riots related to political disputes, dating back to the Whiskey Rebellion. We have had riots against war and the military draft. We have had riots against police brutality, and riots that involved police brutality, such as occurred during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. We have had labor riots, prison riots, riots by anarchists, and even riots after sporting events—an average of ten to fifteen per year, in fact—and by fans of both losing and winning teams. And yet, while we riot after football games, we do not have violence related to our greatest electoral prize, the presidency.
The notable exception, the election of 1860, proves the rule. The refusal of the South to accept Lincoln's election led to our Civil War and six hundred thousand war dead. That catastrophe has perhaps been a lesson for subsequent generations of the dangers in rejecting the democratic process and the rule of law. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said those who fought and died in the war had done so "that that nation might live." In less dramatic fashion, each presidential election tests Lincoln's concern that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
The losing candidate, then, must set the tone of acceptance, or at least resignation, that tamps down the possibility of violence in the wake of electoral disappointment. A group of five political scientists from five countries, including the United States, who have studied the role electoral losers play in the democratic process have concluded in their 2005 book, Losers' Consent, that, "What makes democracy work ... is not so much the success of the winners, but the restraint of the losers."
Many losing candidates have certainly had to exercise great restraint Four times since 1824, when the popular vote was first used to help determine the presidential winner, the man who won the largest number of popular votes did not become president because he did not receive a majority in the Electoral College. This occurred in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000, and there have been other elections, such as 1880 or 1960, where the margin of victory was so close as to be in dispute.
Presidential elections are almost always close, at least in terms of the popular vote. Only four times—1920, 1936, 1964, and 1972—has the winning candidate won more than 60 percent of the vote, a true landslide. In roughly half of all presidential elections, the winning candidate has received 51 percent or less of the popular vote; 40 percent of the time, because of third parties, the person elected president has not even received a majority of the popular vote.
The narrowness of these victories is masked because of our Electoral College system, which often makes the result seem more definitive than it is. In 1980, for example, Ronald Reagan received less than 51 percent of the popular vote in his victory over President Jimmy Carter and independent candidate John Anderson, but he received 90 percent of the Electoral College vote. Because of the Electoral College, we do not have a single, national election for president, but rather fifty-one separate elections conducted by the states plus the District of Columbia.
After 1860, the closest our nation has come to blows over a presidential result was in 1876, when Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York won the popular vote by a comfortable 51 to 48 percent margin but lost the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes in the Electoral College by a single elector. To obtain that result, Republicans had engaged in outright voter fraud in three Southern states, including Florida, though Democrats had also engaged in intimidation to prevent African Americans from voting in those states.
In the uproar that followed, Democratic mobs cried "Tilden or blood!" and fear of a renewed civil war was so real that President Ulysses S. Grant fortified Washington, D. C., with troops and gunboats to repel an expected army of Tilden supporters But Tilden was a successful attorney who believed in the rule of law, and he declined to sanction any such offensive by those on his side. At Tilden's urging, tempers cooled and, ultimately, the U. S. Supreme Court established a method by which the election was resolved in favor of Hayes though, in truth, behind the scenes a deal had been made—Hayes was given the presidency in return for a promise to withdraw federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction. When Tilden, an eccentric character, finally spoke publicly in June 1877, he offered comfort to his supporters, urging them to "be of good cheer. The Republic will live. The institutions of our fathers are not to expire in shame. The sovereignty of the people shall be rescued from this peril and re-established."
In 2000, Vice President Al Gore faced a remarkably similar situation, and was criticized as Tilden had been for not making a more forceful claim to the presidency. Having won the popular vote by a margin of 500,000, Gore lost the election to George W. Bush when he failed to win the state of Florida by 537 votes Gore had said that on election night he felt considerable pressure "to be gracious about this," which led him to concede perhaps too quickly when his own interests would have been served by waiting a while longer. Gore had called Bush to concede at about 2:30 a. m. EST the morning following Election Day and that call was widely reported in the media. It was while Gore was en route to give his formal public concession speech that aides intercepted him and urged him to retract his concession because of tightening vote totals in Florida. Gore again called Bush who, incredulous, asked, "Let me make sure that I understand: You're calling back to retract that concession?" Gore replied, "You don't have to be snippy about it."
A partial recount was halted by a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the court itself said set no precedent. The month-long dispute had resulted in some minor scuffles—a few Gore partisans protesting in Washington, D.C., even tried to rouse a cheer of "Gore or blood" to evoke the Tilden crisis—but the tradition of a good loser is now deeply rooted in American politics Tensions rapidly dissipated when Gore gave a remarkably cheerful concession speech and there was no violence, even though surveys later showed that 97 percent of those who voted for Gore believed he was the "rightful" president. But once Gore had conceded, even in a private phone call, the perception was that he had lost and then was trying to overturn the results; had he never conceded, the public perception might have been that both candidates had an equal claim to the election.
Gore is not the only cautionary tale of a loser willing to concede too soon. President Jimmy Carter conceded to Ronald Reagan on Election Day in 1980 with a telephone call at 9:01 p. m. Eastern time, followed by a speech an hour later at the Sheraton Washington Hotel ballroom. Carter had been urged to delay his concession until 11 p. m. Eastern time, after the polls were closed on the West Coast. But Carter was worried the public, knowing that Reagan was projected to win by a wide margin, would think he was sulking in the White House and he did not want to appear to be a "bad loser."
"It's ridiculous," Carter said. "Let's go and get it over with." That decision infuriated Democrats, who thought Carter's early concession led some voters in the West to skip casting their ballots House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill raged that Carter had cost a half-dozen Democrats seats in Congress and perhaps two Senate seats. He yelled at a Carter aide, "You guys came in like a bunch of jerks, and I see you're going out the same way!"
Despite what appeared to be a mistake in retrospect, Gore was not unwise in trying to avoid being labeled a sore loser, for complaints about the fairness of a result seldom receive much sympathy beyond the losing candidate's most rabid followers. Americans simply do not want to consider that an election has been unjust or worse.
Gore and Carter were not alone in fearing what the label of "sore loser" might do to their reputation. Ohio governor James M. Cox said of his 1920 defeat to Warren Harding, "A wrong reaction then could have ruined my life." James G. Blaine demonstrated the danger of complaining about a perceived injustice when he attributed his 1884 loss to disenfranchisement of African-American voters in the South. He had fallen to Grover Cleveland by barely fifty thousand votes. The New York Times accused Blaine of sour grapes because he was "smarting from defeat."
Richard Nixon weighed both the danger to the nation and to his own political future in deciding against challenging the results of his narrow loss to John Kennedy in 1960—even when there were credible allegations of Democrats stealing votes in Illinois and Texas (though Democrats also alleged Republican vote stealing in Ohio). Nixon discovered that few states even had a mechanism to challenge election results, and worried about the damage to the nation that a months-long process might cause, especially its "devastating" impact on national foreign policy. At a personal level, he also knew that "charges of 'sore loser' would follow me through history and remove any possibility of a further political career."
Two years later, Nixon forgot his own advice when he lost the governorship of California and famously announced he was through with politics, telling newsmen, "Just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." It was the testiest concession since the frontiersman Davy Crockett, defeated in his 1834 bid for re-election to Congress, told his Tennessee constituents they could "go to hell; I'm going to Texas." Crockett did, only to die at the Alamo in 1836, but Nixon came back to win the presidency in 1968.
Excerpted from ALMOST PRESIDENT by SCOTT FARRIS Copyright © 2012 by Scott Farris. Excerpted by permission of LYONS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Chapter 1 The Concession 1
Chapter 2 Henry Clay—1824,1832,1844 20
Chapter 3 Stephen Douglas—1860 46
Chapter 4 William Jennings Bryan—1896,1900,1908 73
Chapter 5 Al Smith--1928 95
Chapter 6 Thomas E.Dewey—1944,1948 122
Chapter 7 Adlai Stevenson—1952,1956 149
Chapter 8 Barry Goldwater—1964 175
Chapter 9 George McGovern—1972 204
Chapter 10 Ross Perot—1992,1996 232
Chapter 11 Al Gore, John Kerry, and John McCain— 2000,2004,2008 260
About the Author 340
Posted June 23, 2013
Posted March 6, 2014
This is excellent history -- the dramatic stories of great politicians (well, mostly great -- even though they lost). Just wonderful. You won't be able to put it down.
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Posted August 22, 2013
Fascinating history telling. Such interesting and little known stories.
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Posted September 27, 2012
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