The Book of the week is “They Also Ran” by Irving Stone, originally published in 1943; updated in 1966. This book documents 23 specific losing candidates in 45 American Presidential races spanning 166 years, from the early 1800’s to the early 1960’s.
In 1872, Horace Greeley, newspaper publisher, tried to convince voters to nix a second term for Ulysses S. Grant, Republican, hero of the American Civil War; the General’s administration had been mired in nepotism, cronyism and corruption. No such luck. “Grant had not the faintest conception of what a president should do… gazed with the mind of a child at the affairs of state, blinked uncomprehendingly, and turned them over to his friends to be kicked around.” Zachary Taylor’s ignorance and inexperience was largely similar, although his 1848 (mercifully short-lived) administration was less corrupt.
Another election in which voters chose the wrong man– resulting in an egregiously dishonest government– was that of Republican president Warren G. Harding. “If ever a nation made a valiant attempt to commit suicide, the United States did in the year of 1920.” However, economic mores were different in the early 20th century. There was thought to be no conflict of interest when newspaper owners accepted shares of stock of public corporations to foster favorable reporting, and amiable relationships. James Middleton Cox was one such owner, who failed to stem the tide of political wreckage under Harding.
In 1824, Democrat Henry Clay, narcissistic attention-whore litigator, super-successful at courtroom histrionics, used his talents to attack the characters of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Upon his being nominated, Clay acquired a healthy dose of hubris syndrome. The opposition depicted Clay as a drinker and gambler (probably true). “The nation was crisscrossed by plowing streams of rumor, gossip, invention, fragmentary truths.”
William Jennings Bryan was another colorful character who mesmerized audiences with his public speaking skills, in the elections of 1896 and 1900. Unfortunately, his megalomaniacal belief that he was God, diminished his chances to get elected president. His debating on the issues of the day– tariff, monopoly, railroad legislation and agriculture– lacked substance. He had sympathy for poor voters only insofar as it would help him retain political power. Nonetheless, his entire campaign in 1896 cost him $34(!) Democrats voted for Bryan, but in their hearts, shuddered to think what would happen if he was elected.
In 1905, in a ten-week investigation, Charles Evans Hughes, as corporate attorney for the New York State legislature, single-handedly found that a gas-supply monopoly was overcharging customers through artificially keeping prices high. Hughes’ good work led to more work, in the form of opening the can of worms that was corruption perpetrated by New York Life Insurance Company; more specifically, the bribing of local politicians in exchange for the enactment of insurance-friendly legislation (horror!).
Yet another war hero turned politician was George B. McClellan. In 1864, he lost to Abraham Lincoln. In the military, he had trouble with authority, control-issues stemming from an inferiority complex. The soldiers under him worshipped him; however, if elected president, his insecurities would rule. There would have been “… destructive clashes with his cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, with every function of government which attempted to limit his control.”
Modest Civil War hero and losing 1880 presidential candidate Winfield Scott Hancock had read the politically democratic book of his day, Chitty’s Blackstone. Thus, it was his opinion that civil, not military courts should settle disputes concerning the Confederacy’s rejoining the Union under “Reconstruction.” Congress disagreed.
In the 1870’s, Samuel Tilden did an end-run around the entrenched criminal syndicate that was Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, to kick out the perpetrators. Lawsuits were useless because the Boss owned the judges. Instead, over the course of four years, as a New York State legislator, Tilden aggressively pushed anti-Tammany elective candidates for Democratic state officers and the legislature. Most of them won; he impeached the rest. He paid for some of the investigations out of his own pocket.
In his 1876 pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination, Tilden launched an aggressive direct mail campaign with extensive print promotional materials in color– hundreds of thousands of pieces, on the political situation and on himself. He also published a 700-page tell-all tome about Grant’s failures as president.
Calvin Coolidge beat John W. Davis in 1924. Coolidge truly thought that big business could do no wrong, so he allowed a free-for-all. He would never have been elected but for his promotion from vice president upon Harding’s death in office. Herbert Hoover ignored pleas by experts to halt the gravy train and impose some regulation.
Another fun factoid: in 1940, prior to losing to Franklin Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie (and his wife) rode in open-car processions where people threw food and other objects at them.
Fast-forward to 1942. WWII economic sluggishness led New York State Governor Thomas Dewey to wrongheadedly stimulate the economy by rewarding the moneyed class. As is well known, incidentally, he lost to Harry Truman in 1948.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater used extreme language and failed to work harmoniously with his fellow Republicans. He refrained from reining in his constituents’ rudeness and selected a reactionary running-mate.
Read the book to learn which candidates should have won, why they didn’t, and qualitative as well as quantitative data on their professions, parties, platforms and personalities. One important generalization: “Many were teachers in their youth, and nearly all came from homes in which there was love of learning and books.”