This has not been a good year for inevitability. In February the New England Patriots, at 18-0 and one inevitable win away from sports immortality, couldn’t quite close the deal and lost to the New York Giants in the final seconds. Last Saturday afternoon, Hillary Clinton — once known as the inevitable candidate — finally conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. A few hours later, another much-hyped front runner was finding out how tough it is to stay in front — Big Brown, the thoroughbred who was thought to be a shoo-in to win the Belmont Stakes, and with it the Triple Crown. Big Brown not only didn’t win on Saturday, he finished last.
Big Brown’s blowhard trainer, Rick Dutrow, had called the colt’s eventual victory in the Belmont “a foregone conclusion,” denigrating the other horses in the race as unable to keep up. Dutrow scoffed at well over 100 years of history, in which only 11 horses have pulled off the Triple Crown feat, and much recent history, too — in which 11 horses had come to Belmont in the last 29 years with the chance to win the Triple Crown, all falling short. “No problem, babe,” Dutrow said, even when Big Brown suffered a quarter crack to his left front hoof and had to lessen his training in the week of the race. Just before post time, asked by an ABC interviewer whether he could “guarantee” a win, Dutrow replied in the affirmative.
The sports media wasn’t much less cautious. Big Brown’s steroids-aided prowess in winning the Preakness and Kentucky Derby, along with a weak field, seemed to make Dutrow’s horse a lock. Even when Dutrow bragged that for the Belmont, he was forsaking the horse’s monthly steroid injection to prove a point, few worried that the colt’s performance would fall off. There’s no way to know whether the absence of steroids, or the injury, or just a bad day, did in Big Brown. But of course the presence of performance-enhancing drugs has the usual effect — it muddies the basis for evaluation. Now some are calling Big Brown a fraud.
WHILE IT WAS SAD to see the big colt being eased at the top of the stretch by his admirable jockey, Kent Desormeaux, one couldn’t resist some glee, too: the horse’s connections, from Dutrow to the ownership, lack grace, to put it kindly. They dismissed the horse’s competition and made light of the extraordinary difficulty of winning these three races in five weeks. Above all, they showed the telltale sign of excess pride by assuming that the outcome of a future event can be foretold, even guaranteed. Horse and jockey aside, Big Brown’s defeat was a plus for horse racing.
Similarly, in the political arena, Hillary’s demise was positive in many respects, too. Removing the Clintons and their baggage from presidential politics, even if only temporarily, is a good thing. The post-mortems on her campaign are already well under way, but one cause consistently cited for her demise is her decision to run as a “front runner,” i.e., as an inevitable candidate. “It will be us,” her operatives were given to saying whenever interview questions became too pressing. To wit: never mind all of these contingencies, it’s a foregone conclusion. Some say that Hillary just picked the wrong year to run as a front runner. But in truth, running as the inevitable candidate is never the way to win, in politics or at the racetrack.
That’s because you must never forget that the competitive landscape is made up of your peers who want the same thing you do. Even if you are in fact the best in the field, you’re almost certainly not the best by much. You still have to take the prize — it will not be freely given. While Hillary eventually became an impressive candidate, once her back was up against the wall, she ran in the long pre-primary phase of the campaign as if already anointed. Her debate answers were scripted and lifeless, geared toward maintaining her downhill momentum. She never quite recovered from the first slip-up of her campaign, when she flubbed a debate question involving illegal aliens last fall. Underneath all the hype, her campaign was brittle. She thought, and her backers thought, that the other contenders would obediently stay behind when she came down the stretch.
IT’S ALWAYS REMARKABLE how people who have lived to reasonable maturity can assume that much of anything beyond death is a foregone conclusion. In Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, Albert Jay Nock tells of how one of his first intellectual habits was doubt. He wrote of how, as a boy, he learned the once-common rhyme, “In Adam’s fall/We sinned all.” His reaction was not to ask how Adam sinned, or why the rest of us were bound up in it, but rather: “How is it possible to know anything about it?”
Nock was a wise man, though he isn’t read much anymore. Perhaps that’s no accident; he was a bit of a curmudgeon and had little truck with triumphalism, a virus with which many of us are afflicted. We would do well to remember some of his skepticism as we head into this fall’s presidential election, which will be shadowed by the war in Iraq, that sure thing that didn’t quite turn out as expected. Some say the election is just about in the bag for Obama because of the Republican Party’s woes and John McCain’s uninspiring candidacy. Others think Obama will never be able to win enough white voters and overcome his liberalism and radical friends.
With Nock as a guide, I’ll guess that it will be much more complicated, and less inevitable, than we think.