Among other blessings for which Americans can give thanks this and every Thanksgiving is the quality of its defeated presidential candidates. Their character, talents, and reaction to loss reveal as much about our nation as do the winners. C-Span’s ongoing series The Contenders spotlights 14 failed but significant presidential campaign losers.
It starts with Henry Clay and concludes with Ross Perot. The next three yet to be broadcast programs, besides Perot, feature George Wallace and George McGovern. Each program largely elevates the reputation of each defeated candidate, and perhaps they will succeed with these final 3. Most fascinating have been Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson, already commonly praised as towering if flawed statesmen. But The Contenders restores respect for poor Tom Dewey, so commonly derided as aloof and arrogant. And even Wendell Willkie, though bombastic and easily persuaded, is portrayed sympathetically.
Hardly as clueless to his demise as often assumed, Dewey well knew FDR would defeat him in 1944. Fascinated with the early science of political polling, he also sensed Truman’s widely undetected late surge during the 1948 campaign. But Dewey thought it too late to alter his own careful campaign strategy. The omnipresent historian Richard Norton Smith noted that Dewey ran the sort of high-toned, issue based, impersonal campaign that media pundits claim America needs. It was a boring dud. C-Span interviewed Dewey’s laconic son, who recalled his forward-thinking father never later discussed the stunning 1948 loss. Now mostly forgotten, Dewey had been a meteor-like phenomenon, who became a national celebrity and presidential candidate while still a thirty-something, crusading New York prosecutor. He left the New York governor’s office at age 52, already an elder statesman who never again ran for office but who was instrumental in the rise of both Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower. He died at only age 68 at a golf resort while vacationing with his friend, agro-businessman Dwayne Andreas. Fellow failed candidate Hubert Humphrey was another personal friend whom Dewey knew through Andreas. No liberal, Dewey once supposedly told big spending Nelson Rockefeller: “I like you but I can’t afford you.”
Willkie’s rise was even more dramatic, having never held elected office and having only been a Republican for a few years. A utility executive, he defeated Senator Robert Taft in 1940 for the Republican nomination in what Alice Roosevelt Longworth reportedly described as a “prairie fire that swept across the country clubs of America.” Having defeated isolationist opponents for the nomination, Willkie supposedly allowed FDR to be more aggressive in offering aid to Britain during its isolation by Nazi Germany. More stridently at the campaign’s close, Willkie accused FDR of angling for U.S. entry into the war, which FDR somewhat disingenuously denied. FDR later dispatched Willkie as a bipartisan envoy to Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek. Easily impressed, Willkie sang unfortunate praise for the Soviet Union during his visit. Some also allege Willkie had an affair with Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, but the affair would have to have occurred during only a couple private hours during his visit. Willkie was not even invited to the 1944 Republican convention and he died shortly later at only age 52, refusing to dismount from a cross country train despite repeated heart attacks until he got to New York. Willkie’s grandson, a former aide to Senator Richard Lugar, is interviewed.
Another presidential loser who was both friend and foe to FDR was Al Smith, FDR’s predecessor as New York governor and who always thought he should have been the Democratic candidate in 1932 rather than FDR. Smith was the first Catholic presidential nominee. His 1928 campaign aroused heated opposition over his religion, open opposition to Prohibition, ties to Tammany Hall, and jarringly gravelly New York accent. Although resoundingly defeated by Herbert Hoover, Smith received more votes than any other previous Democratic nominee and presaged FDR’s coalition centered on urban votes. Smith, who later presided over the construction and management of the Empire State Building, became a sharp critic of FDR’s New Deal and endorsed Republican Alf Landon in 1936 and Willkie in 1940.
Charles Evans Hughes was another New York governor who failed to attain the presidency, although supposedly Woodrow Wilson went to bed on election night 1916 not knowing whether he had lost to Hughes. Teddy Roosevelt reputedly dismissed Hughes as the “bearded lady.” Hughes later became a majestic U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, and current Chief Justice John Roberts has said the deep-voiced, white bearded Hughes was god-like in demeanor. Hughes’s court initially resisted FDR’s New Deal but eventually relented.
As warm as Hughes was frosty, Henry Clay was perhaps the greatest American who never became president, though he tried at least three times. Magnetic and captivating, he was a master legislator who helped craft crucial Congressional compromises that forestalled the Civil War by a few decades. Clay was the young Abraham Lincoln’s “beau ideal” of a statesman. A book personally inscribed by Clay to Lincoln is shown, though it’s not clear whether they ever personally met.
Almost as charismatic as Clay was James G. Blaine, the Maine senator, U.S. Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State who also failed several times in presidential bids, most famously by a whisker to Grover Cleveland in 1884. He probably lost only because a Presbyterian clergyman in Blaine’s presence aligned the Democrats with “rum, Romanism and rebellion,” which a Democratic operative quickly advertised to indignant Catholic voters, losing Blaine New York. Richard Norton Smith asserts Blaine would have been America’s strongest president between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Known to supporters as the “Plumed Knight,” the allegedly corrupt Blaine electrified supporters and enraged his opponents.
Less polarizing was Adlai Stevenson, the witty Illinois governor who excited intellectuals but lost in near landslides to Eisenhower. His son, the former senator, provides interesting anecdotes, rebutting the recently released Jackie Kennedy tapes deriding his father. As she often went to Broadway shows with the elder Stevenson when he was JFK’s UN Ambassador, the son suggested she was closer to his father than to many of the Kennedys.
Hubert Humphrey was far more populist and never would have uttered Stevenson’s famous quip to the suggestion that only “thinking” Americans would vote for him but unfortunately he needed a majority. The maker of a recent documentary about the Minnesota senator and vice president paints Humphrey as long-suffering in his defeat by JFK’s money in the 1960 Democratic race and in his degradation by LBJ, whose support almost until end of the 1968 presidential campaign was tepid.
Unsurprisingly, Humphrey was good friends to fellow senator and presidential loser Barry Goldwater, who is accurately portrayed as near founder of the modern conservative movement. His defenders insist he was intellectually consistent with his libertarian roots during his final years when Goldwater derided the Religious Right. But Goldwater’s 1996 endorsement of Bill Clinton against Bob Dole was surely different from the earlier man, who had not hesitated to endorse moderate Republicans Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.
Socialist Eugene Debs, another ideological candidate, is also featured, though he never came close to the presidency. More potent was progressive populist William Jennings Bryan, whose three runs as a failed Democratic nominee are a record. An ardent Protestant evangelical orator commonly recalled for the Scopes Monkey Trial, Bryan is not typically venerated by modern liberals. But his liberal biographer tries to reclaim him as an example of how traditional religion can wed progressive politics.
Other than Bryan, the contenders’ religious views are rarely if ever addressed, except briefly for the Social Gospel Methodism that shaped young Humphrey. It’s a rare weak spot for C-Span’s The Contenders, many of whose segments are filmed at the homes or other spots closely tied to the candidates. Most of these failed candidates were honorable men who could have served as distinguished presidents. On the whole, their candidacies confirmed rather than detracted from our democracy.
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