Wednesday, February 26, 2014

They Also Ran - Irving Stone

They Also Ran was originally published in 1943, then re-released in '45 and '66, which is the version I have. It's all about the men who ran for President of the United States, but were never elected. Their personal lives, the jobs they held prior to their campaign, the story behind their nominations, the actual campaigns, and what they went on to do after they lost. Each man gets a chapter, and each chapter ends with Stone trying to use their past history and stated beliefs to ascertain what sort of chief executive they would have been, and whether they were a better choice than the person elected.

All told, Stone believes the voters got it right 12 times, wrong 9 times, and that there were 3 occasions where either man would have been a good choice. It's worth noting that he counts Samuel Tilden as one where the voters got it right, because Tilden did win the popular and electoral votes, but Tilden wasn't elected, losing to Rutherford B. Hayes, thanks to some fairly questionable tactics used by the administration to fudge (or outright ignore) the results in 3 key Southern states. It's nice to see that 130 years later, the Republican response to losing elections hasn't changed: rig things to disregard of or block people who don't vote for you.

Interestingly, among some of the elections he considers to have turned out for the best, he acknowledges that the Also Ran might have made a fine President in different times. Wendell Willkie was one he felt might have been fine in quieter times, when the country simply needed a steady hand, but he was far too inexperienced in international affairs, or even politics in general, to be in charge as the country was about to be drawn into World War 2.

Stone's descriptions of the Also Rans can be more than a little overdone, in some cases verging on haigography. When he starts describing their gaze or smile as it's depicted in pictures, I wondered if I ought to flip ahead and leave him alone for a moment. After awhile, the repeated stories about men who worked their way up through newspapers or taught to earn money for law school start to blend together. The trends and patterns are what I found interesting.

It's about evenly split between people who set out with the Presidency as a goal (Dewey, Henry Clay), and ones who didn't really want it, but felt they couldn't refuse the nomination, such as Horatio Seymour and Alton B. Parker. Up into the early 1900s, there's a trend of the candidates doing hardly any actual campaigning. Parker is described as mostly staying at home and letting people come to him, while others got the word out. Hey, it worked for McKinley. Some people, like Parker, mostly fade from the scene after their loss. I felt very bad for him, because he liked being a judge, and he had to step down from the bench to run, which he only did for his party's sake. Then he could never really get back on the bench. Others are unfortunately sore losers and either do all they can to hamstring the person they lost to (Henry Clay), or actively work to sabotage anyone who got a nomination they felt was rightfully theirs. Examples of that last group include Dewey, William Jennings Bryan, Clay again, and in a surprise heel turn, Alfred E. Smith. That last one was a real disappointment when I found out, because he'd seemed like an upright guy up to that point. Maybe the constant hammering he took for being Catholic soured him.

That anti-Catholicism thing was a surprise. I knew on some level that it was one of the questions about JFK, whether he could overcome that to be elected, but I hadn't expected it to be such a big deal. A lot of the elections devolve into name-calling and mud-slingling. Often the candidates stay out of it, and it's their supporters losing their minds, but it still gets ugly. And one of them common things people use is to accuse someone of being Catholic, and thus being totally subservient to the Pope's wishes. This occurs a surprising number of times with people who aren't Catholic. But when has the truth ever stopped people in an election?

The section on Henry Clay was maybe the one that caught my eye the most, if only because he comes off as such a terrible person. Completely disingenuous, constantly contradicting himself, only concerned with the acquisition of power, to the point he consistently undermines the government when he doesn't get his way so as to make everyone else look bad. I don't know if I agree with Stone's assertion that Clay would have become the U.S.'s first tyrant if elected, but he makes a decent case of Clay's only goal being to have as much power as he can grab.

I was left wondering what Stone's reaction would have been to later elections. He calls Grant and Warren G. Harding the two worst presidents, suggesting he really hates corruption and cronyism. Well, at the time he wrote this book, Nixon was still an Also Ran (because of his loss to that bean-eating war hero in '60), so I wonder how he'd have ranked.


SallyP said...

This sounds like an interesting book. It's about time that someone pointed out that Clay was a yahoo.

My hero of course, is William Tecumseh Sherman, who absolutely and constantly refused to fun for President.

CalvinPitt said...

One of the guys Stone discusses was Horatio Seymour, who refused so steadfastly, that the delegates wanted until he stepped out to cool off and they overwhelmingly nominated him in his absence. At which point he felt he couldn't risk splitting the party by refusing.

I think Sherman had the right idea, though. This book certainly makes running seem like a massive hassle, let alone actually trying to be President if you win.