Americans like underdogs, but love winners. Losers are relegated to history's dustbin. At least until Portlander Scott Farris turned back the dusty pages and showed presidential losers may have had as much or more impact on the future as the victors.
In Almost President, Farris traces the legacies of losers dating back to Henry Clay, who lost in bitter contests to Andrew Jackson while espousing a nationalist vision of America, and the relatively recent past of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, who suffered humiliating landslide losses, but changed the face and moral compass of the Republican and Democratic parties.
Spurred in part by his own electoral loss as a congressional candidate, Farris became fascinated with what happened to the men who ran the course, but finished second in the presidential sweepstakes. What he discovered is that these losers quietly reshaped the political map of America, often decades past the shame of their defeat.
Farris, who has worked as a reporter, political aide and lobbyist, brings a lively narrative to a well-researched series of profiles about the men who lost in a race for what is now the most powerful elected office in the world.
In a telling first chapter, Farris discusses the concession speech and its role in affirming over time a commitment to republican values and the dream that is America.
"The call for unity is not pablum," Farris writes. "America is still a comparatively young nation. The American experiment still seems fragile, which is why our entire system is designed to marginalize radicalism, forge consensus and prevent sudden shifts that might threaten our unity." Throughout the history of the nation, despite close elections, losers have displayed grace and devotion to constitutional principals, often referring in the moment of deepest despair to their support for "my president," who is the man they campaigned so hard and so long to defeat.
Some of the most graceful moments in U.S. history, Farris says, came when Samuel Tilden and Al Gore collected the most popular votes for president, but lost in the sometime mystifying spectacle known as the electoral college (Florida played a critical role in both outcomes). Tilden and Gore supporters, perhaps with just cause, believed their men had been cheated of victory and chanted “Tilden or blood” and, later, “Gore or blood”. In the end, both yielded their claims to the presidency for the good of the country.
We take such behavior for granted. But the example in other parts of the world shows it is exceptional, not normal, behavior. And being good losers, Farris contends, has created a legacy of legitimacy for U.S. elections and the governments ushered into office, for better or worse.
His individual profiles of losers offer some contemporary consideration:
• Stephen Douglas, who lost to Abraham Lincoln, didn't brood about his defeat. Instead, he recognized the need to campaign from South to North in support of a unified Democratic party to serve as loyal opposition to the Republican administration engaged in civil war to preserve the Union. Douglas saved the Democratic Party as a national institution, which continues today, by divorcing it from the politics of secession.
• Thomas Dewey, who seemed cast by Hollywood as a crime-fighting hero, steered the Republican Party away from what he viewed as suicidal political opposition to Social Security and other parts of the New Deal. He said the GOP would become irrelevant politically if it chose a path of reaction to what many regarded as a welfare state. Dewey lost, but Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and even Ronald Reagan won by avoiding what Dewey, a New Yorker, called the third rail of politics.
• Barry Goldwater swung the GOP toward conservatism and embarked on its Southern strategy, which removed the civil rights plank on the party platform for the first time since the Civil War. Since Goldwater was drubbed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Republicans have claimed the South as their virtually unchallenged electoral heartland. Goldwater's unwillingness to bend his conservative principles to gain votes has become a rallying cry for unyielding groups such as the Tea Party, which have greatly influenced the 2012 GOP presidential primary
• George McGovern took advantage of the primary and caucus rules he helped to rewrite, unleashing a grassroots army propelling him to the 1972 Democratic nomination. Badly beaten by a then-popular Richard Nixon, McGovern's legacy was to invite into his party Hispanics, women, gays, youth and so-called movement voters. They weren't enough to elect McGovern, but these cohorts grew in size and became critical to Barack Obama's victory in 2008.
• Ross Perot bedazzled alienated voters with straight talk, a bevy of charts and a reputation as a swashbuckling high-tech entrepreneur who rescued his employees held hostage in Iran. While he did better than most independent presidential candidates, Perot proved that the skills needed to create and manage a business don't always translate into effective campaigning to an increasingly diverse electorate.
Farris has received generally positive reviews for his first book. Some conservative commentators have branded him a liberal, most likely because of his profiles of Goldwater and McGovern. In the book, Farris notes Goldwater came to despise views espoused by the social conservative wing of his party, in part because of his personal experiences with a daughter who had an illegal abortion in 1955, a wife who helped form the Arizona Planned Parenthood Chapter and a grandson who was gay. Farris also observes the irony that McGovern has gone down in history as a hopeless pacifist, belying his little-known background as a World War II war hero.
Almost President delivers a good, quick read that is a must for history buffs and political junkies. But it should be required reading for a wider audience that ignores losers and their contributions. It turns out there are a lot of losers among us and they make a difference everyday, even in defeat.
Scott Farris works for TransCanada, which is a CFM client. He previously worked on the staff of former Portland Mayor Vera Katz. His book is published by Lyons Press.