There’s been much discussion about what form the election of 2020 will take, especially for Democrats. Will it be like 1976? Will infighting make the election look more like 1968? Or could a crowded field on both sides make the election more like 1824?
There’s really no saying what will happen. So far the race is remarkably diverse, with multiple women candidates and people of color. With the announcement of Pete Buttegieg’s candidacy this morning, 2020 will also have an openly gay candidate.
If there’s one thing predictable about campaigns, it is that they are unpredictable. Big names at the beginning sometimes don’t get far. Political giants cancel each other out, or burn out early on. A brief moment, a single misstep, can crater a candidacy (see Howard Dean or Ed Muskie).
With a diverse field on the left (and the possibility that the president will face a challenger from within his own party) there’s no telling who may come out on top. And indeed, dark horse candidates are a fixture of American political history.
James Garfield was one of the first dark horse nominees in American history, although he came to that position more as a consensus candidate than a total surprise. Garfield attended the convention in 1880 not as a candidate, but to nominate John Sherman of Ohio. When the convention deadlocked, Garfield’s name was surprisingly added to the mix, and on the 36th ballot he came out on top as the nominee. The day before his inauguration he noted: “This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the presidential fever; not even for a day.”
Certainly as the power of party bosses dimmed, and as the primary process became more democratic, the possibility of a dark horse candidate grew. The nation saw a stark example of this in 1968, when Eugene McCarthy became the front runner by running against the president of his own party.
The election of 1968 was a race filled with political giants. Lyndon Johnson was set to run for reelection. There were rumors of a challenge from the left by Bobby Kennedy. On the right, Richard Nixon had begun his carefully executed comeback tour, and he faced opposition from George Wallace, the firebrand governor of Alabama who infamously declared: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Eugene McCarthy was a senator from Minnesota. He had voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution but had become increasingly critical of the Vietnam war. As Kennedy wavered over challenging a sitting president, McCarthy announced his intention to hit Johnson from the left. When McCarthy won 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, he exposed deep rifts among the electorate surrounding Vietnam.
From here, the race descended into one of the most dramatic in American history–Johnson dropped out, Kennedy jumped in, and the year saw violent riots, assassinations, and the election of Nixon. When Hubert Humphrey, then LBJ’s vice president, joined the race late and finally won the nomination, it struck many as decidedly undemocratic.
Other dark horse candidates dot American history. No one took John Kennedy seriously when he announced his intention to run–Harry Truman pressed Kennedy to “be patient” and Lyndon Johnson called his future running mate “little scrawny fellow with rickets”. Bill Clinton rose to the top of an uncrowded field because most serious Democrats accepted the logic of the day that George H.W. Bush was unbeatable–SNL even parodied the skittishness of Democrats who hesitated to challenge the president.
Of course, the most recent example of a dark horse candidate ascending to the presidency is that of 2016, and the election of Donald J. Trump.
With a crowded field, and the possibility of a challenge to a sitting president, there’s no telling what may happen next. History may offer some examples, but 2020 is shaping up to be a beast of its own.
The 116th Congress, set to convene on January 3rd, 2019, is one of the most diverse in American history. One hundred and twenty-three members are women–the largest class of female legislators ever. Some are already social media darlings–Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has revolutionized communication strategies by using Instagram live to share her journey; Republican Dan Crenshaw became a household name after being mocked on SNL, then invited to the show to offer a rebuke.
Certainly, as political tides shift and the gaze of the nation turns towards 2020 and beyond, there are names in the freshman class of the 116th Congress to keep an eye on. If the 116th Congress is anything like the 80th, freshmen members could one day ascend to the highest echelons of American political power.
Who were the notable freshmen of the 80th Congress? Among them were two future presidents–Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Up to their election, Nixon and Kennedy had led different but parallel lives. Both came to Congress as veterans of the Navy, as men who had lost older brothers, and who had grown up with domineering fathers. Nixon had grown up in a poor family; Kennedy in one of the nation’s wealthiest. Kennedy, at 29, was the same age as AOC. Nixon, at 33, was only a few years older.
Nixon played an active and public role in the Alger Hiss trial, which would solidify his credentials as a staunch anti-communist. As a freshman, he also traveled to Europe with congressional colleagues to assess the damage in WWII, an assessment which eventually led to the Marshall Plan. Kennedy’s congressional career was much less publicized–he engaged in political battles of the time, but didn’t make a name for himself like Nixon did.
Nixon and Kennedy, who would famously debate each other in first televised presidential debate during the election of 1960, would first debate each other in 1947, over the Taft-Hartley Act. The debate took place in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. The two freshman shared a meal after the debate, and rode the train together back to Washington D.C.–oblivious of their looming, shared future.
Both men aimed for higher office. In 1950, Nixon went to the Senate. In 1952, Kennedy followed him there. From there, they followed divergent and yet corresponding paths. Nixon would be picked as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice presidential candidate in the election of 1952; Kennedy, struggling with health issues, had one of the worst attendance records in Congress, and lost his own bid to become Adlai Stevenson’s running mate.
The rest, as they say, is history. Kennedy would best Nixon in 1960, in one of the closest presidential elections in American history. Kennedy won 49.7% of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.5%. Only 100,000 votes out of 68 million cast separated the two men. Nixon heard allegations of fraud, but declined to challenge the results of the election–although he nursed a grudge against the Kennedy machine for the rest of his political career.
Kennedy and Nixon sought the highest office in the land only 13 years after their first national election. In a few weeks, the 116th Congress will convene. For all we know, the next Kennedy, the next Nixon, could be in their midst.
Quotes abound on the uselessness of the vice presidency. John Adams once called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Hubert Humphrey once said, “There is an old story about the mother who had two sons. One went to sea, and the other became vice president, and neither was heard of again.”
When Lyndon Johnson became Jack Kennedy’s vice president, after a long campaign in which he believed he would eventually pull ahead, Johnson looked to his odds. He had his staff look up how many presidents had died in office in the last one hundred years–five out of eighteen–and later told a journalist:
“I looked it up: one out of every four Presidents has died in office. I’m a gamblin’ man, darlin’, and this is the only chance I got.”
(This was not entirely accurate. Five out of eighteen presidents had died in the last one hundred years, but since 1789 seven presidents had died in office).
Johnson had heavily hinted about Kennedy’s various health issues during the campaign (Kennedy suffered from back problems and Addison’s disease, and in the waning days of the campaign Johnson described his future running mate as “little scrawny fellow with rickets.”) As such, although Kennedy was only 43 when he became president, Johnson may have felt his odds of succeeding JFK were greater given the new president’s many health struggles.
When Johnson became vice president, only three vice presidents in American history had gone on to be president without the death of the incumbent. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Van Buren became president in their own right after serving under George Washington, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson, respectively. A former vice president would not become president again until Richard Nixon did so in 1968; a former vice president would not immediately succeed the president he served again until George H.W. Bush became president following Ronald Reagan’s two terms in 1988.
Otherwise put, without the death of the incumbent, the odds of the vice president becoming president are not good.
Even with the death of the incumbent, the odds are not good. In all of American history only eight have died in office, half from assassination, half from natural causes.
That is, unless you’re Daniel Webster. Webster turned down the offer to become vice president from two presidents–William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. When Harrison offered Webster the V.P. slot, he is reported to have replied, “I do not propose to be buried until I am dead.”
Both Harrison and Taylor died in office–the first two presidents to do so. What are the odds on that?
In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.
Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.
No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.
Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.
Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.
In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.
Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.
“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.
Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”
In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.
From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.
The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?
In the hit broadway play Hamilton, George Washington sings about his need for a right hand man. Washington has a point–presidencies can either thrive or wilt depending on who the president choses to include in his inner circle.
Often the focus is on the chief of staff–Chris Whipple wrote an excellent book detailing the make-or-break relationships presidents have had with their COS. This includes Bob Haldeman, who knew better than other aides when to listen to Nixon, and when to ignore his commands as venting.
Yet the president can draw strength on people other than their chiefs of staff–a relatively new position, anyway. We take a look at members of presidential political circles who–through their absence–proved their importance to the presidency.
Ulysses S. Grant
Grant entered the White House as war hero after the Civil War. Grant was a military genius in his own right, creating and executing battle plans that eventually defeated the Confederacy. Upon hearing suggestion that his victory was due only to the overwhelming manpower he possessed in comparison to the South, Grant objected–after all, generals before him had had just as many men, and yet failed.
Grant owed some of his success to his aide, John A. Rawlins. As the war slogged on, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest to being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” Rawlins, writes Grant biographer Ron Chernow, “could confront [Grant] with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgement…with his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature.”
Rawlins, along with Grant’s wife, Julia, also largely succeeded in suppressing Grant’s alcoholism during the war. Rawlins had Grant pledge he would not drink at all until the war ended, and he himself took a pledge to remain sober. Rawlins also organized Grant’s affairs, and helped him to maintain a positive relationship with politicians in Washington D.C. Rawlins kept Grant sober with mixed success–he always reacted with disappointment and alarm when he learned that his friend had gone on a bender. When Grant drank, he got drunk. But thanks to Rawlin’s watchful eye, he drank rarely during the war.
When Grant became president in 1869, Rawlins was one of many loyal army friends who followed Grant to the White House. But the war had worn heavily on Rawlins, and he had suffered with health problems for years. At the age of thirty-eight, he died of tuberculosis.
Grant possessed battle savvy but little business acumen, and he was more trusting of men than his late friend. Rawlins’ loss was devastating to the Grant Administration. Chernow writes: “Rawlins would have warned the president against predatory, designing figures who encircled him in Washington. He would have detected wrongdoers and been a stalwart voice against corruption…with Rawlins gone, Grant lacked that one trusted adviser…”
Grant and his administration would be plagued by charges of corruption, as the easily trusting Grant let people into his inner circle that Rawlins would have likely barred.
Harry S Truman
When Truman unexpectedly became president in 1945, he reached out to his old high school friend, Charlie Ross, to be his press secretary. Ross accompanied the president all over the world, even playing poker with Truman and Winston Churchill. David McCullough details their close relationship in his biography of Truman.
Aside from his duties as press secretary, Ross was a friend and a shoulder for the president to lean on. When Truman started talking walks on doctor’s orders, he confided in Ross that it helped him sleep better. On Ross’ counsel, Truman learned to better respond to “smarty questions” at press conferences, answering “No comment”, “your guess is as good as mine”, or, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Ross also played a crucial role in cooling down the president, especially as an editor. When railroad workers threatened to strike, Truman was furious. He wrote a seven page speech, which he gave to Ross to read. Ross told him he needed to rework it, so they did, with the help of several other aides.
In a letter Ross wrote to Truman in 1947, he said:
“There is nothing in life, I think, more satisfying than friendship, and to have yours is a rare satisfaction indeed…the greatest inspiration, Mr. President, has been the character of you–you as a President, you as a human being. Perhaps I can say best what is in my heart by telling you that my admiration for you, and my deep affection, have grown steadily since the day you honored me with your trust.”
When Ross died unexpectedly of a coronary occlusion in 1950, Truman was devastated by his loss. He wrote a tribute describing Ross as “the friend of my youth…a tower of strength…patriotism and integrity, honor and honesty, lofty ideals and nobility of intent were his guides…” Truman could not bring himself to give the statement to the press without breaking down. “Aw hell,” he said to a group of reporters. “I can’t read this thing. You fellows know how I feel, anyway…”
That night, Truman’s daughter sang at Constitution Hall, prompting a journalist named Paul Hume to write a scathing review. Truman responded the next day, calling Hume a “frustrated old man”, the review “lousy”, and suggested that he’d like to beat Hume up.
The country, reeling under an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Korea, reacted with fury. Telegrams to the White House were 2:1 against Truman. One such telegram read:
“How can you put your trivial personal affairs before those of one hundred and sixty million people. Our boys while your infantile mind was on your daughter’s review. Inadvertently you showed the whole world what you are. Nothing but a little selfish pipsqueak.”
George Elsey, a Truman speechwriter, noted sadly that “Charlie Ross would never have let the Paul Hume letter get out…Charlie was…a calming fine influence on Truman, a tempering influence…much more than a press secretary.”
Lyndon B. Johnson
Walter Jenkins had long been an LBJ loyalist, joining his staff in 1939 while Johnson was still in Congress. He was close with both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, and had been a political aide of Johnson’s through good times and bad. One of Jenkins’ children was named “Lyndon.” In her book on Lady Bird and the Johnson marriage, Betty Boyd Caroli writes that the Johnsons loved Jenkins “like a blood relative.” By 1964, he had worked for LBJ for 25 years, “[working] eighteen hour days, [canceling] critical medical appointments, and doggedly [tackling] all of LBJ’s assignments, even those delivered in such condescending, abusive terms that Jenkin’s face flushed red,” writes Caroli.
So it came as a shock to Lyndon and Lady Bird when they received a call that Jenkins–a married father of six–had been arrested on a “morals charge.” Jenkins had been caught in a homosexual encounter in a public restroom.
The subsequent conversation between LBJ and Lady Bird was recorded–known only to the president–and captures a fascinating moment in their marriage. Lady Bird wanted to help Jenkins–if he could no longer work at the White House, she wanted to offer him a job with one of the family’s television stations in Texas. LBJ refused.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Lady Bird said. “When questioned, and I will be questioned, I’m going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband.”
Lady Bird told the president he should make some gesture of support to his longtime aide. LBJ refused.
“We just can’t win this,” the president said. “The average farmer just can’t understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it.”
Because Johnson refused to issue a statement of support, Lady Bird wrote one herself, which she gave to The Washington Post.
(Their full conversation is available online, and is a look at the dynamics of their marriage.)
Aides to Johnson later speculated that Jenkins’ absence was detrimental to LBJ and his presidency. Johnson’s Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, thought that Jenkins’ “counsel on Vietnam might have been extremely helpful.” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, agreed, later saying, “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”
When it comes to a presidency, those in the inner circle can make a real difference on the president’s success. But often their impact is not felt until they’ve vanished.
When Richard Nixon departed the White House on August 9th, 1974, becoming the first president to resign from the office, he made Gerald Ford the first unelected president in American history.
As Nixon took off in his helicopter, Ford took the oath of office. After taking the oath, Ford gave a short speech which he said was not “an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech–just a little straight talk among friends.” Ford went onto say that he was well aware that he had not been elected by American ballots, but he hoped he would be confirmed through American prayers.
Then Ford uttered the words that became enshrined in American memory.
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.
As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.
Ford entered the White House with a list of issues to tackle. There was the Cold War, the end of the war in Vietnam, unrest in the Middle East, and inflation, among other things. Not to mention he had to define his presidency as independent from Nixon’s, while serving out the rest of Nixon’s second term.
Ford had to move his family into the White House; he had to address a divided and bitter nation; and he had to deal with the question that had been born even before he took the oath of office, of whether or not he should pardon Richard Nixon for any crimes associated with Watergate.
Ford and his family would not move to the White House until 10 days into his term, and in the meantime Ford would continue to commute from his home in Alexandria, Virginia. The images of Ford leaving his home, looking very much like a regular businessman on his way to work, and not the leader of the free world, obscures the reality of the heavy burden which had fallen on his shoulders. Betty Ford, who had remarked at the beginning of Ford’s political career that she was “unprepared to be a political wife” but was unworried because she “didn’t think he was going to win” would leave her own mark on the presidency and the role of First Lady. Only a month into the role she held her first press conference and answered questions about women in politics, abortions, and the Equal Rights Amendment. She would also bring awareness to breast cancer and addiction, acknowledging her struggles with both.
As the question of a Nixon pardon floated in the air–Alexander Haig, the chief of staff under Nixon and Ford had first broached the issue with the new president 10 days before Nixon’s resignation–one of Ford’s first acts as president was to address Congress. He did so three days after taking the oath of office.
“I am not here to make an inaugural address,” Ford said. “The nation needs action, not words…my fellow Americans, we have a lot of work to do.” To Congress he said, “I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.” Ford, who had climbed the ropes in Washington as a member of Congress, seemed uniquely able to build such a relationship. Yet he would veto 66 bills passed by the Democratic Congress, many of which were then overridden by Congress–the largest percentage of overrides since Congress overrode Andrew Johnson’s vetoes following his unexpected ascension to the presidency.
Ford later reflected: “When I was in the Congress myself, I thought it fulfilled its constitutional obligations in a very responsible way, but after I became president, my perspective changed.”
The decision to pardon Nixon came about a month after Ford took office, and was initially met with outrage and opposition from the country and from many of Watergate’s main players. Although Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein initially met the news of the pardon with dismay, they much later acknowledged that Ford had made the right choice. Woodward called the pardon “an act of political courage”, with Bernstein agreeing that the pardon took “great courage.”
Despite the retrospective, Ford erased any good will he may have had in his first weeks in the presidency by pardoning Nixon. He set himself up for a tough reelection, in which he would be challenged by a right-leaning upstart named Ronald Reagan, and would eventually lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
As Democrats gear up for midterm elections in 2018 and the presidential election in 2020 the party struggles to define its message. It cannot simply be the party of anti-Trump–especially if it aims to win back two-time Obama voters who turned Republican in 2016. Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former communications director and current co-host of the left-leaning podcast Pod Save America, has suggested that the Democrats take up “corruption” as part of their messaging. In recent weeks, his colleagues at Crooked Media have pushed this–corruption, collusion, and chaos.
It’s reminiscent of another young political operative. This one a Republican, and in the year 1952. Richard Nixon, as a candidate for the vice presidency, pushed the similarly sounding message of “Korea, Communism, Corruption”–K1C2.
While Eisenhower maintained a healthy distance from the campaign, Nixon leapt into the fray. He put up a fight for the presidency that would embitter many against him for the rest of his political career, including Harry Truman, who interpreted Nixon’s messaging as a sly way of calling him a traitor. (Truman would later insist that Nixon had personally accused him of treason, although no evidence exists to support this). Even in Nixon’s lowest point of the campaign–when he was forced to defend his use of a political slush fund in the now famous “Checkers” speech–he was sure to add at the end that electing Eisenhower was important because the Democrats had left the government riddled with Communists and corruption.
At one rally, Nixon said: “If the record itself smears, let it smear. If the dry rot of corruption and Communism, which has eaten deep into our body politic during the past seven years, can only be chopped out with a hatchet, then let’s call for a hatchet.”
At another, he went further, accusing the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, of “carrying a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of Communist containment.”
As for Korea, Eisenhower, a war hero, promised to visit the battlefield after the election. He and Nixon could argue that Stevenson lacked the necessary military experience, while no one could doubt Ike’s credentials. The war weighed heavily on the country. Truman kept a letter and a purple heart from a distraught parent in his desk, who sent it to him as the man “directly responsible” for their son’s death.
In the end, the alliteration worked–Eisenhower won 55% of the popular vote, won 39 out of 48 states, and took 442 electoral votes. He even won Stevenson’s native state of Illinois. Of course there were other factors at play. The Democrats had been in power since 1933 and there was a general feeling of fatigue toward their policies. Ike also campaigned on the promise of change.
Still, perhaps communications professionals of the Democratic party can take a page from Richard Nixon’s book. A s simple message, endlessly repeated, can go a long way.
Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell
The President & the Apprentice by Irwin F. Gellman