Just a Number: Kennedy, Reagan, and the “Age Question” in 2020

The youngest candidate running for president in 2020 is 37. The oldest is 77. Whether or not voters will make age an issue has yet to be seen, so how has it played out in past presidential campaigns?

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

The candidates running for president in 2020 are incredibly diverse. There are men and women, white and black candidates, and candidates with different sexual orientations. There is also a diversity when it comes to age. On the younger side of the spectrum are Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg (46 and 37, respectively). On the other side there is Bernie Sanders, who is 77, and, if he were to run, Joe Biden, who is 76.

So what role has age played in past presidential campaigns?

It’s certainly come up in the past. The two most famous examples of candidates who wrestled with the “age question” were John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1960, was 43 years old. Although his opponent, Richard Nixon, was just four years older, Kennedy faced a barrage of criticism and doubt when it came to the question of his youth. (Of course, by 1960 Richard Nixon had been vice president for eight years, in addition to his service in the House and the Senate, experience which Kennedy shared).

Criticism came from both sides of the aisle. Harry Truman, the last Democratic president, spoke out against Kennedy, saying:

“I am deeply concerned and troubled about the situation we are up against in the world now…That is why I hope someone with the greatest possible maturity and experience would be available at this time. May I urge you to be patient?”

Once Kennedy became the nominee, Truman changed his tune—sort of. He wrote to a former aide:

“[We] are stuck with the necessity of taking the worst of two evils or none at all. So–I’m taking the immature Democrat as the best of the two. Nixon is impossible. So, there we are.”

Experience was definitely a question in the election. Nixon ran ads stressing his 7 1/2 years experience in the White House as Eisenhower’s vice president. The ad ended with a line touting the experience of Nixon and his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge: “They understand what peace demands” implying, of course, that Kennedy (with his youth and inexperience) did not.

The Democrats fought back. When Eisenhower infamously stated during a press conference that he’d need a week to think of an important contribution or decision made by his vice president, Democrats turned the fumble into an attack ad against Nixon.

Kennedy, for his part, turned his youth into an asset. When he accepted the nomination Kennedy said:

“The Republican nominee-to-be, of course, is also a young man. But his approach is as old as McKinley. His party is the party of the past. His speeches are generalities from Poor Richard’s Almanac. Their platform, made up of left-over Democratic planks, has the courage of our old convictions. Their pledge is a pledge to the status quo–and today there can be no status quo.”

The country, Kennedy said, needed young blood, new ideas, a fresh start. Using rhetoric that will be familiar to anyone who has lived through an American election, Kennedy pressed for change after eight years of Republican power.

It worked—but barely. The election of 1960 was one of the closest in American history.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan, like Kennedy, faced criticism concerning his age, but it came from the other direction. As he prepared to run for reelection, many wondered if the president had grown too old to serve his duties. At 73, he would be the oldest president ever sworn in.

Age had been a question for Reagan ever since he ran for president in 1980. In a debate that year with his future vice president, George H.W. Bush, the moderator asked Bush if he thought Reagan, then 69, was too old to hold office.

“No, I don’t,” said Bush.

“I agree with George Bush,” said Reagan.

Four years later, the question arose again, amplified, this time, by Reagan’s poor performance in the first debate against Walter Mondale. The New York Times wrote that “Mr. Reagan appears less confident than he customarily does on television.”

Reagan hit back against criticism over his performance, and against the line of questioning that he’d lost stamina in the last four years. “I wasn’t tired,” Reagan told the Times. “And with regard to the age issue and everything, if I had as much makeup on as he did, I’d have looked younger, too.”

But Reagan knew he’d had a bad night. As soon as Reagan walked off the debate stage that night he told an aide that he “had flopped.” Mondale, for his part, told an aide, “that guy is gone.” After the debate, Reagan dropped seven points in the polls. Fifty-four percent of Americans gave the debate victory to Mondale; just thirty-four percent thought Reagan had won.

So it was crucial for Reagan to perform well in the 2nd debate. Not only that, he needed to definitively put the “age” question to rest.

He got his chance.

“Mr. President,” said the moderator. “I want to raise an issue that has been lurking out there for two or three weeks…you are already the oldest president in history. And some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?”

Reagan responded: “Not at all…I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Even Mondale laughed (although he must have sensed, then, the power of Reagan’s line). It quickly became one of the most iconic of American presidential debates. Lost is what Reagan said next: “I might add that it was Seneca, or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, ‘If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.'”

Reagan won the election in a landslide. Although he would not be officially diagnosed with Alzheimers until 1994, speculation was rife that he suffered from the disease while in office. During the Iran-Contra affair, much of Reagan’s defense rested on the fact that he could not remember certain facts.

***

So how will age play out in 2020? Sanders, who would be 79 on inauguration day were he to win, acknowledged but dismissed the age issue. “I would ask people to look at the totality of who I am,” Sanders said, “[age is] part of a discussion, but it has to be part of an overall view of what somebody is and what somebody has accomplished.”

Although Joe Biden has not yet officially announced his own candidacy (he would be 78 on January 20th 2021) he and his team are reportedly considering measures that would help allay the question. Among them: choosing a running mate early (Stacey Abrams is rumored) and promising to serve only one term.

Pete Buttigieg, who is enjoying a bump in the polls, frames his youth (Buttigieg is 37) as an asset. “We’re the generation with the most at stake,” Buttigieg said, referencing climate change and the increasing issue of economic disparity. “[We] were out there in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I think we’ve earned place in this conversation.”

Age will definitely be a question on the Democratic side—and certainly it will come up as the election progresses. Donald Trump, after all, is 72.

From the Sidelines: The Role of Former Political Stars in New Campaigns

Those who have run for president, either successfully or not, play a curious role during new campaigns

By Kaleena Fraga

(to check out this piece in podcast form click here)

As the field of Democratic candidates running for president in 2020 begins to solidify, there is a heightened interest over who is meeting with whom. The New York Times recently published a piece entitled: Hillary Clinton Is Not a Candidate. She Looms Over 2020 AnywayThe paper also wrote about how former president Barack Obama has met with several Democrats running in 2020. Despite no longer holding office—despite, in the case of Clinton, losing her own bid for the presidency—figures like Clinton and Obama remain an important influence as the next big election looms.

So, historically, what role do former political stars—that is, either ex-presidents or those who got close to the presidency—play during a new presidential campaign?

The Role Ex-Presidents Play in Campaigns 

During the 2016 campaign, there was much discussion about the unique aspect of Barack Obama’s post-presidency life. Obama, who was only 55 when he left office, left at a much younger age than most presidents. With his former secretary of state running, pundits speculated the ex-president would play a strong role in her campaign, and he did.

Addressing a group of black voters in 2016, Obama said:

“I will consider it a personal insult — an insult to my legacy — if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election. You want to give me a good sendoff? Go vote.”

Obama campaigned, hard, for Clinton. This isn’t always the case when an ex-president is put in the position of campaigning for the new candidate of his party.

When Richard Nixon sought the presidency after serving eight years as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, the president was, at best, lukewarm. When asked about Nixon’s specific contributions during their partnership, Eisenhower fumbled the question.

Journalist: “if you could give us an example of a major idea of his that you had adopted in that role as the decider and the final, ah….”

Eisenhower: “If you give me a week, I might think of one—I don’t remember.”

His fumble later became an attack ad.

Of course, this gets to a larger point about vice presidents running for a term consecutive to their vice presidency. We already know that it can be tough to move from the vice presidency to the presidency. While candidates need the president they served to point to their accomplishments, the president leaving office often doesn’t want to suggest that big decisions were made by anyone except himself.

Case in point: Eisenhower, in the same press conference, also said: “No one can make a decision except me.”

Even Obama, while he campaigned on Clinton’s aptitude for the presidency, also tied her victory to his own legacy.

Ronald Reagan, similar to Eisenhower, offered a somewhat tepid endorsement of his vice president, George H.W. Bush, fumbling his vice president’s name of eight years while announcing his endorsement.

Then there is Harry S Truman. Truman, who had been out of office eight years when John F. Kennedy ran for office in 1960, launched himself into the campaign. Although he had his doubts about Kennedy’s youth, he campaigned hard.

Truman’s case is slightly different than the above—unlike Obama, Eisenhower, or Reagan, he leaped into a race nearly a decade after his own administration.

Certainly, the party powerful often lend a hand—but it is rare to have a president campaign, simply because most of them either haven’t lived long after their presidencies (see Eisenhower or LBJ), they were unpopular post-presidency (Nixon, Ford, Carter), or their vice presidents didn’t want to rely on their help to win.

Vice Presidents Who Want to Forge Their Own Path 

If presidents are hesitant to relinquish their legacy to their vice presidents, then vice presidents can often be just as hesitant to use the same legacy as a step towards their own term in office.

In the election of 1992, the incumbent George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, ending twelve years of Republican power. Reports trickled out that Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were “upset, even angry” over how Bush had steered his campaign. According to their friends, they saw his campaign as “seriously flawed” not least because he had “failed to use Mr. Reagan as a campaigner until late October.”

This was, perhaps, because Bush had been haunted by Reagan’s legacy during his presidency. As the economy soured, a vice chairman for Goldman Sachs noted:

“”[Bush] was trapped by the Reagan legacy. Most Presidents can make changes when they come into office by blaming their predecessor. He couldn’t do that.”

Then again, Bush’s reluctance to use Reagan during his campaign could have less to do with wanting to define his political legacy apart from Reagan’s, and more with the fact that their partnership had been a “marriage of convenience.” Once their shared term ended, longterm tensions came out into the open.

“[Bush] doesn’t seem to stand for anything,” Reagan is reported to have remarked, eight months before the 1992 election. Reagan saw Bush’s performance as a reflection of his own legacy. Bush saw Reagan’s presence as a hindrance to his independence. His aides sneered that Reagan was “too senile” to make public appearances supporting the president.

The dynamic would be similar in the election of 2000 when the incumbent vice president, Al Gore, decided to run for president, following eight years of Bill Clinton’s White House. Gore and Clinton had a tense relationship during that campaign. For his part, Clinton wondered “why Mr. Gore was not making more of the successes of the administration.”

During a blunt exchange after Gore’s loss, Gore told Clinton that it was Clinton’s sex scandal and his low approval ratings that had eventually hobbled Gore’s bid for the White House.

Famous Losers in Presidental Campaigns 

Presidents have a natural role in campaigns of their own party, even years after their own administrations—assuming, of course, that they are popular, and that the party or candidate wants their help. So what about the famous losers?

The questions seem especially pertinent as 2020 looms, and pundits wonder what role Hillary Clinton will play. The quick answer—if she’s anything like the losers of old, she will definitely play a role.

Adlai Stevenson ran for president twice in 1952 and 1956 and lost his bid for the nomination in 1960 to John F. Kennedy. He played a role—giving speeches in support of Kennedy, and maintaining a correspondence with the nominee about his “youth and inexperience.”

Another famous loser, Richard Nixon, who resigned from the presidency, was consistently consulted by presidents of both parties. (Even if they chose to keep these consultations private).

Clinton, who lost her bid for the presidency in 2016, and her bid for the nomination eight years before that, remains a powerful figure in the Democratic party. So far, many of the Democrats seeking the nomination in 2020 have consulted with Clinton—everyone from Amy Klobuchar to Joe Biden.

***

Whether a winner or a loser—if you ran for president once, there’s a good chance you’ll be involved in the next campaign. The 2020 primaries will be crowded with Democrats vying for the nomination. With figures like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others, the actual race will be crowded too—this time, with winners, losers, and others looking to lend a hand to defeat President Trump.

Predictability of the Unpredictable: Dark Horse Candidates & 2020

By Kaleena Fraga

(To check out this piece in podcast form, click here)

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.

LBJ says he “will not seek, nor accept” the nomination

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.

New Kids in Town: Kennedy, Nixon & the 116th Congress

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

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. 

Waiting In the Wings: LBJ, the Vice Presidency, and Odds

By Kaleena Fraga

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? 

Shifting Tides: The Midterms of 1966

By Kaleena Fraga

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?

 

“Right Hand Man”: The People Around the President

By Kaleena Fraga

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 and rawlins
Rawlins, left, and Grant, center

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.

truman and ross
Truman, Ross, and Eisenhower

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

lbj and jenkins
Jenkins (far left), LBJ, and Lady Bird

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.