“The Question”: Ted Kennedy & the Pitfalls of Running for President

By Kaleena Fraga

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

One of the most obvious questions a candidate may be asked is why do you want to be president? Why you? Why now? This isn’t the 19th century, after all, when presidents had to be dragged to the White House under the guise of modesty. Why do you want to be president is a simple question with a complex answer–and candidates should be prepared to offer one.

Failing to do so could be fatal to any campaign. Just ask Ted Kennedy.

“Why do you want to be president?” Roger Mudd of CBS asked Kennedy in November of 1979. Kennedy had not yet announced, but was gearing up to–he would make a formal announcement the next week.

For a long four seconds, Kennedy hesitated, his eyes sliding to the ceiling. “Well,” he said, “uh. Were I to make the announcement to run, the reasons that I would run…” and thus commenced a rambling answer which may have derailed his entire candidacy.

The Washington Post wrote at the time that Kennedy “appears at points uncomfortable, faltering, almost dazed.” (Although their review of the interview focused more on Kennedy’s discomfort with Mudd’s line of questions concerning Chappaquiddick). The interview, thought the paper, could have the same effect on the 1980 campaign as the 1960 televised debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

Whatever the Washington Post thought of the interview, Kennedy himself recognized it as a mistake. Decades later, Mudd wrote that he had heard that Kennedy never forgot the question, and that he blamed Mudd for it.

“…thirty years later, Kennedy was still upset that I had asked him why he wanted to be president, even though it was widely believed among politicians and journalists alike that the only thing missing from his candidacy was a formal announcement.”

Kennedy’s failure to answer this softball question has become a thing of political lore. The West Wing even aired an episode where the president’s staff celebrates a political rival’s inability to answer “the question.”

“Can you answer it?” C.J. Cregg, the press secretary, later asks the president.

“Why do I want to be president?” says President Bartlett

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been thinking about it for the last couple of hours,” the president responds, and pauses. “I almost have it.”

Today, many perspective Democratic candidates have sought to answer this question in their campaign launch videos or in interviews (perhaps aiming to preempt an awkward interview exchange).

Elizabeth Warren talks of her experience fighting big business, and how she would bring that fight to the White House. Cory Booker on The View said: “I’m running to restore our sense of common purpose, to focus on the common pain that we have all over this country.” In his campaign video, he focused on his credentials as a man of the people–living among his constituents, in Newark, New Jersey.

Even Howard Schultz, asked by John Dickerson of CBS This Morning for his “big idea” trumpeted a line about bringing people together (Schultz aims to do this as a candidate from the center). Dickerson replied that most politicians would say that, too. Still–Schultz’s answer wasn’t as bad as Kennedy’s rambling response, which began about how America was great because of its vast natural resources.

The pitfalls of running for president are many and varied. But at the very least today’s candidates can learn from the past. When someone asks you why you want to be president–know the answer.

Origin Stories: Where do Presidents Come From?

By Kaleena Fraga

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

The election of 2020 is underway! So far it is the most diverse election in American history. The people running (or who will probably run) represent a mix of genders, sexual orientations, and race. One thing many of them have in common is that they serve or have served in the U.S. Senate.

The Senate has not, historically, been the best jumping off point to the presidency. Only Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama went directly from serving in the Senate to the White House (although many other presidents served in the Senate at some point in their career before the presidency). With this in mind, we’ve decided to look at where presidents came from: that is, what office did they hold, or what career did they leave, before entering the White House?

The Military : 5

George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower all transitioned from military careers into the presidency. Washington, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower were strictly military men who left this life to be president.

In the case of Eisenhower and Taylor, their party preference was initially unknown. Eisenhower was especially cagey about his politics, and Harry Truman even floated that they run together with Eisenhower on top of a Democratic ticket in 1948. Taylor had never voted in an election–feeling that, as a military man, it wasn’t right to choose a party.

Of the five, only Franklin Pierce had prior political experience. He served in both the House and the Senate before enlisting in the Mexican-American war.

Vice Presidency :14

You can check out our great collaboration with Periodic Presidents to learn more about how the vice presidency doesn’t guarantee an easy path to the presidency. Still, many have made the leap (or have been pushed after the death of an incumbent).

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, and George H.W. Bush directly succeeded a president in an election. Richard Nixon lost his election in 1960 directly after his vice presidency, but won in 1968.

John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry S. Truman became president after the incumbent died of natural causes.

Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson became president after an assassination.

Gerald Ford became president after the only presidential resignation in American history.

The Cabinet :5

Although rare in recent history, a number of presidents came to the White House from next door–that is, they had served as a cabinet secretary before becoming president. In the early days of the Republic serving as secretary of state, not as vice president, seemed to be the best place for someone with presidential ambitions.

This group includes: James Madison (State), James Monroe (State), John Quincy Adams (State), Herbert Hoover (Commerce), and William Howard Taft (War).

Others used the secretary of state position as a stepping stone to higher office before the presidency. Thomas Jefferson and Martin Van Buren were secretary of state before becoming vice president. James Buchanan also held this office in the years before he became president.

In 2020, Julian Castro will be running after holding a place in Barack Obama’s Cabinet. He served as Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The Senate: 5

As we’ve established, the only sitting senators to move from the Senate to the White House have been Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama.

Andrew Jackson’s last stint in public office was in the Senate, but he resigned in 1825 after losing to John Quincy Adams in the election of 1824. He would not become president until 1828. Benjamin Harrison similarly lost reelection to the Senate in 1887, and decided to run for president a year later.

So far, the race for 2020 has quite a few candidates hoping to become the fourth sitting senator to become president. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren are all current United States senators who have announced an intention to run. There is speculation that Senators Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bennet, Jeff Merkley, and Bernie Sanders could also throw their hats into the ring.

Other presidents who served in the United States Senate include: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.

So, in terms of starting points, the Senate ain’t bad if you want to be president some day (although perhaps not some day soon).

Ministers/Ambassadors: 2

A few presidents previously served in diplomatic roles before they moved to the White House.

After a sparkling military career, William Henry Harrison had a rough time in politics before Henry Clay convinced John Quincy Adams to name him Minister to Colombia. Harrison had served two terms in the House, but had been passed over for diplomatic posts, and later lost a race for the governor of Ohio, as well as two races for the Senate,  as well as, a race that would have returned him to the House. When he did win a Senate seat, he used this to call on political favors, thus securing his posting in Colombia. He was ineffective as a minister, and spent his years before the presidency back on his Ohio farm.

James Buchanan also held significant political office before becoming Minister to England, the role which preceded his presidency. Buchanan served in the House, the Senate, and the Cabinet. Yet his time as Minister to England allowed him to avoid controversies surrounding slavery in the 1850s, which made him a desirable presidential candidate. As president, Buchanan’s inaction on the eve of the civil war made him one of the worst presidents in American history.

The House : 2

Although nineteen presidents served in the House of Representatives at some point in their career, it’s exceedingly rare to move directly from the House to the presidency. Only James Garfield made the consecutive leap in 1880. Serving in the House was Abraham Lincoln’s last public office before his run for the presidency, but in the decade in-between he mostly focused on his law practice.

Other House alum include: James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush.

Governor: 10

The race for 2020 could see quite a few current or former governors in the mix. Although none have announced, some perspective candidates are Terry McAuliffe (VA), Steve Bullock (MT), John Hickenlooper (CO), and Jay Inslee (WA).

Although this was not historically a popular route to the presidency, governors have recently found success in catapulting themselves from the governor’s mansion to the White House. Recent examples of governors who left their states to become president are George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In the 19th century, James K. Polk, Rutherford B. Hayes, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley all went from being governor to being president.

President: 1

Grover Cleveland represents a special case. Yes, he was a governor before he became president the first time. But he is also the only nonconsecutive president in American history. After serving one term in office, he lost his bid for a second, waited four years, and then returned to power to fulfill a nonconsecutive second term.

Business: 1

Donald J. Trump is the only president to come directly from the world of business, without strong affiliations to politics or the military. In 2020 a run from Howard Shultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, could change this.

Mayors: 0

No one has served as mayor of a city and then become president, however there are a few candidates in 2020 who hope to do just that. Pete Buttigieg has officially announced his candidacy. Other mayors (current and former) such as Michael Bloomberg, Bill De Blasio, and Andrew Gillum are considered possible candidates as well.

***

Power isn’t linear. Many presidents have jumped from one position to another, and have ended up in the presidency via unlikely avenues (see: James Garfield). Different historical trends promote different results. Two hundred years ago being secretary of state was a good move if you wanted to be president–today, it might be wiser to see a governorship.

Here’s what’s for sure: in 2020 candidates will come from a variety of backgrounds–all with the goal of ending up in the same place.

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.

“From Time to Time”: Pelosi, Trump, and the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

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

Amid a contentious government shutdown, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has written President Trump a letter, suggesting that in lieu of delivering a State of the Union speech, as the president intends, he submit his address in writing.

Although Americans today are accustomed to seeing the president deliver the SOTU, Pelosi notes in her letter that “during the 19th century and up until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, these annual State of the Union messages were delivered to Congress in writing.” Pelosi also notes that a SOTU has never been delivered amidst a government shutdown.

“I suggest,” Pelosi writes, “that we work together to determine another suitable date after the government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to Congress on January 29th.”

Although the State of the Union started as an oral address–both George Washington and John Adams delivered speeches to Congress–Thomas Jefferson was the first to balk at the tradition.

Jefferson had several reasons why he believed a written address was superior to a speech. First of all, the third president nursed a fear of public speaking. He also believed that a letter was more efficient than a speech–that it would take less time to read than to listen, and that a written document would give legislators time to think about their response. Historians have also noted that giving a speech had a king-like aura, something that a republican like Jefferson would abhor.

Then again, Jefferson could have simply found trudging to Congress to give a speech inconvenient.

In any case, the tradition that Jefferson set remained for over one hundred years, until Woodrow Wilson decide to return to the ways of Washington and Adams, and give a speech before Congress instead of simply sending a letter.

At the time this was considered far outside the norm. The Washington Post reported that “Washington is amazed” and that “disbelief” was expressed in Congress when members heard the president intended to give a speech. At the time, the paper seemed confident that such displays would not “become habit.”

Since then, a spoken SOTU has indeed become a national habit, even more so than in Wilson’s day thanks to mass communication tools like radio, television, and internet.

That’s not to say that the written version of the SOTU has been abandoned entirely–as lame duck presidents, Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of giving a speech before Congress.

Whether or not Trump will heed Pelosi’s advice has yet to be seen, and certainly a president might balk at giving up the bully pulpit power of television. In any case, we’ll leave you with a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt, who was thoroughly dismayed that Wilson had the idea of a SOTU speech, something that Roosevelt himself would have enthusiastically embraced.

Political Second Acts: Mitt Romney, John Quincy Adams, Hubert Humphrey, and Life after Defeat

By Kaleena Fraga

Hello History First readers! In lieu of a post this Tuesday I’m delighted to direct you all to Washington Post’s Made by History section, where I had a piece published on Friday.

Check it out here here here