By Kaleena Fraga
In every presidential election there is a winner, and there is a loser. For the winner, the path is clear. Go on to the presidency, watch your approval rating crumble, hopefully get something done while in office and (most likely) gear up to run again. For the loser of the presidential contest, the future is foggy. Do they emerge a leader of their party? Do they prepare to run again? Do they fade into the background of political history, or quietly enter a life of public service?
Once, losers didn’t have a choice. John Adams lost to George Washington and served as his vice president. Thomas Jefferson lost to John Adams and served as his vice president. But today, a loser must go from being one of the most admired (or reviled) people in the country to last week’s headline.
President Trump has boasted often of his similarities to Andrew Jackson, and to the change election in 1828 that ushered Jackson into power. Jackson bested John Quincy Adams, who, as the son of a president and a founding father, belonged squarely to the Washington establishment. Jackson’s election shocked and horrified Washington elites. Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, is purported to have taken ill, certain that Jackson’s election meant the end of the American experiment. Although devastated by his loss, Adams picked up the political flag two years later and went on to serve in Congress until his death in 1848—one of only two presidents to do so.
Perhaps the most famous loser of all is William Jennings Bryan. Bryan ran for president a record three times—in 1896 against William McKinley, 1900 against Teddy Roosevelt, and in 1908 against William Howard Taft. Bryan, a gifted orator, couldn’t seem to give up public life. He continued to speak widely after each defeat, amassing a large and loyal following. Although Bryan ran as a Democrat, he’d flirted with the Progressive Party before and many in his party resented his advocation of extreme measures. Many Americans saw him as above politics (not unlike Bernie Sanders in 2016) and as a man of the people. Bryan enjoyed a short tenure as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State and became an advocate for prohibition. He later solidified a legacy as a hero of American Christians when he faced Clarance Darrow in a trial over whether or not teachers had the right to teach evolution in the classroom.
Later in the 20th century, Adlai Stevenson was known as the man who lost races to be president. He ran twice in 1952 and 1956 (almost three times, if he’d had his way in 1960). In the 50s Stevenson was bested by the tag team of Eisenhower and Nixon. In 1960, despite a strong backing from Democratic powerful like Eleanor Roosevelt, he lost the nomination to Jack Kennedy. Despite strained relations between the two men (Stevenson refused to publicly endorse Kennedy), Kennedy eventually appointed him ambassador to the United Nations. Stevenson is recognized today for his quick wit, with quotes attributed to him like:
“I will make a bargain with the Republicans. If they will stop telling lies about Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”
“You can tell the size of a man by the things that make him mad”
The most famous loser of our current time is, of course, Hillary Clinton. After losing to Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, she lost to Donald Trump in 2016. Clinton certainly has a legacy outside of her run for the presidency that will continue to define her. Today she remains as polarizing as ever, and it’s unclear what role she will play going forward. For now, she joins a group of distinguished men who, although losers, were extraordinary in their own way.