Monday, February 18, 2008


While I realize it’s the custom for us to celebrate the lives of our most illustrious chief executives on this day, I like to observe a moment of silence for those also-rans who, er, also ran—the obscure would-be presidential candidates of history.

And so a tip of my hat to….

Lewis Cass, former Michigan governor, who ran as a Democrat against Zachary Taylor in 1848. Cass was a nice enough fellow, but his name rhymed with both “ass” and “gas.” Predictably enough, he was satirized in cartoons as “General Gass,” with cannons farting noxious fumes out of his belly and ass, or as “The Gas Bag,” with an enormous rear end, ready to lift off into the sky, hot air balloon style. It was claimed that Cass had sold white men into slavery, not true. Whigs also said that he was guilty of graft in a previous job as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, but this was false. Finally, they just gave up and called him a “pot-belied, mutton-headed cucumber,” which seemed to sum it all up….

Winfield Scott, one of the most pompous men ever to run for president—that includes Mitt Romney. Scott, who lost to Democrat Franklin Pierce in 1852, spoke to his listeners with the all unctuousness of the most politically correct twentieth-first-century Presidential candidate: “Fellow citizens. When I say fellow citizens I mean native and adopted as well as those who intend to become citizens.” When Scott heard an Irish accent he would exclaim: “I hear that rich brogue. It makes me remember the noble deeds of Irishmen, many of whom I have led to battle and victory….”

Let us not forget poor Horatio Seymour and Horace Greely, who were destroyed by Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872, respectively. Seymour, a governor of New York, was so nervous at his nomination that he actually mounted the stage at the Democratic convention and declined the honor in inadvertent A-B rhyme (“God bless you for your kindness to me, but your candidate I cannot be.”), then burst into tears backstage (“Pity me! Pity me!”) before finally accepting.
Republicans gleefully seized on Seymour’s tentative acceptance of the Democratic nomination by mocking “The Great Decliner” in what became a famous little ditty:

“There’s a queer sort of chap they call Seymour,
A strange composition called Seymour,
Who stoutly declines,
Then happiness finds
In accepting, does Horatio Seymour.”

Greeley, in 1872, was a bald, rotund, atheist, vegetarian newspaperman running against a famous war hero. Need we say more? After 31 out of 37 states went for Grant, Greeley declared “I am the worst beaten man who ever ran for high office,” Shortly after the election, Greeley began to suffer from hallucinations and was taken to a private sanitarium. “Utterly ruined beyond hope,” as he wrote, he waited for “the night [to] close its jaws on me forever.” He died November 29. Grant attended his funeral…

I’d like to put in a word here for the Reverend Silas C. Swallow, Prohibition Party candidate in 1904, just because I love his name….

1904 also featured Democratic nominee Judge Alton Parker, running against Theodore Roosevelt. The extremely colorless Parker is probably the most obscure major Presidential candidate of all time. Parker—whom Roosevelt (who could be quite mean) referred to as “the neutral-tinted individual”—lacked almost any campaigning or speaking skills and spent much of his time riding off alone on his Hudson Valley farm. The best the Democrats could claim for their man was that, if elected, Parker would “set his face sternly against Executive usurpation of legislative and judicial functions.”

Another obscure candidate was Democrat John Davis who ran against the popular Calvin Coolidge in 1924. I love this quote from him: “I went all around the country telling people I was going to be elected and I knew I hadn’t any more chance than a snowball in hell.”
One or two current candidates feel just that way, I’ll bet….

Finally, a nod to Republican Alfred “Alf” Landon, Kansas governor. Not all that obscure perhaps, but I’ve always loved the guy. He ran against FDR in 1936 and lost by just a horrendously embarrassing margin—11 million popular votes, and 523 to 8, if you can believe it, in the Electoral College. Alf was a kind of rumpled, shaggy guy, a bit like his name. In one of the first uses of a candidate groomer, the Republicans hired a film director named Ted Bohn to teach Landon not to smile with his mouth hanging open, to walk slightly ahead when in a group in order to dominate pictures, and to shake hands with his chin up to give the impression of firmness. All to no avail, of course.
One of my favorite stories from this campaign is how the Republicans tried to manipulate the media, asking the Associated Press to always identify Landon in its stories with the tag “budget-balancer.”
The AP said it would, but only if it could tag Roosevelt as “humanity’s savior.”

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