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Almost President

Why some of the candidates who lost the race for president ultimately had a bigger impact than many of those who won.

By Cameron Martin / December 21, 2011

Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race But Changed the Nation By Scott Farris Lyons Press 352 pp.

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If you gave the average American five guesses as to who was the first person to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, odds are he or she wouldn’t come up with Henry Clay. A titan of his time, Clay (1777-1852) was a longtime senator from Kentucky who also served as Speaker of the House and secretary of state. He was Abraham Lincoln’s idol, “and a study of Lincoln’s writings and speeches clearly shows that much of his political philosophy was directly inherited from Clay,” says Scott Farris in Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation.

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Clay, who was known as “The Great Compromiser” for helping to enact three legislative compromises that temporarily averted civil war, lost his three campaigns to become president and “is the greatest example of how failing to become president obscures a candidate’s place in history,” says Ferris, a former bureau chief for United Press International. His book contains a dozen engrossing biographical sketches of men who ran for the presidency and lost – “but who, even in defeat, have had a greater impact on American history than many of those who have served as president.”

Farris starts with Clay and moves on to Stephen Douglas, William Jennings Bryan, Al Smith, Thomas E. Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Ross Perot and – in a combined chapter – the recent candidacies of Al Gore, John Kerry, and John McCain. He describes the circumstances that gave rise to each of these seminal “losers” – the causes they rallied around, the unique personalities they possessed – and how their presidential losses laid the groundwork for later political victories, if not for themselves, then for their parties or their cub causes.

Douglas is forever linked to Lincoln, both as the loser of the 1860 presidential election and for their series of well-known debates. In one of those exchanges, Douglas said, “I care more for the great principle of self-government, the right of the people to rule, than I do for all the negroes in Christendom,” the kind of regrettable comment that assures he will always stand as the flip side to Lincoln’s secular sainthood. Given all Douglas accomplished, though, that’s unfair, Farris explains.

After Douglas’ loss to Lincoln, he remained committed to the Union and he insisted that his fellow Democrats remain independent from Republicans even as they remained loyal to the Union – a tack that had enormous ramifications, Farris says. “While unity may seem critical in a time of time civil war, scholars have concluded that continued partisan bickering was to the Union’s benefit.” In doing so, Douglas saved the Democratic Party, “which remains the longest, continually functioning political party in the world.” 

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