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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.

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Like Clay, Bryan ran for and lost the presidency three times (1896, 1900, 1908). He was a pioneer among political candidates, a devout Christian who believed it was people’s duty to help the weakest members of society. William Allen White, a well-known journalist at the time, said of Bryan, “It was the first time in my life and in the life of a generation in which any man large enough to lead a national party had boldly and unashamedly made his cause that of the poor and the oppressed.”

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Even though he never won the presidency, Bryan was a tour de force in progressive politics for more than three decades and helped bring about stark reforms.

“The breadth of the list is extraordinary. Four major reforms – a progressive federal income tax, women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and the direct election of senators – required constitutional amendment. Bryan’s support and advocacy was critical to the adoption of each, causing one biographer to suggest that Bryan is personally responsible for more constitutional amendments than other person but James Madison.”

And yet nowadays Bryan is probably most closely associated with a losing cause: persuading state legislatures to pass laws that would prohibit the teaching of evolution as fact in the public schools, an issue that came to a head during the 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee, when Bryan was infamously cross-examined about the historicity of the Bible and humiliated by attorney Clarence Darrow.

Bryan deserves better treatment from posterity, Farris argues, and so do many other presidential also-rans. Among them, 1928 loser Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic nominated for president. The New York governor encountered “the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan … all along the campaign trail – and not just in the Deep South, but also in Indiana, Montana, and Oklahoma.” His campaign “illuminated a dark and ugly recess of American history that shamed many Protestants, and also lit a fire under American Catholics,” paving the way for the first Roman Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, in 1960.

Perhaps no presidential loser gets a better revisit in Farris’s selective narrative than 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern. The former South Dakota senator tried to build a coalition around young voters, working women, homosexuals, minorities, and intellectuals, but earned just 37.5 percent of the vote in his loss to Richard Nixon. It was one of the largest landslides in presidential election history, and yet President Obama, Farris notes, appealed to “roughly the same demographics” in 2008, winning 53 percent of the electorate.

McGovern’s overwhelming defeat “reveals that losers often show more foresight than winners, that being ahead of their time is one cause of their defeat, and that losing, like the demolition of a house, can be an opportunity for reconstruction of a political party and the nation.”

Cameron Martin is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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