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.
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.”
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.”
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.