Almost-Presidents’ Day

Since, as Carol notes below, this is now a holiday that we open up to all and sundry amongst former White House inhabitants (because America could never fully realize its potential without a holiday that roped in Franklin Pierce), why not be even more inclusive and take some time to remember those who fell just short of the highest office in the land?

Did you know there’s actually a museum of failed presidential nominees in Norton, Kansas? My guess is that it exists primarily to convince kids stuck on cross-country road trips that, yes, their father really is the most boring man on the planet. Also, I suspect that it’s one-stop shopping for Samuel Tilden schwag.

Here are a few of the more interesting also-rans:

Aaron Burr: If he lived in the modern era, he’d be catnip for TMZ. An indicted murderer who may have had designs on his own breakaway empire. Also notable for his posthumous contributions to public awareness of the importance of calcium.

Henry Clay: We remember him now as one of the legislative titans of the 19th century (as well as one of the great orators in American history). He had three separate stints as Speaker of the House and one as Secretary of State (under John Quincy Adams), but he never managed to make it to the White House despite attempts in 1824, 1832, and 1844.

Piece of Trivia #1 — According to Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People, Clay had a tendency to dance on tables when he got wound up.

Piece of Trivia #2 — The track record for Speakers of the House attempting to move down Pennsylvania Avenue is not great. Only James K. Polk pulled it off.

John C. Fremont: The first Republican presidential nominee and one of the great explorers of the West (he was the first American to see Lake Tahoe). He did everything he could to stir up war with Mexico over California and ended up being a significant military figure in the resulting war. During the Civil War, Lincoln had to remove him from his command in the west after he unilaterally abolished slavery in Missouri (which Lincoln calculated would cost him the slave states still in the Union).

George McClellan – He went from fecklessly commanding the Army of the Potomac for Lincoln (read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals for a maddening look at his ineptitude) to running against Lincoln in 1864. Moreover, he was still technically a member of the military during the campaign, not resigning his commission until Election Day. Towards the end of his life, he served as the Governor of New Jersey.

Horace Greeley – The newspaperman most famous for the phrase “Go west, young man” (which probably wasn’t his) ran against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. It’s probably a good thing that he lost, as he dropped dead a few weeks after the election. He was an eccentric with an interest in phrenology and a tendency to wear a full-length coat and carry a bright umbrella no matter the weather.

William Jennings Bryan – Give the man points for persistence. He was the Democratic nominee in 1896, 1900, and 1908. He lost all three times and ended up serving as Secretary of State for the first few years of the Wilson Administration. He was also part of a little court case in Tennessee you may have heard about.

Alton Parker – Maybe one of the most obscure nominees in American history. Parker was the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals (the equivalent of the state supreme court) and basically a lamb to slaughter against Teddy Roosevelt in 1904.

Charles Evans Hughes – While there’s a long history of Supreme Court justices harboring presidential ambitions — and while William Howard Taft ended up on the Court (as Chief Justice, no less) post-presidency — only Hughes moved straight from the bench of the nation’s highest court to a presidential nomination, challenging Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Having already served as Governor of New York prior to being at SCOTUS, he went on to become Secretary of State under Warren Harding, continuing through the early days of the Coolidge Administration.

Adlai E. Stevenson – Undone by his image as the ultimate out of touch aristocrat (which, granted, led to moments of high eloquence), Stevenson lost to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. His most enduring legacy, however, may be his tough line with the Soviets while serving as the Kennedy Administration’s U.N. Ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

How about you? Any failed presidential candidates pique your interest?

  1. EJHill

    Ross Perot. Or as Rush Limbaugh called him, “A hand grenade with a bad haircut.”

    Had he not succumbed to his paranoia, he might possibly had been the nation’s first independent President, or at least made an interesting Constitutional moment.

    When Perot purchased his boyhood home he was disappointed that a subsequent owner had painted the brick structure white. Told that paint can never be removed from the porous material he had masons hand chip each brick out of the wall and turn the painted side inward.

    Must be nice to have more money than common sense.

  2. Troy Senik, Ed.
    C
    EJHill: Ross Perot. Or as Rush Limbaugh called him, “A hand grenade with a bad haircut.”

    Had he not succumbed to his paranoia, he might possibly had been the nation’s first independent President, or at least made an interesting Constitutional moment.

    When Perot purchased his boyhood home he was disappointed that a subsequent owner had painted the brick structure white. Told that paint can never be removed from the porous material he had masons hand chip each brick out of the wall and turn the painted side inward.

    Must be nice to have more money than common sense. · 1 minute ago

    The other fascinating aspect of the Perot campaign was his choice of James Stockdale as running mate. After his performance in the vice presidential debate, Stockdale became something of a national punchline, which was unconscionable given the man’s biography.

  3. Sabrdance

    Perot got me interested in politics.  I was in third grade and I saw his infomercial.

    I missed the Stockdale debate, but I am informed that Stockdale was trying to make a point with his “why am I here?” remarks, not displaying early senility.

    Given the website, one of us should suggest Barry Goldwater.

    I, however, nominate John C. Calhoun -who in 1824 brokered his position as a Presidential Candidate into a VP slot for both of the leading parties (Adams and Jackson).  That’s some serious political accumen.

    It’s too bad he was a seccessionist and nullifyer.

    Jackson was right that he should’ve been hanged.

    But still -what a politician.

  4. Troy Senik, Ed.
    C
    Sabrdance:

    I missed the Stockdale debate, but I am informed that Stockdale was trying to make a point with his “why am I here?” remarks, not displaying early senility.

    That’s precisely right. But, much as with Sarah Palin’s comments about Russia, “Saturday Night Live” ended up writing the history there.

  5. kylez

    I became intrigued by Alton Parker some time ago when I wondered who ran against TR in 1904. I downloaded some stuff by him or about him on Google Books. A strong free-enterprise Democrat, and perhaps the only judge to run for president?

    apparently Gary Johnson’s running mate was a judge.

  6. flownover

    I have forgotten how many time I have driven through Norton, guess I wasn’t looking. It is only 100 miles or so from Russell, Kansas. 

    Arlen Specter and Bob Dole both came from Russell, maybe that’s where they got their inspiration. Imagine Specter wanted to be President, along with everything else he tried.

    We need a museum that points out how big we are as losers when we elect guys like Carter and Obama and Clinton.

    Or do we always end up memorializing the horrible things that happen on their watch instead ?

  7. Little My

    As a Hoosier, I had at least heard of Wendell Willkie, but the most I have actually learned about him so far comes from Amity Shlaes’ wonderful book, The Forgotten Man.  An intriguing figure who made many mistakes in his presidential campaign. Lots of lessons to learn from his history vis-a-vis FDR.

  8. Bereket Kelile

    For a second there I thought you were going to suggest a Vice President’s Day. Hopefully, I haven’t jinxed it.

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