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‘Almost President’ Gives Also-Rans Their Due

Scott Farris has a personal perspective on losing. In 1998, as the Democratic nominee for Wyoming’s lone House seat, he was handily defeated by former Rep. Barbara Cubin.

So his sympathy for defeated presidential candidates comes naturally and lends an air of empathy to the professional experience he brings to the subject of his first book, “Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation.”

Everyone loves a winner. Losers of presidential elections are not typically celebrated in classrooms across the country; most people don’t remember their names. 

But Farris, a former bureau chief for United Press International and Congressional staffer, makes the case for the relevancy of several men who lost an election while changing American politics.

Some are obvious: Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, in which he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of President Lyndon Johnson, is an example frequently cited by pundits of a losing candidate whose effect was both profound and long-lasting. The Arizonan is credited with helping to create the modern Republican Party, more Southern, Western and conservative than it was.

Others are less obvious and less frequently mentioned but in many cases are just as profound.

Some united the country during difficult times, others brokered coalitions that subsequent aspirants would use, a few inspired future generations through ideas ahead of their time and some broke down barriers. In pointing to these successes, Farris succeeds in making the book as much a celebration of American democracy as it is a collection of biographies. 

He devotes the first chapter to the concession speech: a novel American tradition that proves our democracy works. There have been disputed elections in our history, yet, by conceding graciously, the failed candidate ends his campaign for the presidency, denies his supporters the chance to challenge the results and urges the country to unify behind the victor. 

Even during war, he argues, it is a testament to our system of government that we are stable and secure enough to hold elections, and losers such as Stephen Douglas (on the verge of war in 1860), George McClellan (1864) and Thomas Dewey (1944) kept the country united through their actions. (Wendell Willkie’s 1940 campaign deserves more of a mention than Farris gives it on this score.) 

And then there are the trailblazers.

Al Smith became the first Catholic to win the nomination of a major party, paving the way for John F. Kennedy’s victory. Yet, the 1928 election did not just change the way America and Catholics viewed each other but also set a path to push prejudice to the fringes, a legacy Mitt Romney surely hopes will benefit him.

Goldwater is fondly remembered as the catalyst for the modern conservative movement. While history has treated his message and movement kindly, it has not done the same for George McGovern, in many ways the liberal counterpoint to Goldwater.

Like Goldwater, McGovern suffered a devastating electoral defeat. Unlike Goldwater, McGovern rarely gets much credit for giving birth to a new Democratic Party. 

His effort garnered a paltry 37 percent of the vote in 1972 and won only one state and the District of Columbia in the Nixon re-election landslide. But the South Dakota Senator’s coalition of academics, minorities and liberal unions eventually helped elect Barack Obama.

Farris concludes with a look at the last three men who lost: Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain. Each has remained relevant after their losing campaigns. After Gore’s prolonged 2000 battle ended more than a month after Election Day, he went on to wide fame as a prophet of climate change. Kerry and McCain returned to the Senate, with Kerry playing a central role in foreign policy as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and McCain resuming his role as political maverick.

Farris suggests that’s a good thing. Continued service to the nation should be embraced, he argues, and something valuable is lost when presidential also-rans are cast aside.

History can celebrate the role of Douglas in keeping the two-party system alive and the Democratic Party viable as the loyal opposition. Ross Perot taught future campaigns how to circumvent the media and speak directly to the public. Before McGovern, William Jennings Bryan led a reborn Democratic Party with a progressive populism that in some ways is still alive today.

Farris wants voters to celebrate them, too.

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