The list of unhappy presidential aspirants in the United States is not very short. And now we are faced with the rather sombre possibility of the very first woman in American history to have attained the presidential nomination of a major political party eventually losing the race for the White House to an upstart. You may like her, love her, detest her, demonise her. But there is hardly any way you can deny that Hillary Clinton has the experience and the intellect, the stamina and the popular appeal to be President of the United States. Only weeks ago, it was a given that she would beat Donald Trump hands down. Today, thanks to Bernie Sanders' incessant carping and refusal to accept defeat in the race for the Democratic nomination, she is a much weakened candidate.
America will surely be a changed place, in that negative sense of the meaning, should someone as divisive and as abrasive as Trump is elected to succeed Barack Obama in November. And that will not be the only reason for pain. There will at the same time be the knowledge, in millions of people around the world, that Hillary Clinton is a very unlucky politician. She was supposed to be the candidate, with her formidable machine in place, back in 2008. But then along came a first-term senator named Obama, who smoothly and speedily smashed that machine. Eight years later, a wiser and older Mrs. Clinton is well prepared to lead her country. Now that prospect appears to be receding. The lights are getting dim.
The trouble with American politics in modern times has been the presence of men like Bernie Sanders. Such men begin well, demonstrating the idealism people are in need of. But what they fail to do or refuse to do is to go gently into the night when the day is done. Sanders should have called it quits long ago and by now should have been campaigning for the triumph of a Democratic ticket led by Hillary Clinton. He has not done that. His idealism has now mutated into nuisance. But he is not the first politician to have spoilt the game for other, better politicians. Back in 1968, when it seemed that Senator Eugene McCarthy was giving President Lyndon B. Johnson a tough time over Vietnam --- he nearly beat him at the New Hampshire primary, forcing LBJ to abandon a second term --- and that he just might end up being the Democratic nominee for the White House, Senator Robert Kennedy jumped into the fray. Kennedy, whose presidential dreams had been there especially since the day his brother, President John F. Kennedy, died in Dallas, initially sat out New Hampshire. But then came McCarthy's great performance in the state. Like a carpetbagger, Robert Kennedy jumped in. McCarthy's campaign began losing steam. In June Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. It was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who led the Democrats into the election campaign. McCarthy's dreams died in the violence surrounding the Democratic convention.
McCarthy was unlucky. So was Adlai Stevenson, for different reasons. His misfortune was that he was pitted twice, in 1952 and 1956, against the World War Two hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. By any measure, Stevenson was a far better candidate than Eisenhower. But that war image in which Eisenhower came wrapped in scuttled Stevenson's chances, both times. In the last phase of his life, he was US Permanent Representative to the United Nations. One of the most unfortunate of men in American presidential politics was the Republican governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey. He won his party's presidential nomination twice, in 1944 and 1948. The first time he lost a close race to the popular but ailing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The second time round, he almost ended up being President and indeed went to bed on Election Night knowing he would be President-elect the next morning. By the time dawn broke, President Harry Truman had caused an upset: he had beaten the formidable Dewey. Soon Dewey was lost to the mists of time. Not many Americans remember him today.
There are quite a few other politicians whom we recall for the tenacity with which they went into campaigning for the White House, a struggle they eventually lost. There was Harold Stassen, the perennial candidate in the 1960s. Nothing came of his dreams. And then there was Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton who, along with Nelson Rockefeller, could never leap across the bar to become the Republican candidate for the White House. At the Republican convention in 1964, Rockefeller was booed by delegates who were clearly in the mood to choose the very conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. And Goldwater was buried in a landslide by President Johnson at the November election.
In American presidential history, there have been two father-son teams in the White House. Think back on John Adams and John Quincy Adams. In more modern times, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were fortunate to have occupied the White House. But you cannot say the same about that losing father-son team, the Romneys. Michigan Governor George Romney, a favourite to win the Republican nomination in 1968, ended up serving in Richard Nixon's cabinet. His son Mitt Romney, having obtained the nomination, went on to be beaten by President Obama in 2012. If you are looking for instances of other unfortunate men in presidential politics, you have Gerald Ford to observe. He became America's unelected vice president in 1973 and then its unelected president in 1974. But when he attempted to win the White House in his own right in 1976, a relatively unknown Democrat named Jimmy Carter beat him in November.
The Kennedys have consistently been struck by tragedy in their pursuit of high political ambitions. John F. Kennedy survived only a thousand days in the White House before an assassin's bullet struck him down. Robert Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles. Edward Kennedy's reputation was marred at Chappaquidick in 1969. He eventually recovered, to become a strong liberal legislative voice in the Senate. But when he challenged an already hapless Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, he not only lost --- he quoted Tennyson in his concession speech at the convention --- but also weakened Carter. The President did not get a second term in office. Ronald Reagan beat him hollow.
The prospect of Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton is quite real. Who would have thought Americans would warm to him in such disturbing ways? Then again, who could have imagined, in 2000, that the eminently able Al Gore would lose to the not-so-very competent George W. Bush?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer. Email: [email protected]