Version: Martin Van Buren was the...


January 04, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN

"OVERLOOKED: 1988 version: Martin Van Buren was the lastsitting vice president elected president. 1992 version: When he ran for re-election 4 years later he lost."

That is from The Hotline, a daily electronic "briefing" -- news and views collected from the nation's media -- for political journalists.

Martin Van Buren is an interesting president for George Bush to consider. He lost his re-election bid in 1840 in large part because of a recession, brought on in large part by a credit crunch and a trade imbalance with an island nation (in this case, England).

Van Buren also suffered because he was not a larger-than-life figure like the president he succeeded. Rep. Davy Crockett said, "Van Buren is as opposite to General [Andrew] Jackson as dung is to a diamond."

Van Buren's place in history is, in one sense, in some opiners' opinion, somewhat akin to Michael Dukakis'. He got out-campaigned. Major . . . senior . . . world-class out-campaigned. The 1840 campaign, in which Van Buren ran for re-election, was the first truly modern American presidential campaign. It had songs, buttons, slogans, advertising, parades, props and a theme -- all the nonsense we now take as routine.

Democrat Van Buren's opponent was Whig William Henry Harrison. Though he was an aristocrat from the Atlantic seaboard with many years in Western politics, he ran as a simple outside-the-beltway American. A Baltimore newspaper (not The Sun) said in a sneering editorial, "Give him a barrel of hard cider and settle a pension of $2,000 a year on him and he will sit the remainder of his days in a log cabin and study moral philosophy."

Whigs liked the image contrast (Van Buren was something of a dandy; Davey Crockett's metaphor was backward in a sense) and soon were holding rallies featuring log cabins and bottomless barrels of booze.

Harrison was the military hero of a battle against Indians at Tippecanoe Creek and was known as Old Tippecanoe. When he chose John Tyler for his vice presidential running mate, his campaign advisers came up with the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too."

One of the great bits of negative campaigning was this song, "Old Tip he wears a homespun suit,/He has no ruffled shirt wirt-wirt;/But Mat he has the golden plate,/And he's a little squirt-wirt-wirt." Tobacco chewing Whigs would spit at "wirt."

"Wirt" is in no American or English dictionary available to me nor even in Mencken's "The American Language." I assume it's just a play on word sounds, but if any Reader knows, please enlighten me.

If George Bush is Martin Van Buren, who is William Henry Harrison? The Democrats have a war hero, Sen. Bob Kerrey. But does he really want to play this game of historical parallels? Harrison won but died after 30 days in office. For those who believe history repeats itself, the big plum this year is the Democratic vice presidential nomination.

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