The Greatest Fall Of All -- From Nominee To Presidential Loser

April 28, 1997|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Defeated presidential nominees more often than not are regarded in this country the way Peter Finley Dunne's Mr. Dooley described the plight of being vice president: "It isn't a crime exactly. Ye can't be sint to jail f'r it, but it's a kind iv disgrace. It's like writin' anonymous letters."

H.L. Mencken proposed in 1926 "a constitutional amendment providing that every unsuccessful aspirant for the presidency, on the day his triumphant rival is inaugurated, shall be hauled to the top of the Washington Monument and there shot, poisoned, stabbed, strangled and disemboweled and his carcass thrown into the Potomac."

His targets then were Aaron Burr, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and William Jennings Bryan. The list over the last 60 years has grown as other men have been cast into political darkness, become the brunt of callous jokes or been able to salvage their careers only by accepting lesser jobs: Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Tom Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis.

The only failed presidential nominee of this era who scrambled back to the top of the heap, Richard Nixon, defeated in 1960 but elected president in 1968 and 1972, became the most disgraced of the lot.

Some losers went on after presidential defeats to serve with distinction in government -- Stevenson as U.N. ambassador, Mondale as ambassador to Japan, Goldwater and Humphrey by returning to the Senate. But Tom Dewey was forever after his 1944 and 1948 presidential defeats remembered as "the little man on the wedding cake." And Messrs. McGovern and Dukakis have been treated with ridicule and disdain.

Now comes Bob Dole, the most recent presidential loser. Having voluntarily surrendered his Senate seat during that campaign, he finds himself out in the political wilderness. But two actions in the last weeks have projected him into the news in ways that have portrayed him first as a loyal Republican and second as a force for bipartisanship.

His stepping forward to bail out House Speaker Newt Gingrich by extending to him a $300,000 loan to pay the penalty imposed on him by the House for ethical misconduct was a remarkable act of generosity, at least on first examination.

Next, by agreeing to call for Senate approval of the chemical-weapons treaty sought by President Clinton and ardently opposed by conservative members of his own Republican Party, Mr. Dole reminded Washington why he was held in such high regard as a seeker of compromise and conciliation as the Senate majority leader.

He has taken refuge in a major Washington law firm, but he has had such a long and distinguished career on Capitol Hill that it's hard to imagine him bowing out of public life in the years remaining for him. At 73, he is hale and hearty, and he is free of a need to cozy up to conservative elements in his party whose extremism he has never embraced.

Another Dole campaign

It's unlikely, for all his love of the Senate, that Mr. Dole would seek his old seat from Kansas at his age, and he doesn't seem made for some foreign ambassadorial post. He could throw himself into another presidential campaign, however -- not for himself but for his wife Elizabeth, often mentioned as a serious prospect, especially after her impressive monologue in his behalf at last summer's Republican convention in San Diego.

Mencken notwithstanding, defeated presidential nominees of the two major parties are repositories of wasted wisdom and experience. One of the sharpest falls in American politics is going from being a presidential nominee, pumped up and pampered, to being a presidential loser. In an old story, perhaps apocryphal, Stevenson returned by train to his hometown of Libertyville, Illinois, after his 1952 election defeat. The station master, seeing him getting off the train, waved and said: "Hi, Adlai. Been away?"

Such is the fate of sudden obscurity that presidential losers risk. But Bob Dole apparently doesn't intend to be a forgotten man -- not just yet, anyway.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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