If at first you don't succeed ...

March 09, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Upon the death the other day at age 93 of former Gov. Harold Stassen of Minnesota, it was difficult for obituary writers to resist calling him the Don Quixote of American politics because of his nine campaigns for the presidency. And some didn't resist.

Mr. Stassen managed with these repeated tilts at political windmills to erase in all but the most elderly of American minds that he twice was a serious presidential aspirant. In 1944, he trounced Thomas E. Dewey in the Nebraska primary but withdrew in Dewey's favor.

In 1948, he beat Dewey in the Wisconsin, Nebraska and Pennsylvania primaries but ran third behind Dewey and Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio on the first two ballots for the Republican nomination in Philadelphia. Both Mr. Stassen and Taft then withdrew and made it unanimous for Dewey on the third ballot.

That was the first national convention I attended, getting on the floor after adjournment with a hometown buddy and collecting cardboard fans bearing the names of Mr. Stassen and the other candidates that had been discarded by departing delegates. Mr. Stassen ran again in 1952 and got 20 votes on the first ballot, until switches put Dwight D. Eisenhower over the top.

Had Mr. Stassen quit then, he probably would have gone down in history as the boy governor at age 31 who later became a member of Eisenhower's National Security Council and his disarmament chief at the United Nations. Instead, his name is likely to be forever linked with futile political quests, one of which was his attempt to get Ike to dump Richard Nixon from his ticket in 1956.

With presidents limited to two terms by the 22nd Amendment, designed by Republicans to make sure there were no more four-termers like FDR, there seems to be an unwritten axiom in national politics that a candidate can take two shots at the White House without incurring ridicule, but seldom more -- especially if he lost as his party's nominee.

Adlai Stevenson suffered two landslide defeats at the hands of Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956, yet except for that infamous hole in his shoe, remained a figure of respect and admiration, certainly in his own Democratic Party and with many outside it as well. Dewey in his second try as the GOP nominee, however, was expected to beat Harry Truman in 1948 and was the brunt of many jokes thereafter as "the little man on the wedding cake."

William Jennings Bryan was the Democratic nominee three times -- in 1896, 1900 and 1908 -- a loser each time. He remained, however, one of his party's most famous orators and a successful lawyer who was chief prosecutor for the state of Tennessee, convicting John Scopes for teaching evolution in the famous "monkey trial" of 1925.

Hubert Humphrey also ran for president three times and toyed with running at least once more, but he had served as vice president and also remained a figure of respect with many Democrats. He didn't escape ridicule , however, for his tardiness in breaking with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam war, which may have cost him the presidency in the 1968 election.

Still another prominent Democratic candidate in 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, went on to run four more times, to the point that he began to be viewed as quixotic even though, like Mr. Stassen, he couched his candidacies in terms of serious issues of the day rather than personal ambition.

There is considerable sentiment among political practitioners that with the tortuous route now involved in reaching the White House, most presidential hopefuls today must think in terms of running more than once to attain the public celebrity and political astuteness it takes to win. The senior George Bush ran and lost in 1980 before winning in 1988 as the sitting vice president. Even Ronald Reagan ran and lost twice, in a late convention bid in 1968 and then in 1976, before winning in 1980.

The current President Bush is an exception. A combination of record fund-raising drove off all challengers and got him the Republican nomination in his first try, and one of the most bizarre election conclusions in history did the rest. Not surprisingly, 2000's loser, Al Gore, is expected to try again in 2004, hoping like Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan to do better the second time.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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