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Book Review- Almost President by Scott Farris
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Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the NationAlmost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation by Scott Farris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is one of those books that immediately I can't resist. I was a tad worried that only a year after both CNN and PBS did excellent video series on past elections and candidates, as well as some of my recent reading list, there might not be a whole lot left to learn.

I needn't worry though since Farris does a particularly good job in relaying these stories. I suspect Farris knew about the most famous book of this kind (and his notes pages do admit his awareness) Irving Stone's 1943 book, They Also Ran, and likely because of that (and probably commercial pressures) focuses a lot on modern losing candidates. Farris's intent is to cover the candidates that lost that he thought had the biggest effect in American history.

The book starts with a great chapter on concession speeches. This, he argues, is the fabric of America. Even if you disagree with Al Gore (or if you're old enough and still haven't gotten over Samuel Tilden) and think he conceded too easy; by doing so, he helped move the country in a healing way. Even in the modern divisiveness of McCain conceding to Obama. It rings particularly true post 2016 when some might have liked to seen more fight in Hillary, or one suspects if Trump had not ascended into the White house, would he have moved forward with concession or tore at old wounds and argued that he should be President- a move which clearly would be damaging.

He also points out that as far as the popular vote goes, landslides are rare. There are only four elections in the post-Federalist era that one candidate received 60% of the vote (Harding over Cox, FDR over Landon, LBJ over McGovern, Nixon over McGovern)

Farris's picks are

Henry Clay- Clay is a great American in a time of mediocre Presidents. Unfortunately, the Whigs tended to be the minority party, so the only times they were able to get enough votes to win was when they nominated ex-war heroes. Farris argues that though Andrew Jackson is the father of the modern Democratic party, that it is Clay whose views are more aligned with the liberals of today. Farris treats Clay as a bit of a Bill Clinton figure. Loved by his party, hated by the opposition, and a bit of a lovable rogue.

Stephen Douglas- Douglas did try to keep the union together despite the country tearing apart in Civil war. Republicans wanted everyone to follow in step and silence dissent. Douglas may have saved his party, offering a differing voice and criticism that likely helped the country. It also kept the Democrat party strong enough to at least give Grant a strong challenge, win state and local elections and return to the White House in 20 years. (Douglas of course is on the wrong side of slavery, and Farris discusses that difficult topic as well)

William Jennings Bryan- Bryan is strongly associated with the Scopes Monkey Trial, but Farris argues that he wasn't anti-science. Instead, in those times, people were arguing that Darwinism and more accurately through Social Darwinsim and Eugenics that there was not a humanistic need to help those who were in need. Bryan strongly believed in government assistance and safety net.

Al Smith- Smith was the first Catholic Presidential candidate in a country that discriminated against Catholics, and a group whose main involvement in politicswas as boogeyman for groups like the Know Nothings and the KKK. Smith got stomped but Catholics entered the mainstream, which was helped by Hollywood in the 30s and 40s and priests as portrayed by Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy.

Tom Dewey- Dewey, like Smith was governor of New York and has a fascinating bio. Dewey ran strong against FDR in 1944 and as you know was expected to win in 48. Farris picks Dewey as the GOP leader who set the precedent (that even know is still strongly adhered to except in rare cases) that the GOP was not going to attempt to repeal Medicare or Social Security.

Adlai Stevenson- One person said this was the chapter where it was okay for an 'egghead' to be President. Adlai is where the Dems started to get painted with the brush of the intellectual elite and out of touch with the traditional blue collar crowd (though in fact, he was much less a Blue Blood than Ike and Nixon). After Adlai, the Dems have been the party of Tsongas and Hillary and even Obama was tagged with being 'too smart'.

Barry Goldwater- The 1964 election could have been very interesting. Goldwater had written a book that was hot, and President Kennedy had fumbled in his first couple of years. JFK and Goldwater were friends and pictured a series of Lincoln-Douglas style debates across the country where they would argue their points intellectually. That did not happen, of course, and no one likely would have beat LBJ. Goldwater's legacy of course did live in, although Barry might not have always agreed with his predecessors.

George McGovern- Under McGovern, the Democrats put more than an inordinate amount of power first in hands of the people via caucuses, and then to groups like women and minorities. From a strictly numbers point of view, this was not a winning strategy in 1972. It however, was the campaign plan that got Obama elected.

Ross Perot- Perot is an interesting one. He for sure made a 3rd party movement viable. As this book was published, his legacy was questionable. While he had success, he was unable to keep the movement going without him- people like Pat Buchanan and Dick Lamm did not have his appeal. Farris also argues that Perot had middle of the road appeal, so he is not particularly analogous to the Tea Party. Reading this in hindsight, Perot clearly helped pave the way for Trump, who was able to take a lot of Perot's appeal and a country that desired a businessman not a politician.

Gore, Kerry, McCain- Farris clearly wanted to hedge his bets and he puts these three together. Too close in the rear view mirror to judge. Farris argues that these men changed the definition of the 'also ran' to what it used to be - the leader of the opposition, instead of what t became- a Mondale or Dukakis. Gore, of course for his activism. Kerry as Farris correctly predicted someone with Secretary of State aspirations. McCain as a voice of dissent during the Obama administration.

The best part of the book may be the end which has short bios of everybody who ever had a major party nomination and lost (and unlike Jefferson, Jackson, Nixon et al never won). That is pretty fascinating. A list of great mostly forgotten Americans like Horace Greeley and John Fremont and people even history fans tend to forget like Horatio Seymour and Charles Evans Hughes. Farris mentions that no one writes about the losers- even someone as great as Henry Clay. Even the lowest President gets more press. He points out for example, that no one has written a biography on Alton Parker (1904, lost to TR).

There was a lot about this book I liked and I learned a lot and specially liked the extra bio sketches. (As an FYI, I found this unbiased, but Farris did run for US Senate in Wyoming as a Democrat so that is where his heart lies)



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