All Hail The Presidential Also-Rans

Nov 11, 2016
Originally published on July 15, 2017 8:16 am

The glass ceiling shattered in one exclusive club this week: Hillary Clinton is now the first woman nominated by a major party to become a Presidential Also-Ran.

She joins the men who reached for, but failed to grasp, our nation's highest elected office. And perhaps there's some solace in their company.

First, there are the names: Rufus King (lost to Monroe) and Horatio Seymour (lost to Grant).

Then there are the nicknames: Winfield Scott was called "Old Fuss and Feathers" because he was a stickler for military formality. Scott was the Army general who lost to Franklin Pierce.

Later, during the Civil War, when age and weight caught up to him, Scott was called "Old Fat and Feeble."

There are careers that are surprising: Charles Evans Hughes was a Supreme Court justice who stepped off the court to run against Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

He stepped back on the court later, as chief justice.

And then there are also-rans whose legacies are just depressing.

Aaron Burr, sir.

He made a bid for the presidency in 1800, lost out to Thomas Jefferson, became vice president — and killed a Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton.

Thanks to the hit musical Hamilton, many of us are now able to sing and rap about the event that made Burr notorious, but what isn't covered on Broadway: what happened to Burr after the duel.

"He was really persona non grata," says historian H.W. Brands, author of The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr.

"First of all, he had to go back to Washington to serve out his term as vice president," Brands says.

And that was with Hamilton's Federalist friends staring hateful holes through him.

Burr's career in politics was toast. He also owed people money, and his prospects in New York didn't look great, so he headed west to start a new life.

And then, Aaron Burr was arrested for treason.

"His critics, including Thomas Jefferson, claimed that he was going to peel off the southwestern states from the union and in conjunction with the northern part of Mexico that was still attached to Spain, create an empire of his own," Brands explains.

Burr was tried — and acquitted. He eventually returned to New York, Brands says, and lived for a while under an assumed name.

Post-election life is even harder for some, says historian Jon Meacham.

"Sometimes you have some people who are so traumatized, if you will, by coming so close to grabbing the brass ring that they fall back and enter a kind of Cincinnatus like-obscurity," he says, referring to a Roman statesman and military leader who lead successfully in times of crisis but completely relinquished power and returned to quiet life afterwards.

By that, Meacham means candidates like Thomas Dewey and Michael Dukakis, who retreated from public life.

It is a grueling thing to run for president, and Meacham says that's especially true of the last few decades, with elections so tight.

When you lose, the pain is deep.

But there are failed candidates who do overcome the hurt, and continue to serve the country in some official capacity: Sens. Barry Goldwater and John McCain, Ambassadors Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale, Secretary of State John Kerry.

And then there's Al Gore, almost in a category by himself.

"If I'd been Al Gore and I'd spent at least 30 years or more thinking about the presidency, then won the popular vote, but I lost because of the 500 or so votes in Florida, I'd still be under the bed," Meacham says. "I'd still be ordering in cases of Jack Daniels."

He's talking, of course, about the 2000 election. Meacham says he admires the way Gore moved on with his life.

"Emerging from the pain of that loss, Gore dedicated himself to the issue that's driven him for so long, climate change," Meacham says. "He wins the Nobel Prize — which is not a bad consolation."

As for the newest also-ran, Hillary Clinton, Meacham doesn't expect her to fade from the public sphere — no Cincinnatus-like obscurity for her.

He suspects she'll follow a course similar to Al Gore's, and recover from what he calls "the ultimate punch" in American politics.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The glass ceiling shattered in one of history's most exclusive clubs this week - the presidential also-rans. Hillary Clinton is now the first woman nominated by a major party to join the ranks of men who failed to win our nation's highest office. And as NPR producer Melissa Gray tells it, perhaps, there is some comfort in their company.

MELISSA GRAY, BYLINE: It's a rabbit hole researching the also-rans, but it's a fun dive. First, you got to love those 19th-century names. Rufus King - he lost to Monroe. Horatio Seymour - he lost to Grant.

And then there are the nicknames. Winfield Scott - he was called old fuss and feathers because he was a stickler for military formality. Scott was the army general who lost to Franklin Pierce. And later, he was called old fat and feeble. Yeah, tweet that. And then there are the legacies which are just depressing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALEXANDER HAMILTON")

LESLIE ODOM JR: (As Aaron Burr) I'm the damn fool that shot him.

GRAY: Aaron Burr, sir, made a bid for the White House, lost out to Thomas Jefferson, became vice president and killed a Founding Father.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALEXANDER HAMILTON")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (As characters, singing) Alexander Hamilton.

GRAY: Thanks to the hit musical "Hamilton," we can all sing and rap - some of us badly - about that event. But not covered on Broadway - what happened to Burr after the duel.

H W BRANDS: He was really persona non grata.

GRAY: That's H.W. Brands, author of "The Heartbreak Of Aaron Burr."

BRANDS: First of all, he had to go back to Washington to serve out his term as vice president.

GRAY: With Hamilton's Federalist friends staring hateful holes right through him - awkward. Burr's career in politics was toast. He also owed people money. So he headed west to start a new life. And then Aaron Burr was arrested for treason.

BRANDS: His critics claimed that he was going to peel off the southwestern states from the union and in conjunction with the northern part of Mexico, which was still attached to Spain, create an empire of his own.

GRAY: Burr was tried and acquitted. Brand says he eventually moved back to New York and lived for a while under an assumed name - sad.

What's not so sad? Charles Evans Hughes - that's what's not so sad. He's the Supreme Court justice who stepped down to run against Woodrow Wilson. And a few years later, he stepped back up as chief justice. Well played, sir - and great facial hair.

OK, let's get to the also-rans you might be more familiar with. Here's historian Jon Meacham.

JON MEACHAM: Sometimes you have people who simply are so traumatized, if you will, by having come so close to grabbing the brass ring that they fall back, and they enter a kind of Cincinnatus-like obscurity.

GRAY: Meaning, like the Roman statesmen, they gave up power and returned to a quiet life. He's thinking of Thomas Dewey and...

MEACHAM: Michael Dukakis has been like that.

MEACHAM: It is a grueling thing to run for president. And Meacham says that's especially true of the last few decades with elections so tight. When you lose, the pain is deep. But there are failed candidates who do overcome the hurt.

MEACHAM: And they find a way back in.

GRAY: To serve the country in some official capacity. We're talking about Senators Barry Goldwater and John McCain, Ambassadors Adlai Stevenson and Walter Mondale, Secretary of State John Kerry. And then there's Al Gore.

MEACHAM: If I had been Al Gore, who won the popular vote but I lost because of 500 or so votes in Florida, I'd still be under the bed. I would still be ordering in cases of Jack Daniels.

GRAY: He's talking of course about the 2000 election. Meacham says he admires how Al Gore has moved on with his life.

MEACHAM: Emerging from the pain of that loss, Gore dedicated himself to the issue that has driven him for so long, which is climate change. He wins the Nobel Prize, which is not a bad consolation.

GRAY: Better maybe than drinking Jack Daniels under the bed - just saying. Meacham's thoughts on our newest also-ran - no Cincinnatus-like obscurity for her. Hillary Clinton, he suspects, will rebound from what he calls the ultimate punch in American politics. Melissa Gray, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.