First, a quick word of warning: one of the main characters in this novel is referred to only as “the Big Guy” throughout. This frankly takes quite a bit of getting used to, but somehow it is possible. And it’s well worth doing so, for if you can, at the end of the day, this is another fine novel from one of the best American authors around. It’s November 2008 and Barack Obama has just soundly beaten Senator John McCain in the race to the White House. The Big Guy (you see? I know!) is very unhappy about this. He is a rich, ageing conservative and soon begins consulting some of his friends who have similar inclinations as to the best possible response to these events. But what exactly do they intend to do? As others have noticed, this is definitely quite a political book. Homes’ last novel, May We Be Forgiven featured a character who was obsessed with Richard Nixon a lot and this one includes cameo appearances from the defeated McCain as well as from presidents Bush (the second one) and Obama. I enjoyed the political side of the book, but rest assured, there’s lots of other good stuff here too as the Big Guy finds time to reassess his relationships with Charlotte, his troubled, alcoholic wife and with their intelligent, thoughtful daughter, Megan.
There are many ways to lose the presidency whether you’re fighting a primary or battling for the ultimate prize itself in the November general election. These are just some of them…
Cry (Ed Muskie, 1972)
Public crying has played well for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama more recently but when Muskie appeared to weep over allegations about his wife’s drinking, he soon lost his status as the Democratic front-runner. Ultimately, the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by the Nixon camp, Muskie denied crying, saying reporters had mistaken snow melting on his face for tears.
Lose your temper (Bob Dole, 1988)
Dole snarled that his opponent George HW Bush should “quit lying about my record” after losing a Republican primary. Dole looked like a sore loser and his campaign never recovered. He later won the nomination in 1996, losing comfortably to President Bill Clinton.
Scream (Howard Dean, 2004)
Although he was probably on his way out anyway, Dean’s hysterical “I had a scream” speech which ended with a Kermit the frog-style note of hysteria ended his prospects of getting the Democratic nomination. John Kerry got it instead and subsequently lost to George W. Bush in November.
Fail to answer a simple question (Gary Hart, 1984)
Democrat Hart (of later sex scandal fame) proved unable to explain why he had changed his surname from Gary Hartpence. In 1980, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy floundered desperately when he was asked the most basic question, during a TV interview: why do you want to be president?
Be inadvertently racist (H. Ross Perot, 1992)
The Texan billionaire independent offended a largely black audience by referring to them repeatedly as “you people” throughout a campaign speech.
Terrify everyone (Barry Goldwater, 1964)
The Republican nominee’s open extremism and apparent enthusiasm for nuclear weapons led him to lose by a record margin. “In your heart, you know he’s right” his campaign claimed. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” countered his opponents.
Have an affair (Gary Hart, 1988)
Recovering from his 1984 failure, Hart enjoyed a 30% lead over his nearest rival and was the clear favourite to succeed Reagan until allegations of infidelity with model Donna Hart emerged. Hart initially denied meeting her until photos emerged of her sitting on his lap. Hart then withdrew from the campaign, then re-entered it later, totally sabotaging his own career in the process.
Skeletons in the closet (George HW Bush 1992, George W. Bush 2000)
A last minute recovery for President Bush against Bill Clinton stalled after allegations over his role in the Iran-Contra affair re-emerged. Later, his son was harmed by a last minute revelation over a 1979 drink driving incident during the closing stages of the very close 2000 campaign.
Picture: 43rd US president, George W. Bush and his father, the 41st president, George H.W Bush)
“Steal” a speech (Joe Biden, 1988)
Obama’s future vice president (and 2020’s current Democratic front-runner) withdrew after striking similarities were spotted between a campaign speech he delivered and one which had been made by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).
Ignore all attacks (Michael Dukakis, 1988)
When the Bush campaign cast doubt on the Democratic nominee’s mental health, Dukakis refused to sink to their level. Unfortunately, by the time he did release his records (which revealed a clean bill of health), the damage to his campaign had already been done.
(Picture: Future 2004 nominee John Kerry, ex-1980 candidate Ted Kennedy and 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis)
Insult your rivals (Bush, 1992)
“My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos,” President Bush said of Clinton and Gore late in 1992. The “bozos” bit went down very badly with voters. Clinton’s lead grew by around five percent just before election day.
(Picture: 1992 debaters: Democratic nominee and eventual winner, Bill Clinton, Independent Ross Perot and the incumbent President Bush).
Be too honest (Walter Mondale, 1984, Michael Dukakis, 1988)
Both these Democratic nominees admitted taxes would have to increase substantially to tackle Reagan’s huge escalating deficit. Bush in 1988 was much less frank “read my lips – no new taxes” but won. Taxes went up dramatically soon afterwards (Picture: Walter Mondale in 1984)
Insult women (Mitt Romney, 2012)
The Republican nominee referred to “binders full of women” he could choose from for his cabinet. This played badly.
Rely too heavily on your war record (John Kerry, 2004)
This backfired when several campaign groups began casting doubt over the Democratic nominee’s Vietnam War heroism which had been contrasted with Bush’s decision to join the state National Guard (a classic draft dodging tactic) and Vice President Cheney’s decision to duck out of the war altogether.
Run against your own party’s incumbent (Eugene McCarthy, 1968, Ronald Reagan, 1976, Ted Kennedy, 1980, Pat Buchanan, 1992)
This has never worked, although McCarthy undoubtedly made history by prompting President Johnson’s withdraw from the 1968 contest. Reagan also undoubtedly enhanced his credentials for a future run by challenging President Ford. Four years later, Reagan ran again and won.
(Picture: Eugene McCarthy in 1968)
Pick the wrong running-mate (George McGovern, 1972, John McCain, 2008)
The McGovern campaign was thrown into chaos when running-mate Thomas Eagleton had to be replaced. John McCain’s campaign was similarly undermined when Sarah Palin’s intellectual shortcomings became too obvious to ignore. Oddly, however, Bush’s disastrous choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 seemed to do him little real harm.
Screw up the TV debate
Notably Richard Nixon in 1960.
Insult 47% of the electorate (Mitt Romney, 2012)
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Mitt Romney, remarks at private fundraiser. Ironically, he ended up losing having received 47% of the vote.
Get paranoid (H. Ross Perot, 1992)
The independent candidate accused the Bush camp of trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding by labelling her a lesbian.
Make huge factual errors in public (Gerald Ford, 1976)
“There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” President Ford made this absurd claim in the 1976 TV debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he went on to lose narrowly to Jimmy Carter. (Picture: 1976 Democratic nominee and eventual winner, Jimmy Carter debating President Ford).
“Win” (Al Gore, 2000)
Few election results look more dubious than the 2000 one. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush not Al Gore the winner.
How much of an asset is experience of warfare to a future political career? Does a spell in the army, navy or air force, particularly during a world war always lead to popularity? Is it any use whatsoever in helping leaders make decisions once in power?
Winston Churchill’s long record of military heroism probably made him the ideal person to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second War. But in the Thirties, when Churchill was in the political wilderness and appeasement was in vogue, Churchill’s background probably counted against him. Coupled with his warnings about Nazi rearmament, Churchill’s reputation fuelled fears that he was a warmonger. His role in the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915 complicated matters still further. Churchill had resigned as Lord of the Admiralty and immediately volunteered for the Western Front. He was the first of four Great War veterans to lead Britain.
If ever a man had cause to hate war, it was Churchill’s successor Sir Anthony Eden. He had not only fought in the First World War but lost two brothers in the conflict as well as a son in World War II. But Eden recognised the dangers of appeasement (before World War II) and resigned as Foreign Secretary over Neville Chamberlain’s friendliness towards Mussolini in the late Thirties. It could have been the end of a promising career for Eden. However, with the outbreak of war, like Churchill, his arguments seemed vindicated. He returned, eventually succeeding Churchill in 1955.
Sadly as Prime Minister, Eden’s instincts served him less well. Perhaps viewing the Egyptian leader Nasser as a new Il Duce, Eden led Britain into a disastrously ill conceived attempt to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. The end result was a calamitous humiliating withdrawal and Eden’s downfall.
Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan served in the First World War too as did the US Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. The impact of the Great War on their leadership isn’t obvious. But for Ike, his major role as Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War was to prove crucial to his election.
General Eisenhower had never been elected to any office before 1952 and his huge fame and popularity as a General at a time of Cold War in Europe and hot war in Korea was almost the sole basis for his 1952 presidential campaign. He won handsomely then and in 1956, both times beating the less charismatic Adlai Stevenson comfortably.
But Ike was only the first of seven World War II veterans to make it to the White House between 1953 and 1993. Some were more heroic than others. John F. Kennedy had rescued the crew of his Japanese PT 109 swift boat after the Japanese rammed it in the Pacific. Kennedy had swum dragging a colleague to safety while holding a lifeboat in his teeth. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, spent most of the war making propaganda films. But every leader for forty years was a WWII war veteran. The last one was George HW Bush. Like Senator Bob Dole who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996, aged seventy three, Bush had been a pilot.
Oddly, although many notable British politicians served in World War II (for example, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, John Profumo, Colditz escapee Airey Neave, William Whitelaw, Enoch Powell and many others) only two: Edward Heath and James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Neither seems to have gained much politically from their war experience. Callaghan relished anything to do with the navy. Heath spoke in later life over his unease over the execution of a Polish officer in 1945. But Callaghan never won a General Election and Heath only won one and lost three. Harold Wilson, in contrast, spent the war in the civil service but won four out of five General Elections.
Perhaps the issue was less relevant in the Britain of the Seventies or than in the US where the president is also Commander in Chief. But even there, the war was rarely a big issue other than in the case of Eisenhower or perhaps in helping Kennedy beat his Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey (who had not served in the war) in 1960. President Ford’s running mate Bob Dole (again) also committed a damaging gaffe in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debates claiming that every 20th century war had been a “Democratic war” started by a Democratic president.
Margaret Thatcher was largely excused from any expectation of military service simply because she was a woman. Yet many women did do voluntary work during the war, joining the Wrens and such like. The young Margaret Roberts chose to focus on her career and Oxford instead. Thatcher was fortunate to escape serious scrutiny on this. Her Labour opponent in 1983, Michael Foot was less lucky. He had been unable to fight in the Second World War due to asthma (which bizarrely seems to have been cured buy a car accident in the Sixties) but in the jingoistic atmosphere after the Falklands War, both Foot’s championing of CND and even his choice of coat at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Sunday service led his patriotism, entirely unfairly to be questioned.
Foot was born in 1913. His successor as Labour leader Neil Kinnock was actually born during the Second World War in 1942. In Britain, national service had ended with the Fifties. Only a few notable politicians have had military experience since the Eighties.
In the United States, the focus shifted from World War Two to the far more controversial legacy of Vietnam. In 1988, George HW Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, already under scrutiny over his inexperience and competence, was found to have used his family’s connections to ensure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard twenty years before. The National Guard were traditionally seen as an easy escape route to avoid the draft. Quayle survived but his embarrassment contrasted him unfavourably with Colonel Oliver North, a leading figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal but a decorated Vietnam vet.
Four years later, the Democratic candidate Governor Bill Clinton saw his campaign descend into controversy when it was revealed he too had evaded the draft. But Clinton survived, perhaps helped by the fact, that unlike Quayle or George W. Bush later on, he had actually opposed the war. Bush’s joining of the Texas National Guard to avoid service was exacerbated in 2004, by the revelation that he had gone AWOL while even doing that at one point. Many assumed this to be drink related.
Bush’s opponent Democrat Senator John Kerry was well placed as regards Vietnam, having not only served there heroically but become a vocal opponent of the war on his return. Vietnam suddenly became a big issue again at the time of the Iraq war. But despite his strong position, Kerry overplayed the Vietnam card. Although the Republicans erred in attempting to fake a Seventies picture of a young Kerry supposedly standing next to fiercely anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and were not helped by Vice President Dick Cheney admitting he had avoided service too, claiming he had “other priorities”, Kerry’s overemphasis on his war record ultimately totally backfired.
In 2008, Barack Obama beat Vietnam vet and former Prisoner of War John McCain for the presidency. The 2012 election between Obama and Romney was the first since 1944 in which neither of the two main candidates had served in a world war or Vietnam.
Do war vets make better presidents? It seems doubtful. Neither Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt served in the forces (FDR was already a politician during the First World War. He contracted polio in the Twenties). Were they thus automatically worse presidents than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter who did?
Eisenhower and Kennedy may have benefitted popularity-wise from their years of service. But did anyone else?
Every election between 1992 and 2008 was fought between a war veteran and a non-combatant:
1992: President George W Bush (WWII) Vs Governor Bill Clinton: Clinton won.
1996: Senator Bob Dole (WWII) Vs President Bill Clinton: Clinton won.
2000: Vice President Al Gore (Vietnam) Vs Governor George W. Bush. Bush won.
2004: Senator John Kerry (Vietnam) Vs President George W. Bush. Bush won.
2008: Senator John McCain (Vietnam) Vs Senator Barack Obama. Obama won.
As we can see, the non-combatant beat the veteran every time.
So far no Vietnam veterans at all have won the presidency yet this era may not be over yet.
In the UK, the only recent notable MPs with military backgrounds have been Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader between 1988 and 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader. It is true, Ashdown’s military background contributed to his popularity. But in the case of IDS, the least successful Opposition leader since the war, any advantage even during the Iraq War was extremely well hidden.
Ultimately, war experience may bring about good qualities and spawn great leaders, notably Churchill. But it is rarely a decisive factor in terms of popularity or leadership.
Some leaders such as Blair or Thatcher have proven natural leaders in peace and war without any military background at all. Others such as Sir Anthony Eden or Edward Heath found their military background little help in office and totally floundered in Downing Street.
Basically, if you are unsure who to vote for, basing your decision on the candidate’s military background is unlikely to help you to make the right decision.
Okay! So it’s becoming horrendously clear Mitt Romney is an unusually poor presidential candidate. But he’s not the first disaster area to be nominated by a major US political party. Here are a few others:
5. Richard M. Nixon (Rep. Lost 1960, won 1968, 1972). It might seem odd to choose a candidate who was victorious twice to go in a list of bad presidential candidates. But Nixon’s success if anything exposes the flaws in the system. In 1968, with Nixon’s poll lead narrowing, the Nixon team used an insider to actively sabotage Vietnam peace talks fearing a sudden breakthrough would give his opponent Hubert Humphrey a last minute boost. Interestingly, the Humphrey campaign learned of Nixon’s chicanery at the time but chose not to expose him as they expected to beat him anyway. They were wrong. Four years later, the Nixon team again used all manner of dirty tricks to crush their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie in the primaries releasing mice into a Muskie press conference and smearing Muskie’s wife as an alcoholic. Break-ins later in the campaign ultimately led to the Watergate scandal. Nixon would win heavily in 1972 but his victory would be short lived. He must rank amongst the most corrupt post-war presidential candidates.
4. Michael Dukakis (Dem. Lost 1988). What went wrong for Duke? In the summer of 1988, having beaten seven rivals to the nomination, his soaring Kennedy-esque rhetoric gave him a 15% lead over his Republican opponent Vice President George HW Bush. But in the last months of the campaign, Dukakis, who like Romney was a Governor of Massachusetts barely put a foot right. He unwisely refused to respond to any attacks the Bush campaign launched upon him and was soon irretrievably tainted as a tax and spend liberal (a bad thing in the US). Even his principled opposition to the death penalty in the TV debates went against him. Despite being quite a bland candidate himself, Bush ended up romping home to a forty state victory.
3. John McCain (Rep. Lost 2008) An ex-Vietnam POW, McCain may have been a fine candidate in, say, 1992, but by 2008, he was much too old and grumpy for the task. His repeated attempts to distract attention from his opponent’s superior campaign by repeated references to “Joe the plumber” proved a failure. His worst decision, however, was undeniably his poorly researched choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as running mate. Initially boosting the flagging McCain effort, the decision backfired horribly once Palin’s many shortcomings became all too apparent. McCain soon had his chips.
2. Barry Goldwater (Rep. Lost 1964). Although the GOP occasionally flirts with extremism, they rarely embrace it. The moderate Senator Bob Dole saw off Pat Buchanan in 1996 for example while Mitt Romney beat the even more odious and unprincipled Rick Santorum earlier this year. 1964 was different however. In the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, they rejected the moderate future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in favour of the alarmingly pro-nuclear Senator Goldwater. “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater (sometimes nicknamed Au H2O by science geeks) would opine. He also advocated a form of racial apartheid. The result? The Johnson team produced one of the best campaign ads ever (showing a little girl being blown to smithereens by a nuclear attack). Ex-actor Ronald Reagan was moved to defect from the Democrats to the Republicans. Everyone else went the other way. President Johnson beat Goldwater by a record margin.
1. Mitt Romney (Rep. 2012). Okay! So it’s not over yet. Things may improve for the hapless Mr Romney. But as it stands, this looks like the only poll Romney’s going to come top of this autumn…