Why Richard Nixon was pretty bad, after all

nix

Forty years after his resignation as US president and twenty years after his death, many have sought to revise the general opinion about disgraced US president Richard Nixon. But though he did achieve successes, perhaps it’s worth remembering: he was known as “Tricky Dicky” for a reason…

The Pink Lady campaign

Nixon played dirty from an early stage, shamelessly exploiting the post-war Red Scare to demolish his Democrat opponent, the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas in his 1950 campaign for the US Senate.  Although she was basically a New Deal Democrat, Nixon labelled her “the Pink Lady…pink right down to her underwear” and had thousands of pink leaflets distributed saying the same thing. Douglas lost and gave up politics. Nixon won by a landslide but at a price: he would be known as “Tricky Dicky” forever.

Sabotaged peace talks

Having lost the 1960 election narrowly to JFK, Nixon wasn’t prepared to do so again in 1968. But President Johnson’s halt to the bombing in Vietnam in October was calculated to help Nixon’s opponent Johnson’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon used an intermediary to sabotage the peace talks, something the Humphrey team knew about, in fact, confident of victory, they stated quiet. Instead, Nixon won narrowly. The truth wasn’t revealed until after his death in 1994.

Foreign policy dishonest

Nixon was elected claiming to have a “secret plan to end the war”. In fact, he had no plan. He first attempted to win the war as  Johnson had, also illegally invading Cambodia before ultimately withdrawing the US presence ensuring a Communist victory (in fairness, probably an inevitable outcome whatever he did). Nixon’s administration also backed General Pinochet’s bloody coup against the democratically elected Allende government in Chile.

nixon_620-e1357749984496

Obsessed with his “enemies”

Nixon generally confused legitimate and fair political opponents with enemies of the state. His “enemies list” included everyone from Senator Ted Kennedy (perhaps understandably) to entertainers like Bill Cosby and Barbara Streisand.

Watergate

In 1972, having sabotaged the primary campaign of his most feared opponent Senator Ed Muskie, the Nixon team’s attempts to wiretap and destroy their political opponents fell flat when a botched break-in at Democrat HQ led to the Watergate scandal which led to Nixon’s resignation in 1974. No scandal, other than the Iran-Contra scandal, has come close to Watergate in terms of severity. Nixon lied repeatedly, humiliated his country and himself and destroyed his own presidency.

henry-kissinger-y-richard-nixon

Advertisements

How President Kennedy’s assassination changed the world forever

JFK assassination 50th anniversary

The full magnitude of the scale of shock at the news of President Kennedy‘s assassination half a century ago cannot be fully appreciated today. Perhaps only by comparison with more recent traumas such as the September 11th attacks in 2001 or Princess Diana’s death in 1997 can we today find any suitable frame of reference.

But the impact of the shooting was huge. The effects on the Kennedy family, the US and the world in general have continued to resonate throughout ensuing fifty years…

1963

President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as his successor. Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is himself shot dead by night club owner Jack Ruby on live TV two days later. The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination.

Image

1964

Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, resigns as Attorney General. He and President Johnson have long hated each other. Bobby is elected Senator for New York.

Ted Kennedy, already a Senator for Massachusetts since 1962, is involved in a serious plane crash. He suffers a broken back and punctured lung. Two others on board including the pilot are killed.

President Johnson passes a wealth of legislation including the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election handsomely with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate (both Humphrey and Johnson fought Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960 and lost).

History will never know for sure whether Kennedy had he lived, would have passed as much legislation as Johnson, been re-elected in 1964 or escalated the Vietnam War to the same disastrous extent.

The Warren Commission (which includes future Republican president Gerald Ford amongst its members) rules that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy.  Over time, most Americans grow to disbelieve this verdict.

1965

Malcolm X, black civil rights leader, is assassinated.

President Johnson dramatically escalates the Vietnam conflict.

1967

Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, dies in prison.

1968

Another traumatic year for the US and the Kennedys.

Martin Luther King, black civil rights leader, is assassinated prompting widespread race riots.

Image

President Johnson shocks the world by pulling out of the presidential race following serious setbacks in Vietnam and a strong primary challenge from the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator Bobby Kennedy has already entered the race by this point.

A bitter Kennedy-McCarthy primary battle ensues (McCarthy fans see Kennedy as jumping on the anti-war bandwagon). Kennedy eventually emerges triumphant at the California Primary in June. With Richard Nixon emerging as the new Republican candidate, the stage seems set for another Kennedy vs. Nixon contest as in 1960. But moments after his California victory speech, Bobby is himself shot and killed on live TV. The assassin is Sirhan Sirhan, a young man who objects to the Senator’s support for Israel (a position shared by most US politicians). Sirhan remains in jail today. Kennedy leaves a wife, eleven children and a Democratic Party in disarray.

At a deadlocked convention, some Democrats move to draft 36 year old Senator Ted Kennedy as the candidate but the last Kennedy son is at this point fearful of assassination himself. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is eventually chosen as nominee but loses narrowly to JFK’s defeated 1960 opponent, Republican Richard Nixon.

Jacqueline Kennedy horrifies many by marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

1969

The Apollo 11 mission fulfils JFK’s 1961 pledge to land an American on the moon and return him to Earth by the end of the decade.

The very same weekend Senator Ted Kennedy – already seen as the most likely Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 – appears to crash his car at Chappaquiddick, leading to the death of a young girl Mary Jo Kopechne. The scandal and Kennedy’s unsatisfactory explanation for his behaviour (he claimed to have “repeatedly dove” to rescue her), the suspicion that he was having an affair with her or that he may have been drink driving, casts a shadow over the rest of his career. His judgement is certainly questionable, calling his lawyer immediately after the crash before calling the emergency services. He is not jailed and is returned to the Senate many times. But he will never become president.

Father Joseph P Kennedy dies aged 81 (he has been unable to speak since as stroke during his son’s presidency. He has seen two of his sons assassinated, another killed in the war, a daughter lobotomised and another killed in a plane crash.

1972

George Wallace, pro-segregation Governor of Alabama and an old rival of the Kennedys, is shot and badly wounded by student Arthur Bremner. Bremner’s disturbed diary inspires the film Taxi Driver which itself inspires John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan in a bid to “impress” actress Jodie Foster in 1981.

Ted Kennedy threatens to run for president when last minute polls suggest he could win the nomination. But he chooses not to. Senator George McGovern gets the Democratic Party nomination instead.

Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy’s husband, is picked as Senator George McGovern’s running mate after his first choice Thomas Eagleton is forced out by revelations about his medical history.

McGovern and Shriver are defeated heavily by President Nixon who wins 49 out of 50 states.

1973

Lyndon Johnson dies (had he ran in 1968 and ran again, his presidency would have ended just two days earlier). Unusually, as Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower all died within the last decade, there are no former US presidents alive.

The tenth anniversary of the JFK assassination. The US is mired in Vietnam and Watergate.

1974

Alan J Pakula’s  film The Parallax View starring Warren Beatty focuses on assassination conspiracy theories.

President Nixon resigns over the Watergate Scandal. Gerald Ford succeeds him.

1975

President Ford narrowly escapes two assassination attempts within the space of a fortnight. Both the assailants are women. “Squeaky” Fromme (a member of the Manson “family”) draws a gun on Ford when he attempts to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fires a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death over thirty years’ later.

Aristotle Onassis dies. Although only in her forties, Jackie Onassis does not remarry again.

1976

The film Taxi Driver featuring a fictional assassination attempt on a presidential candidate is released.  As mentioned, this inspires John Hinckley Junior to shoot President Reagan in 1981.

Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly beats President Ford for the White House.

1979

Maria Shriver, Sargent and Eunice’s daughter meets Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is already an aspiring film actor and Republican supporter.

827352383 (1)

The film Winter Kills centres on a fictional Kennedy-esque family cursed by assassinations.

1980

Senator Ted Kennedy mounts his one and only bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He mounts an effective challenge and delivers a memorable speech to the Democratic Convention but is beaten by President Carter who goes on to lose to Ronald Reagan in November. Kennedy is harmed by the ghosts of Chappaquiddick. In retrospect, he also seems foolish to have run in a year where he would have to unseat a sitting incumbent Democratic president (the only election in which this would have been the case between 1968 and 1996).

Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot dead in New York.

Image

1981

President Reagan is shot and wounded by John Hinckley Junior. Hinckley is ruled not guilty as he is insane. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady is badly wounded in the shooting. Secretary of State Al Haig declares on TV in the hours after the shooting hat after Reagan and Vice President Bush, he is in control. This is constitutionally incorrect and the gaffe reassures no one. Reagan makes a full recovery and eventually dies in his 90s in 2004, long after the end of his presidency.

This seems to break the supposed “curse” which has seen every president elected in a year ending in zero since 1840 die in office (1840: Harrison, 1860: Lincoln, 1880: Garfield, 1900, McKinley, 1920: Harding, 1940: FDR, 1960: JFK).

1983

Martin Sheen stars as JFK in the acclaimed TV series Kennedy.

1984

David Kennedy, Bobby’s fourth son, dies of a drug overdose, aged 28.

1986

Mara Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger, by now a huge film star. He is Republican Governor of California from 2003 until 2011. She remains a Democrat. Their marriage ends in 2011.

1987

Kennedy-esque Democratic contender Gary Hart is forced out of the presidential race after a sex scandal.

1988

Future Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore evoke Kennedy strongly in their presidential bids as does the eventual nominee Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. He loses to Bush in November.

Senator Dan Quayle unwisely compares himself to JFK in the vice presidential debate:

Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

Bentsen wins the debate although Bush and Quayle win the election.

1991

William Kennedy Smith, Senator Edward Kennedy’s nephew is acquitted after a high profile rape trial. Although he is acquitted, the family’s image is further tarnished by the scandal.

Oliver Stone’s hugely controversial film JFK is released. It centres less on the President himself but on conspiracy theories surrounding his death.

1992

Democrat Governor Bill Clinton is elected to the presidency. His campaign makes great play of various superficial similarities between the candidate and JFK. Clinton’s “New Covenant” echoes Kennedy’s “New Frontier” (though proves less resonant). Clinton is also similarly youthful (46), has a slight physical resemblance to JFK and actually met the assassinated president when he visited his high school when Clinton was 16.

Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water is published. It is clearly inspired by the Chappaquiddick Incident.

1993

John Connally, the former Governor of Texas wounded in the 1963 assassination dies. In the years since, he has defected to the Republicans and ran for president himself in 1980, being beaten for the party nomination by Ronald Reagan.

1994

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the former President, dies aged 64.

Special effects technology enables JFK to appear as a character in the film Forrest Gump.

Patrick Kennedy, a son of Ted Kennedy, is elected to the House of Representatives.

1995

Rose Kennedy dies aged 104. She is the mother of Jack, Bobby and Ted.

The novel Idlewild by British writer Mark Lawson imagines President Kennedy surviving into old age (Idlewild in New York was renamed JFK Airport following the 1963 assassination).

1997

Michael Kennedy, another of Bobby’s children, dies in a skiing accident. He is 39.

The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh is published.

1999

John F. Kennedy Junior, the only son of the assassinated president, dies in a plane crash, alongside his wife and sister in law. He is 39.

wenn7012

2000

Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis is released. Kevin Costner stars as he did in JFK (though does not play JFK in either case). Bruce Greenwood is JFK and Steven Culp, RFK (The 13 days are October 14th-28th 1962).

2004

Another JFK , Senator John (Forbes) Kerry wins the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also from Massachusetts and is the first Roman Catholic to be nominated since John F. Kennedy himself. However, he ultimately lacks the Kennedy magic and is beaten in the November election by President George W. Bush. The Bush political dynasty has thus far produced two US presidents.

The Manchurian Candidate centring on political assassinations is remade, starring Denzel Washington.

2006

The film Bobby directed by Emilio Estevez and based around the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination is released.

2008

Barack Obama is the first African American to be elected US president. Some see this as a fitting tribute to the career of Senator Ted Kennedy, who has by now been diagnosed with a fatal brain condition. Obama is also the first president born during Kennedy’s presidency and the first serving US senator to win the presidency since JFK himself in 1960.

2009

Ted Kennedy dies, age 77. Although his career was marred by the Chappaquiddick Incident in 1969, he has enjoyed a long and successful career as “the lion of the Senate”. He is the fourth longest serving Senator in US history.

Four out of five of Joe and Rose’s remaining daughters die during this decade (Rose, Kathleen, Eunice and Patricia).

2011

TV series The Kennedys starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie. It is less well received than the series The Kennedys, thirty years before.

2013

Jean Ann Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland is the only remaining daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. She is 85.

Image

Second term blues

Barack Obama Is Sworn In As 44th President Of The United States

So that’s it. Obama has been re-elected and sworn in for a second term. He can’t run for a third time even if he wants to. So now he can just put his feet up? Right?

Wrong! In fact, every president since the two term limit has been imposed who has been re-elected has experienced a “difficult” second term. Obama should heed their example. And consider: would any of them have run for a third term had they been able to anyway?

Dwight D. Eisenhower (Rep).

Elected: 1952. Re-elected: 1956.

Americans liked “Ike” so much that they gave him two landslides both times beating the same opponent: Adlai Stevenson. But Eisenhower’s second term was undermined by Cold War concerns that the USSR was gaining the upper hand over the US. Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and Eisenhower was harmed by his role in the 1960 U2 spy plane incident after he denied that a US plane piloted by one Gary Powers which had been shot down had been spying. It had.

To some extent, the perception that the USSR was ahead of the US was a nonsense, however. The supposed Soviet “missile gap” over the US much discussed in the 1960 elections didn’t exist. There was a gap but in fact it was the US who had a lead. Republican candidate Vice President Nixon well knew this but was unable to reveal it for security reasons.

That said, thanks to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space just after Eisenhower left office, there’s no denying the USSR led the space race at this time.

Third term?: Ike was already the oldest US president ever for the time by 1960 (he was 70) so would probably not have run again even if he had been able to.

 Richard M. Nixon (Rep).

Elected: 1968. Re-elected: 1972.

January 1973 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s career. He had re-opened relations with China, brought a form of “peace with honour” to Vietnam (or at least ended US involvement) and had just secured a 49 state victory over Democrat George McGovern.

But, in fact, the seeds of Nixon’s destruction had already been sewn. The Watergate investigation was already quietly underway and became spectacularly public with the resignation of four key Nixon aides in May. Nixon famously promised that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”. But had he sought to cover up the legal investigation into the break-in at Democrat HQ at the Watergate Hotel n 1972? If not, why didn’t he hand over the White House tapes on the matter?

In the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 and was succeeded by his second Vice President Gerald Ford. Other than dying in office, (which at least might have enhanced his reputation) his second term could hardly have gone worse.

Third term?: It’s easy to imagine that without Watergate, Nixon who was then only in his early sixties, would have relished a third term had it been possible. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen envisages just that with Nixon remaining in the White House well until the Eighties. But in reality as we know, Nixon didn’t even get through his second term.

Ronald Reagan (Rep).

Elected: 1980. Re-elected: 1984.

Like Nixon, Reagan had secured a 49 state victory. And his second term, in some ways, went well. Initially slow to respond to the peace overtures from the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985, Reagan eventually conceded some ground precipitating a clear thaw in the Cold War by the time he left office. In truth, this was more to Gorbachev’s credit than the US president’s.

The big trouble spot of Reagan’s second term came after the revelation of the disastrous scheme to exchange weapons for hostages in Iran and then use the proceeds to finance the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua in 1986.

The plot was illegal, unethical and in defiance of Congress. Reagan probably only survived because (unlike Nixon) he had great reserves of personal charm, oversaw an apparently booming economy and because he was close to the end of his presidency anyway. Democrats in Congress had little interest in putting Vice President Bush in the White House ahead of the 1988 election.

Third term? Despite Iran-Contra, Reagan was still popular in 1989 and is the only figure mentioned here to serve two full terms before being succeeded by someone in his own party. That said, Reagan was 77 by the time he left office and was possibly already suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease which would mar his old age. So, no.

Bill Clinton (Dem).

Elected: 1992. Re-elected: 1996.

Clinton is probably the most successful president of the last iffy years but his second term was tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which almost saw him removed from office in 1998. But while Clinton was undeniably foolish, the scandal has a trumped up feel about it. Unlike Watergate or Iran-Contra, there was no serious crime at the centre of it. Obama should be wary of any sore loser Republicans attempting a similar plot against him.

Third term?: After the humiliations of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton may well have had enough of high office by 2000. On the other hand, he remained more popular than either Al Gore or George W. Bush who actually fought the 2000 election and was still one of the youngest ex-presidents there has ever been. Despite this, with Hillary Clinton, the First Lady intent on launching her own political career (she was elected as a Senator for New York in 2000), Bill would doubtless have stood down anyway.

George W. Bush (Rep).

“Elected”: 2000. “Re”- elected: 2004.

Bush achieved a historic feat in delivering a second term that was almost as disastrous as his first overseeing a financial crisis and totally mishandling the response to Hurricane Katrina. By 2008, the President – perhaps the worst in US history – was popular with less than a fifth of American voters.

Third term?: Highly unlikely. The name of Bush was mud by the time he left office.Imagea

Presidents on screen

Ronald Reagan

So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:

George Washington

Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).

Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.

Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.

 

Teddy Roosevelt

Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).

Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.

Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.

 

Dwight David Eisenhower

Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.

Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.

Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.

 

John Fitzgerald  Kennedy

Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.

Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.

Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.

 

Lyndon Baines Johnson

Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.

Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.

Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.

 

Ronald Reagan

Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.

Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.

Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,

 

Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.

George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.

Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.

Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.

The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.

JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.

Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).Image

Romney and Obama: the great TV debate

Tonight sees the first of this year’s debates between Romney and Obama.

Before we get too excited, let us consider a few key facts:

1. Whoever’s winning the election will probably win the debate…

Debates usually reflect the existing state of the campaign rather than deciding it. President Obama is comfortably winning the election so can probably expect to win the debate.

There are exceptions to this rule however: if as in 1960 or 1976, the race is very close. Nixon’s shifty appearance and President Ford’s confusion over the USSR may have swung the race in both cases. In 2000 and 2004, Al Gore and John Kerry both easily beat Bush in the debates. Expectations were so low for Bush, however, that the debates felt like a victory for Bush who went on to win narrowly (in 2004 anyway). In 1988, Bush’s father managed to lose the first of two debates to Michael Dukakis but still won the election by a landslide.

But trust me usually the first place candidate usually wins the debate.

2. The Vice Presidential debates don’t matter 

From the 1988 Dan Quayle/Lloyd Bentsen VP debate…

Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.) What has to be done in a situation like that is to call in the — Woodruff: (Admonishing applauders) Please, please, once again you are only taking time away from your own candidate.

Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause.) Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s “no Jack Kennedy” humiliation of Senator Dan Quayle in 1988 is probably the finest moment in any national US presidential debate ever. But it didn’t help the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign which still went down to a hefty defeat.

3. There’s always the potential for a gaffe from either side.

Nixon’s anxious scowling at JFK during the 1960 debate. President George HW Bush glancing at his watch throughout his debate with Bill Clinton. Senator Bob Dole’s foolish labelling of both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam as “Democrat wars”.

It is these potentially random factors which have the power to swing elections, which make the four yearly ritual of the televised presidential debates so compelling.

Five worst US presidential candidates ever

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…