WASHINGTON – This presidential campaign set new standards for being zany, bitterly ugly, dispiriting as well as the most expensive. And the disruptions might not end tonight, or this year.
Yet there were other contests in the 20th century that had their wild moments:
- For example, the way President Harry S. Truman beat all the odds by outrunning the Republican candidate, Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, largely because Dewey blithely ignored the advice of an important Buffalo lawyer.
- Or, how President Gerald Ford, a Republican, set the stage for his own defeat against Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter by pardoning his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, and earned from Ford’s own press secretary a stern face-to-face rebuke.
- And, how the independent candidate, Ross Perot, paved the way for the election of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 by conjuring “a plot” by Republicans and federal agents to disrupt Perot’s daughter’s wedding.
In 1948, Dewey’s top campaign adviser was Edwin F. Jaeckle of Buffalo. Jaeckle was the most powerful GOP political leader in Buffalo’s history. Jaeckle had guided Dewey to three terms as New York’s governor. Making his second run for president, Dewey was believed to be so far ahead of Truman that one pollster, Elmo Roper, stopped sampling two months before Election Day.
A Newsweek survey of 50 prominent political writers showed that all predicted a Dewey sweep.
Unimpressed, Truman just after Labor Day launched a whistle-stop campaign by train all across America. One of Truman’s 200 appearances was in Buffalo on Oct. 8 at what was known then as Eagles Hall.
According to the archives of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Truman unloaded on the Republican “do-nothing” Congress. He told his Buffalo supporters that Republicans didn’t understand how prosperity happens.
“Real prosperity,” Truman said in Buffalo, “is based on justice. Real prosperity depends on fair treatment for all groups in our society … That is the very thing the economists have found out about our economy, after 50 years of studying booms and depressions.”
Jaeckle warned Dewey that Truman was closing in on him, and not to believe the polls. Dewey was unmoved.
In an interview with the New York Times, Jaeckle said, “I told him as a former district attorney he should attack, that he couldn’t be a milquetoast and expect to win the election. He didn’t want to rock the boat.”
Truman of course won, but not before the overconfident Chicago Tribune published the headline as votes were still being tallied closed: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
President Ford’s initial press secretary during his brief presidency was Jerald terHorst, a widely respected former bureau chief of the Detroit News, and a World War II Marine Corps combat veteran.
Ford had led terHorst to believe that he would not pardon Nixon. Nixon had resigned in August 1974. Nixon had been impeached (indicted) by the House for Watergate-related crimes, and resigned unconditionally to escape a sure conviction in the Senate.
Ford shocked the nation – and terHorst – on Sept. 8, 1974, by pardoning Nixon for any crimes he committed regarding Watergate, and for crimes that might later be discovered. TerHorst reported that day to President Ford, who gave him instructions on how to handle the media. Ter Horst told me years later of his confrontation with the president in the Oval Office.
“I’ll do what’s needed today,” terHorst said, “but tomorrow, you’re on your own.” The press secretary resigned at day’s end.
Ford lost 22 percent of his favorability rating. He never recovered, and it is widely believed the pardon was the reason he lost to Carter in 1976.
At one point in the 1982 race, Texas businessman Ross Perot was leading incumbent GOP President George H.W. Bush, and then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Polls gave Perot 39 percent, 31 percent for Bush and Clinton 25 percent.
Perot had campaigned hard against the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and government debt.
Then the temperamental billionaire Perot abruptly withdrew, voicing bizarre suggestions that Republicans were going to interfere with his daughter’s wedding. Weeks later, he resumed his campaign, but his magic had dissipated. Then he made a half-hearted endorsement of Clinton.
Clinton won election with a plurality of the popular vote. The savage pounding conservatives leveled at Bush shattered the uneasy accord between right wing and moderate Republicans achieved during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, producing a party discord that continues to this day.