Contenders: A look at presidential losers 

click to enlarge Richard Smith of C-SPAN looks into the lives of past presidential hopefuls in the new series 'Contenders.'
  • Richard Smith of C-SPAN looks into the lives of past presidential hopefuls in the new series 'Contenders.'


You’ve probably forgotten about Eugene V. Debs and Wendell Willkie (if you ever knew of them), but C-SPAN hasn’t. So the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network will be in Indiana two of the next four Fridays — this week in Terre Haute to discuss Debs, then on Oct. 21 in Rushville to remember Willkie.


The visits are part of a series called “The Contenders” (8 p.m. Fridays), which examines the life and times of 14 men, from Henry Clay to Ross Perot, who have run for president and lost but changed political history.


The show is the brainchild of presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, a professor at George Mason University and former head of six presidential libraries. Smith is among several historians who share their insights, take calls and show us why these men deserve to be remembered.


Debs was a five-time socialist candidate for president, union leader and peace activist who was jailed twice for his activities. Willkie, a liberal Republican, ran against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and went on to back FDR in many ways.


“My hunch is, very few people, if you stop them on the street, could name either man,” Smith said in a telephone interview.


Here’s more of what he said.


NUVO: Before we get into the show, a question about current presidential politics. I think the 2012 election is shaping up like the 1980 election, where you had an ineffectual president running against someone I would describe as scary. The scary candidate was able to convince the public he wasn’t so scary, and he won. What do you think?


Smith: It’s an interesting thesis, and I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. I think a couple of things I would at least factor into the equation: Ronald Reagan went into the 1980 election, although he certainly scared some people, with a long relationship, a non-threatening relationship, that went back to a movie career and television. I remember growing up, every New Year’s Day, he hosted the Tournament of Roses Parade. People were less inclined to fear him than a Barry Goldwater or Rick Perry. That pre-existing relationship is a significant factor.


The other thing is, Jimmy Carter, by 1980, whatever one thought of his performance, he didn’t have a base you could point to. That had always been a potential weakness. You can argue Carter was ahead of his time in some ways — recognizing the way political trends were developing that the Democratic Party had to become a post-New Deal party in some ways. You could look at Carter and see a preview of Bill Clinton.


But there is an attachment to Obama. There is a base that’s not going to desert him whatever happens. I understand the tenor of the coverage, but the story isn’t that he’s got 42, 43, 44, 45 percent approval ratings. Given the circumstances and the duration and the prospects, I think those are pretty impressive numbers.


You’re absolutely right that he’s a weakened candidate. You can certainly make out a scenario where it’s almost the Republicans’ to lose. But that and a buck and a half will get you a cup of coffee.


NUVO: OK, on to “The Contenders.” What made you want to do this?


Smith: I’m surprised no one had done this before. It seems like such an obvious idea. On the other hand, there’s nobody who would do it in today’s media climate other than C-SPAN. As a biographer, these people are fascinating in their own right. I’m particularly drawn to corners of the American experience that have not had a lot of attention. These individuals, many of them are unknown today. But many of them are a window on a period or a movement or an impulse in the American political character that might not be appreciated otherwise.


The two Hoosiers have relevance to today. It’s amazing, if you stop of the 1912 election and contrast it with the 2012 election. None of us knows what’s going to happen, but we certainly do know what the prevailing political mood is, and it’s certainly very different from a century ago, which was Gene Debs’ strongest performance. And indeed, you could argue if TR (Theodore Roosevelt) had not been in the field, Debs would have gotten considerably more than 900,000 votes. In some ways, TR and even (Woodrow) Wilson stole the left, which is one of the functions third parties often perform. But beyond that, it’s also highly timely that Debs is reintroduced to Americans not only as the face of a significant socialist movement, but as a major figure in the history of organized labor.


With Willkie, of course, there’s this debate that goes on, this wishful thinking about: Can someone get into the field at this late date? What they’re really asking is: Can someone be drafted? Do we still have dark horses in American politics? Given the nature of the media and the primary process, is that possible? Could a Willkie happen today? He is arguably the most improbable major party nominee for president in the 20th century. Maybe Horace Greeley in the 19th century. With Willkie, it’s tough to imagine anyone coming from a more unlikely set of circumstances.


What makes Willkie even more relevant is after 1940, when he was in some ways a man without a party. He was actively courted by FDR for what seems to have been a sincere desire on Roosevelt’s part to bring about a reconfiguration of American politics. At the end of his life, Roosevelt wanted to have a liberal party and a conservative party. Of course, more immediately, he wanted to have Willkie’s support in 1944. But I also think in classically Roosevelt fashion, he was able to simultaneously pursue his self-interest with a larger, more visionary goal. They both coalesced in the person of Wendell Willkie.


Sixty-plus years later, you could argue that FDR’s goal has been realized. I leave it to voters and to viewers to decide for themselves whether a more purely ideological politics is better than parties that had, to varying degrees, left and right wings. Those are just a couple of examples of how these people deserve to be better known than they are and have some contemporary significance.


NUVO: Will you go to Terre Haute for the Debs show?


Smith: I’m not involved with the details of that particular program, but it is certainly true that a significant part of these broadcasts are the locations. It’s an opportunity to develop the biographical story against the physical backdrop of a place that is indelibly associated with this person.


NUVO: A guy like Debs coming from Indiana almost seems improbable today.


Smith: There are people who will scratch their head in wonderment at the thought of Mr. Socialist being from Indiana, but Indiana was the ultimate swing state in the post-Civil War era and into the early part of the 20th century. There was nothing automatically conservative or Republican about Indiana. You knew it was always going to be in play.


That’s one reason why, just as Ohio has been called “The Mother of Presidents,” Indiana’s been called “The Mother of Vice Presidents.” If you look at the number of times a Hoosier was on a ticket, almost invariably in second place, it’s because Indiana was a key swing state and both parties would do whatever it took to win it over. Benjamin Harrison carried Indiana by 2,400 votes in 1888. That gives you some idea of how hotly contested it was.


NUVO: Brian Lamb, who founded C-SPAN, is from Indiana. Did he require you to put two Hoosiers in the show?


Smith: I have to say, I was not under pressure from anyone. I submitted this list of 14 names. We toyed with expanding it and cutting it. But only C-SPAN would say you could have 90 minutes every Friday night for 14 weeks. There’s no one else on the broadcast spectrum that would think of such a thing. We knew it couldn’t go any longer because we’re up against a campaign. At the same time, it’s a bit of a counterpoint to the campaign. It’s designed to shed a light on whatever perspective comes with the passage of time. Brian is a Hoosier and a great champion of all things Indiana, but there was no pressure. I have no pressure defending those choices.

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