Archive for the ‘Vice Presidents’ Category

Isn’t It Rich

Al Gore, the former vice president who but for the vote of one Supreme Court Justice would have captured the American presidency in 2000, is now “Romney rich,” so dubbed by Bloomberg News. Losing the White House does have its upside, I guess.

Bloomberg estimates that Gore may now be worth $200 million after selling his 20% share of the not very successful Current cable TV operation to Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for a cool $70 million. (Apparently a Gore strange bedfellow, Rupert Murdoch,  actually helped ensure that Al would get his big pay day by guaranteeing that Current would, despite awful ratings, stay on Murdoch’s DircTV,  a decision estimated to have been worth $200 million. Wouldn’t you like to have heard that conversation?)

Gore also made what appears to be a $30 million haul by exercising options on the Apple stock he accumulated while serving on the tech giant’s corporate board. “That’s a pretty good January for a guy who couldn’t yet call himself a multimillionaire [based on 1999 and 2000 disclosure forms] when he briefly slipped from public life after his bitterly contested presidential election loss to George W. Bush in late 2000,” writes Ken Wells and Ari Levy of Bloomberg.

Goodness knows I don’t begrudge a big pay day for a Democrat – or Republican or Libertarian, for that matter – although the stock options that Fortune 500 companies lavish on very part time and mostly very disengaged directors is one of the dirty little scandals of American capitalism. And come to think if it shouldn’t every liberal activist aspire to have Rupert Murdoch’s ear for heaven’s sake? Rather what has always bothered me about Al Gore, and this I suspect will be the flavor of the reporting on his vast new wealth, is that he has always struck me as being one of those people in public life who is not comfortable in his own skin. He is not exactly what he appears to be and what he appears to be is, well, confusing. Begging the question then – who the heck is this guy?

Is he the climate change crusader who shared a Nobel Prize for focusing attention on that issue? Or is he a big-time Silicon Valley communication and high tech wheeler-dealer who can romance the California corporate crowd and Rupert Murdoch? Or is he the guy who once and very questionably raised campaign money at a Buddist Temple, but now says “our democracy” has been hijacked by big and secret money? And what about the big houses and bigger carbon footprint? And did you, a guy passionate about global climate matters, really need to sell your TV network to a bunch of oil-rich princes in the Middle East?

In their wonderful little book The Prince of Tennessee – subtitled “The Rise of Al Gore” – writers David Maraniss and Ellen Nakashima detail young Al Gore’s early days as the son of a Senator – Albert Gore, Sr. – who spent many of his formidable years growing up in Suite 809 atop the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.   Today the hotel’s website touts the place’s history. “Prominent tenants included a young Al Gore, Jr., Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge, Admiral and Mrs. Chester William Nimitz, and Senator John L. McClellan. A young George H. Bush and his parents, Senator and Mrs. Prescott Bush, also made The Fairfax their home when in town.”

“If this experience made him different from you and me, to borrow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase, it was not from being rich, but rather from being apart,” Maraniss and Nakashima wrote in their book published in 2000. “[Gore] grew up in a singularly odd world of old people and bellhops, separated from the child-filled neighborhoods of his classmates at St. Albans and further still from his summertime pals at the family farm in Tennessee.”

Gore’s only sibling, sister Nancy, was a decade older and Al grew up mainly with himself. It doesn’t take a Fitzgerald-like imagination to picture the young Al reserved and proper, typically hanging around not with his teenage friends, but with the old and stuffy Senate friends of his parents. On such occasions you’ll not be surprised to know that Gore was described as “a perfect gentleman.”

The description of Gore in The Prince of Tennessee, which I suspect will be the best insight we’ll ever have to the man who came so close to being president, is of a “serious and earnest” guy “always striving to do right, but at times [revealing] flashes of a more complicated struggle within, his stoic front masking a hidden artistry, sarcasm, and loneliness.”

In a lengthy profile in the current New York Magazine Gore is described as having been devastated by his lost in 200o to George W. Bush.  “For two and a half decades, he was on a trajectory that was supposed to end in the presidency,” according to Carter Eskew one of his closest advisers. Now Gore awkwardly attempts to hide what must be the lingering hurt and regret with a throw away line that, when delivered in his stiff and not quite believable way, sounds rehearsed as if it had been tested in a focus group. “I used to be the next president of the United States,” he says always followed by a laugh.

With that line everyone thinks Gore is referring to his less than 600 vote loss of Florida and the White House 13 years ago, a loss ratified by five votes out of nine on the Supreme Court, but one wonders if he wasn’t also thinking of his first campaign for president in 1988. Unprepared, unimpressive and uninteresting in the first go round, I’ve always thought it was interesting that the young Senator from Tennessee wasn’t an important or compelling enough character to be featured in what is now widely considered the best campaign book ever written – the late Richard Ben Cramer’s classic What It Takes. Perhaps Cramer concluded that compared to his nuanced and broadly sympathetic treatment of Bush Senior, Bob Dole, Mike Dukakis, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and Gary Hart, that Al Gore just didn’t have what it takes. Speaking of strange bedfellows, remember that current Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed Gore in his 1988 race for the White House. You can look it up.

It is a rich irony that Gore got to the White House, as close as he would come anyway, thanks to the endlessly interesting and frequently bigger than life Bill Clinton, who picked him as his running mate and was always too comfortable in his skin. Gore, to the astonishment of most political pros, almost completely shunned Bubba when it fell his turn to seek the presidency, but that is political psychoanalysis for another day.

One gets the soft focus impression that Al Gore feels he no longer needs to explain himself even if he could. But in fairness to the man without a shadow, who do you know who is worth $200 million who worries about what others think of them or feels compelled to explain? He’s reached the point where money makes explaining unnecessary and unimportant. Gore, once so close to the ultimate brass ring, has come full circle. He really is different from you and me and always has been. Now he doesn’t have to be anything but different. When running for public office he tried out a variety of roles – New South populist, then New Democrat moderate and in his campaign against Bush a fire-eating, class warfare espousing champion of the little guy. None of the roles was entirely believable because the actor wasn’t convincing. John Wayne and Bogart were comfortable in their skin. Not everyone is.

In thinking about Al Gore, the new multimillionaire packing around a bundle of contradictions inside his checkbook, it’s tempting to recall the last line from Fitzgerald’s best book because there is a quality to Gore that indeed seems “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” a past that was never quite real and now is never over.

Yet, the better Fitzgerald line is this one from Gatsby and you can almost hear the man who once was “the next president of the United States” say it: “You see I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me.”

 

When Conventions Mattered

William Gibbs McAdoo – that’s him in profile – is mostly forgotten to history today, but back in the day when delegates to national political conventions actually made decisions about the candidates for president and vice president, McAdoo was a political kingmaker.

By 1932 McAdoo had assembled a remarkable political resume. He married well – Woodrow Wilson’s daughter – and served as his father-in-law’s Treasury Secretary. He was also chairman of the then brand new Federal Reserve Board, managed the national rail system during World War I and was twice a serious candidate for president. In 1924 McAdoo came within an eyelash of winning the Democratic nomination before losing out when the convention turned to a compromise candidate after struggling through 103 – you read it right – 103 contentious ballots. That still qualifies as the longest convention in American political history. One wag quipped that New York had invited the Democratic delegates to visit The Big Apple, not to move there permanently. The convention lasted 17 long, long days.

McAdoo was mounting a political return in 1932 just in time to put him in position to be a kingmaker.  McAdoo was both a candidate for the U.S. Senate from California and the political leader of the large California delegation to that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In a word – McAdoo had influence and he used it.

The convention that eventually nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last Democratic convention that required a two-thirds vote to nominate a standard bearer. That 103 ballot marathon in 1924 became a disaster for the party, but southern Democrats insisted on retaining the super majority requirement in order to maintain an out-sized role in the national party. As a general rule, if southern Democrats stayed together on a candidate they could usually name the man who would lead the ticket, or at least influence the shape of the national campaign.

William McAdoo knew all this in detail. He was born in Georgia and enjoyed substantial support among southern politicians, in part, because of two issues – booze and race. McAdoo was a dry – he favored prohibition – and his not so skillful navigation of the explosive issue of the Ku Klux Klan – he refused to condemn the Klan out of fear of losing southern support – was a major factor in his losing the 1924 nomination.

FDR, then the governor of New York, entered his party’s 1932 convention as the favorite for the nomination, but he hardly had the necessary votes locked up. His advisers actually contemplated an attempt to change the convention rules to require only a simple majority to nominate a candidate, but when word leaked out of what was being considered and howls of protest ensued, Roosevelt ordered his managers to back off. He would have to find the votes of two-thirds of the delegates to win.

Consider for a moment what the political drama must have been like in Chicago in late June 1932 and contrast that drama – and all its consequences – with the tepid, heavily stage managed GOP convention that groans on in Tampa this week and the similar Democratic event that will take place in Charlotte all too soon. The nation was gripped by a Great Depression in 1932, President Herbert Hoover was growing more unpopular by the day and the Democratic nomination seemed to virtually ensure the election of the man who would be lucky enough to claim it.

On the first ballot in Chicago nine different candidates received votes. Roosevelt led the pack and tallied 666 votes, a number far short of what he needed to secure the nomination. Facing a toough fight, FDR was able to add only 11 more votes on the second ballot, while a variety of favorite sons and two more serious candidates – Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas and former Democratic presidential candidate and New York Gov. Al Smith – divided up more than 400 other votes.

On the third ballot Roosevelt polled just five additional votes and his managers were profoundly concerned that his momentum toward the nomination had stalled. If his vote totals began to actually decline on additional ballots, they worried, the convention might be stampeded to another candidate. Smith, for example, once FDR’s mentor, was determined not to give up the fight believing that he was entitled to one more run at the White House. Smith’s vote totals – he got 201 votes on the first ballot – remained rock solid through the third ballot and he must have felt that if he could hang on long enough the convention would turn to him again as it had done in 1928.

However it was Garner, a conservative southerner, who became the key to FDR’s nomination. Garner had the support, not surprisingly, of his own Texas delegation, but also enjoyed the support of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and William Gibbs McAdoo. It’s not clear that a smoke-filled room or bourbon was involved – Garner was a habitual cigar smoker and enjoyed a drink – but a deal was done and McAdoo helped broker the agreement. On the fourth ballot, it was agreed, the California and Texas delegations would switch support to Roosevelt and the stampede would be on for other delegates to join the bandwagon. Garner didn’t exactly hanker after the number two spot on the ticket, but as a loyal party man he agreed to accept the vice presidential nomination. Does anyone ever really turn down the vice presidency?

FDR secured the Democratic nomination on the fourth ballot – Al Smith still polled nearly 200 votes – and for the first time in history the nominee traveled by airplane to Chicago to accept the prize in person. The rest is history. Roosevelt went on to win a smashing election victory in November against Hoover.

William Gibbs McAdoo won his own election victory in November and served a single term in the U.S. Senate. His real legacy might be that he knew just when to cut a political deal; a deal that helped change history at a time when party conventions really mattered. McAdoo died in 1941 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetary. His tombstone notes his service as Treasury Secretary and in the Senate. It could honestly also call him a presidential kingmaker.

 

The Veep

As the analysis continues around Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate a little history may inform how, generally speaking, unimportant the Number Two’s are to the eventual success of a national ticket.

For sure Ryan brings youth, partisan excitement, strong conservative credentials and a certain policy wonk attractiveness to the GOP ticket, not to mention the potential to put dependably blue Wisconsin into play in November. Still, to believe that a relatively unknown member of the House of Representatives really could help the ticket requires a major break with what history tells us about the running mate.

Only twice in the 20th Century – 1932 and 1960 – did running mates really make an electoral difference. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt needed to give the second spot on the Democratic ticket to House Speaker John Nance Garner of Texas in order to secure his party’s nomination. In those long ago days, Democratic convention rules required a two-third vote of the delegates to bestow the party’s blessing on any candidate. FDR flirted with trying to change the controversial rule that had forced the Democrats to a marathon 103 ballots in 1924, but even the popular Governor of New York had to ultimately admit that he would have to find some way to command a super majority in order to secure the nomination.

Garner, a tough-talking, bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking southerner, was a favorite of the party’s more conservative wing and had the backing of, among others, newspaper magnate and would-be kingmaker William Randolph Hearst. Garner also controlled a large block of convention votes from his own state, as well as from California. Facing a convention deadlock, FDR and Garner did what politicians used to do – they made a deal. Garner knew that he couldn’t get the nomination for himself, but could potentially deny it to Roosevelt. A dark horse alternative could have happened at the Democratic convention in 1932 and think for a moment how that would have changed history.

Cactus Jack, a the Speaker was called, threw his block of votes behind the more liberal FDR in exchange for the vice presidential nomination. The Boston-Austin axis was created and the powerful ticket – a New York patrician and a Texas populist – coasted to victory over the humbled Herbert Hoover. A vice presidential decision made a big difference in 1932.

Another unlikely pairing, a northeastern patrician and a wily pol from the Texas Hill Country, came together to win the 1960 election. John F. Kennedy was afraid he might lose Texas to Republican Richard Nixon, since Dwight Eisenhower had carried the state in the two previous elections, so he overruled his brother and campaign manager, Bobby Kennedy, and gave the Number Two spot to the Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. Arguably, Johnson not only helped the Democratic ticket carry his home state, but also helped ensure narrow Kennedy margins in a number of other southern states. Another vice presidential candidate made a big difference in 1960.

But, that’s it.

It’s difficult to find many other examples in our history – maybe 1864 when Lincoln created a national unity ticket with Democrat Andrew Johnson – where the second place on the ticket helped contribute to victory. More often vice presidential candidates have created problems rather than victories. Think of Sarah Palin four years ago or Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was dumped from the Democratic ticket in 1972. And, more often than not I would argue, a vice presidential decision is made for personal rather than strategic reasons. It is, after all, the rarest of rare chances when one politician can completely remake another.

Harry Truman picked the older Alben Barkley, the Senate Democratic leader in 1948, because Barkley was loyal, Truman liked him and it seemed to be Barkley’s turn. There is evidence to support the contention that Nixon selected the virtually unknown Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew in 1968 because Agnew was sure not to upstage the presidential candidate. When FDR abandoned Garner in 1940 – the eight-year vice president publicly disagreed with Roosevelt’s quest for a third term – Roosevelt insisted on the wonkish, not particularly popular Henry Wallace as his running mate. (Henry Wallace is the answer to a great political trivia question: Who went from being Secretary of Agriculture to the Vice Presidency?) If anything, Wallace hurt the Democratic ticket in 1940 and FDR in turn dumped the Iowan from the 1944 ticket in favor of Truman. The GOP candidate in 1940, Wendell Willkie, gave the Number Two spot to Sen. Charles L. McNary of Oregon, primarily because McNary was well-liked in Washington and had the political experience that the businessman Willkie lacked.

So, Paul Ryan may – or may not – turn out to be an inspired choice as Mitt Romney’s running mate, but if he actually helps the ticket to victory in November he’ll be running in the face of much political history. A safer political bet would be that a relative unknown Congressman from a Midwest state with a long paper trail of controversial votes and policy positions will prove to be a drag on the ticket. There is little precedent to support the idea that a vice presidential candidate is the “game changer” that the pundits have been discussing since last weekend.