If you recognize the fellow in the photo as the 1924 Democratic candidate for President of the United States you are a trivia master. That smiling, prosperous looking fellow was John W. Davis and he lost the presidency in 1924 to Calvin Coolidge.
It somehow seems appropriate – the day after President’s Day – to remember the also ran’s who also ran, guys like John W. Davis. Who knows whether Davis would have been a good president? He certainly had the resume. Davis was born and grew up in West Virginia where he practiced law, served in the state legislature, got elected to Congress, became Solicitor General and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. So far, he seems over qualified.
When Democrats nearly destroyed the party in 1924 with a convention battle over the Klan and booze – the wet, anti-Klan crowd wanted New York Gov. Al Smith, the dry, pro-Klan faction favored the former Treasury Secretary William Gibbs McAdoo – Davis emerged on the 103rd ballot as the compromise nominee.
[Could a man named McAdoo have ever won the presidency? Well, a guy named Obama did.]
When that 1924 convention entered its 16th day without a nominee, Will Rogers joked that New York had invited the Democrats to visit the city for their convention not to live there permanently. When Davis finally had the nomination, it wasn’t worth much. He lost everything but the solid south and Silent Cal polled 54% in an election that also featured a Progressive Party ticket lead by Sen. Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin.
Davis gets his own chapter in one of my all-time favorite political books, which is appropriated called They Also Ran. Irving Stone wrote the profiles of the men who ran and lost in 1943. The book covers the losers from the beginning of the Republic until 1940 and it’s a great read with Stone often suggesting that the guys who lost – Davis, Winfield Scott Hancock, etc. – might have been a good deal better than the guys who won.
The book also bunches the also ran’s into parallel lives with the military men grouped together, the newspaper men considered together, etc. It is a very effective technique and a unique perspective on those who ran and lost.
It’s fun to think about the presidents we might have had – Henry Clay, for instance – or we should have had – Horace Greeley rather than a second Grant term. David Frum played the game yesterday by focusing on three important elections.
While the also ran’s failed to make it to the White House a number of them still influenced history. Davis, for example, became one of the most famous lawyers of his day. No less an authority than Justice Hugo Black considered him one of the two or three greatest advocates of the 20th Century. By the end of his legal career, Davis had made 139 oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, including representing the state of South Carolina in one of the most important cases in court history – Brown v. Board of Education.
In that case, just as in his moment of presidential fame in 1924, John W. Davis lost. But, fair is fair, losers deserve to be remembered, too, and who knows what might have been.