Life after losing the Presidency
Among the flurry of political maneuvering and intrigue surrounding the vacancy of Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat came the interesting proposition that a suitable placeholder might have been found in 75-year-old Michael Dukakis, a man The Boston Globe assured had “put his political ambitions behind him.” What seemed strange about this idea is not that Dukakis was a poor choice – quite the contrary, he is a distinguished and passionate liberal who would have skillfully advanced Kennedy’s agenda- but rather that his name was mentioned at all.
For Michael Dukakis belongs to that unenviable collection of American politicians who so often sink from the limelight into the realm of mere trivia and nostalgia – the presidential might-have-been. Since 1972, five Democrats and two Republicans have unsuccessfully sought the office of President of the United States. Two – John Kerry and John McCain – still hold their seats in the Senate. Another – Al Gore – managed to parlay his defeat in 2000 into a Nobel Prize and general high esteem. But for George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Dukakis, and Bob Dole, all still living, such rehabilitation has been elusive. Although in their respective election years they were among the most recognizable Americans, gracing the cover of Time and untold numbers of bumper stickers and yard signs, to succeeding generations their names are seldom mentioned and their exploits seldom discussed. If they are remembered at all, it is because they lost.
However, to discard these men as historical anomalies, as unfortunate victims of circumstance, is to forget their enormous accomplishments and sacrifices. It is no small thing to engage in the brutal contest that is a presidential election, and it is certainly no easier to emerge as the loser. Kerry saw his heroism called into question, Dukakis his character. McGovern and Mondale were victims of such lopsided electoral thrashings that it was the ignominious vote tallies have emerged as their lasting legacies. All seven saw their values questioned in some form, and yet managed to persevere nevertheless. It must be remembered, therefore, that the fact that these men possessed the dedication and fortitude necessary to even mount an opposition is a testament to their genuine strength of character.
Furthermore, to remember each only within the context of a presidential election neglects the numerous professional and personal achievements that mark their lives. McGovern as war hero and director of Food for Peace; Dole as well-respected and transactional Senate leader; Mondale as the last electoral gasp of the New Deal; and Dukakis as the patron of the Massachusetts Miracle. These distinctions, while probably forgotten in hindsight, do far more justice to their careers and accomplishments than the simple epithet of has-been.
Perhaps it is most fitting to look at these men in light of what they all have in common. They did not share policies, nor office, but all seven were career politicians in the finest sense of the term. Their records as public servants attest to the idea, best illustrated by the life of the late Senator Kennedy, that a man need not be president to lead his country.
We might also make an example of their political conduct. In these times of acute partisanship, it is natural to look back with longing to a time when politicians managed to work around political differences to achieve effective professional and personal relationships. The two unsuccessful candidates of the 1960s, the venerable senators Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater, maintained a very close friendship despite their markedly different views – a touching legacy that, given Washington’s current climate, should not be forgotten. It might be said that to lose with honor is a far greater achievement than to win with animus.
In the end, that the vacant Massachusetts Senate seat did not provide Michael Dukakis with a fitting endnote to a lengthy career should not influence the legacy he ought to have. For he, along with the all of the Democrats and Republicans whose presidential defeats forgo a library or a portrait in the White House, must still be honored as politicians of the highest caliber and dedication. Policy disagreement aside, they are patriots who in their crusade for the nation’s highest office exemplified our deepest political tradition – the dogged pursuit of a better America.
Let us remember these men: losers for one day, but ultimately undefeated.