Monday, February 27, 2012

New History: Almost President

Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, by Scott Farris

This book is a much-needed corrective to our national habit of equating political importance and significant achievement invariably with the mere circumstance of ascendancy to the presidency. By election to the presidency, a person becomes a member of a unique and special American pantheon. This creates a historical distortion in which some relatively minor presidents are made into something more important in the national life than in fact they were, and where some of their losing opponents, who were major figures in American politics and the authors of important changes in American life, are relegated to almost immediate and eternal obscurity. It should not necessarily be so. Among the hopefuls, there have certainly been minor figures and election-year wonders who have captured their party’s nomination. Many presidential hopefuls were not significant players on the national scene. And yet each of them still did reflect something about the body politic at the time they were chosen. If nothing more, the story of the choice the voters faced at a given time in history--rather than simply the story of the winner--is important in developing an understanding of the significance of the person elected to the office.

Almost President includes brief profiles of every major losing presidential candidate that has run for the presidency, but Scott Farris looks at about a dozen candidates in greater depth and makes the case for their significance in the history of presidential politics. They are selected for various reasons: They had sustained influence over a lifetime in the nation’s politics, or they represented breakthroughs against persistent barriers for presidential candidates. Perhaps their candidacies may have presaged significant realignments in American politics, or their losses may have set in motion important revisions in philosophy or policy in their party. Their campaigns may have defined new ways of reaching voters and of broadening the reach of American democracy. Part of the delight in reading a book like this is that the choices made about which candidates were the most significant also-rans are arguable. You can judge the strength of the case Farris makes for each of his selections or you can argue your own, but in either case it gets the reader thinking more broadly about the history and nature of American presidential politics, about how we elect a president. A selection both timely and illuminating, as we work our way through another presidential campaign.

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