The road to ‘never was’ well traveled

I am constantly finding analogies. The latest is evoked by a sports documentary film, “The Best That Never Was,” one of the terrific 30 for 30 series produced for the ESPN cable channels. This film recounts the failed superstar career of Marcus Dupree, a Philadelphia, Miss., high school running back, his recruitment and eventual failures in the sport. Now he is a truck driver who recaptures his one-time promise of greatness by rummaging through old trophies and memorabilia inside a double-wide trailer that Oklahoma boosters once bought for his now-departed mother. It’s a sad and sometimes ugly melodrama as the promise of greatness withers amid bad decisions, rebellion, greed, injury and loss.

It makes one think of parallel political careers that never quite lived up to their initial hopes. There may even be a link between Dupree and President Obama. Initially, it seemed that both could do no wrong and their potential was limitless. While Obama has not yet followed Dupree into the land of “never was” — a haunting destination that former President Jimmy Carter has wandered as a one-term fallen star, proving that it’s theoretically possible for even a president to share Dupree’s rough, downward spiraling road — the current president could eventually find himself there. 

There are some political careers, though, that have a stronger, more palpable correlation with the Dupree descent. One, at the very least, deserves a movie of its own. Call it “The Allard Lowenstein Story.” I met Lowenstein in the late 1960s when he was a young congressman from New York. He had been a leader of the movement to dump Lyndon Johnson for Eugene McCarthy. Even though he was in “big boy” politics, his greatest passion seemed to me always to be student politics. He was a lefty and an Easterner, and I was neither, but we shared a zeal for student governance as a serious and lofty pursuit. He was always at national student meetings. Most of the other leaders were also hard-core left-wingers, and they idolized Lowenstein. There was something about him that transcended the charismatic — you knew he was headed to the top of the political mountain. Well, it never happened. Congressional defeat came in 1970 after a redistricting debacle. Like Dupree, Lowenstein’s political life had a few high points thereafter, but the remainder of his public career was mostly about defeat and discouragement. In the end, at age 51, he was murdered in his office by a former student admirer. Young student leaders today have probably never heard of Lowenstein.

A similarly tragic tale is that of Henry Cisneros, the man once destined to be the first Hispanic President of the United States. A native of San Antonio, Texas, Cisneros entered the hallowed halls of Texas A&M University in 1964. As a Texas Aggie, Cisneros had the potential to burst stereotypes and attract voters that wouldn’t ordinarily consider supporting a Hispanic and Democrat. But most of all, Cisneros had “it,” the charisma and appeal that says, “This guy is on the road to the White House.” No one doubted. He became mayor of San Antonio and a rising star nationally. But scandal and tragedy blocked his path to glory. He has gone on to hold prominent political appointments and had success in business, but the initial promise was never fulfilled.

Obama may never feel or engender in others the disappointment that Dupree and these other tragic politicians experienced, but he’d be wise to heed the possibilities. Unlike Dupree, Obama wouldn’t have to get a trucker’s license to make a living, but the stinging pain of failure in politics, like sports, never subsides.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.