The good, the bad and the ugly of in-person presidential campaigns
Presidential campaigns as we know them up to the current pandemic are primarily 20th-century phenomena. Before that, few candidates or, heaven forbid, incumbent presidents, sullied themselves by rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi. But as presidents and aspirants for the office realized that their power could be augmented by direct appeals and outreach to the electorate, they embraced in-person campaigns. Nationwide train, and then plane, travel made them possible.
The Donald Trump and Joe Biden 2020 campaigns have put their rallies on hold to avoid exacerbating the COVID-19 crisis, but both the president and the former vice president share a preference for rope lines or firing up the base with stem-winding rhetoric.
History is replete with the good, the bad and the ugly of American presidential campaigns, and the 45th president and the aspiring 46th might think twice about their wishes to hit the road.
The Good: It’s true that some victories are attributable to successes on the campaign trail. President Harry Truman’s 1948 whistle-stop tour across the country led to his upset of New York Gov. Thomas Dewey. At a Bremerton, Wash., speech, where Truman excoriated Republicans, a supporter shouted, “Give ’em hell, Harry,” and he ad libbed, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth on them and they think it’s hell!” The extemporaneous call and response became Truman’s battle cry cum slogan for evermore.
Sen. John Kennedy’s September 1960 trip to Houston for a Protestant ministers’ convention proved a triumph, as the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale demagogued JFK’s Catholic affiliation. Bearding the opposition in its den with a stirring speech on church-state separation and fielding the ministers’ pointed questions with aplomb may have have been Kennedy’s key to overcoming anti-Catholic bias among the one-third of Protestant voters who cast their ballots for him in a close election.
Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 “Fired up! Ready to go!” chant, inspired by an NAACP staffer at a Greenwood, S.C., campaign meeting, had the electrifying effect of a religious revival.
The Bad: A progenitor of the modern-style presidential campaign, former president Theodore Roosevelt nearly died during his 1912 third-party effort to return to the White House. Finding the so-called Bull Moose Party’s candidate in an open-top car, on his way to a Milwaukee rally, a would-be assassin shot him in the chest. Fortunately, TR’s lengthy speech manuscript was folded in his breast pocket. The thick sheaf of paper and Roosevelt’s eyeglass case slowed the bullet enough to spare his life. Though bleeding, Roosevelt insisted on delivering the speech, declaring to the crowd, “I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
In 1944, his cousin, Franklin, running for an unprecedented fourth term as president in the midst of World War II, wanted to demonstrate his own durability, despite suffering from congestive heart failure, a dire condition hidden from the public. He insisted on riding in an open car through the streets of New York City and delivering a speech at Ebbets Field, braving hours in a cold downpour. He won, but his health might have been better served by giving more of his patented fireside chats from the White House. Fewer than three months into his new term, FDR succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage.
Another physically handicapped president, wounded World War II veteran and Kansas senator, Bob Dole, suffered an embarrassing campaign mishap in 1996 when he leaned against an unsecured railing and toppled head-first off the stage.
The Ugly: With the Iranian hostage crisis syphoning all the oxygen out of Jimmy Carter’s administration in 1980, he strategized that it would look more presidential for him, as commander in chief, to campaign against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan from the White House. This so-called Rose Garden strategy, however, ceded the trail to the “Great Communicator,” who defeated Carter by a landslide.
Al Gore, never a scintillating campaigner, could draft off Bill Clinton’s charisma when they took their barnstorming bus tour in 1992, but when he ran for the presidency eight years later, Vice President Gore feared appearing with the scandal-ridden Clinton. Lacking an antidote to his stiffness on the campaign trail, down went Gore to defeat in the bitterly contested Electoral College vote.
Yet even eventual losers can cement their legacies by transforming an ugly moment into a gracious lesson for the ages. When an elderly woman at a 2008 town hall rally told GOP candidate John McCain that she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because “he’s an Arab,” the Arizona senator gently retrieved the microphone from the misinformed supporter and calmly responded by shaking his head, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign issue is all about.”
How long ago that decorous, civil response seems after the 2016 chants of “Lock her up!” directed at Hillary Clinton. Looking ahead to more of the same bile if President Trump’s rallies return, and a fall filled with Biden’s predictable gaffes on the hustings, prompts contemplating alternatives.
JFK designed the White House Rose Garden as a dignified stage for outdoor presidential appearances. The current Oval Office occupant should continue to use it as a convenient campaign venue. The former vice president, by remaining in his comfortable basement studio, can avoid assaults at the podium from animal-rights activists and his own awkward personal space miscues. Because both candidates are, by age, prime targets for COVID-19, their 2020 campaigns should be governed by this slogan: There’s no place like home.
Barbara A. Perry is Gerald L. Baliles Professor and Presidential Studies director at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her @BarbaraPerryUVA.