Viewpoint: The Last Returns


You may have thought that you were finally rid of the 1980 election. Not so. There is one straggling commentary, drafted in the final days of the campaign, that adds utterly nothing of redeeming social value to what has already been perhaps the most overreported political event in America's history.

Don't shout for mercy; keep reading. This is the tale, missing from the New York Times and other high-minded publications, of candidates as they do not wish to be recalled.

I have made a personal sport of collecting flubs, misstatements, and embarrassing moments in the lives of those who would be president. What I have discovered is that, by and large, anyone who becomes a candidate for that high office is in strange company. According to the Federal Election Commission, hundreds of people file reports officially declaring themselves in the running. Among them: Earl Vern Blackjack Stevens, of Lebanon, Missouri; Jimmy Ray Schubert, candidate of the Council of Contra-Establishment Conservationists; Robert Waverly Hopson, III, the self-described "Supreme Court Judge of the Upper Supreme Court"; and many others. The prophet Elijah, operating from a post office box in New York City, was also an also-ran. Robert W. Hopson sought the presidency in order to stave off a civil war. Hopson had already assumed the title "General of the United States of America" and expected big trouble "if I am not granted full authority to command my army."

As usual, the candidates included some pledged to eliminate crookedness in government. Garrett B. Trapnell felt particularly qualified for that elusive task. He campaigned from the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, where he is a prisoner with convictions for bank robbery, holdups, fraud, and skyjacking.

Candidates like these prove to be almost supernaturally unpopular. Some may have received no votes at all. What is fascinating about this is not that there are many characters who will risk the heartache of registering with the Federal Election Commission in what is obviously a lost cause. More interesting is that the distinction between the serious candidates who might actually be elected and those who were largely cranks trying to get their names in the paper is far less than you might imagine.

This has been demonstrated by the career of Harold Stassen, who in 1980 ran for president for the sixth time. Mr. Stassen had not won an election in at least 30 years, but that is not the point. Most of us never win an election. What is remarkable about Mr. Stassen's career as a candidate is not that he aspired to power but that he almost made it. He was once the boy wonder of politics as governor of Minnesota. Some experts believe that the only reason Stassen failed to become president is that he fumbled a few sentences in a 1948 radio debate with then New York Governor Dewey. As a result, Stassen narrowly lost the crucial Oregon primary. That cost him the Republican nomination. If he had been the nominee, he probably would have been president. He was generally a far more dynamic and able campaigner than Dewey. Polls showed Stassen with a commanding lead over President Truman.

Most voters in 1980 could not remember how Harold Stassen muffed his big chance. But they could see him in action decades too late. He spent at least $24,414.35 of his own money in yet another dreamy attempt to reach the White House. What made his campaign particularly ironic was that, unlike other minor candidates whose material indicated that they knew their candidacies were jokes, Stassen formulated articulate and apparently responsible positions. He did not want to subsidize dueling or appoint Charo secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The candidate who eventually won may be no more qualified for the job than Stassen.

For example, former President Ford was almost lured into the campaign on several occasions. He first announced that he might consider running for president if the Republican convention were to deadlock. Then he indicated that he might launch a last-minute campaign to stop Reagan. Then, during the Republican convention, Ford appeared willing to assume the vice-presidential slot. Had he accepted, that would have given him a chance to continue a career of fumbling sentences that makes Harold Stassen's long-forgotten radio slip-up seem like the Gettysburg Address. Consider these examples:

• Ford once introduced linguistics professor and US Sen. S.I. Hayakawa as "Professor S.I. Hayacomma."

• When questioned during the 1976 campaign about the health of the economy under his administration, Ford claimed that there would be an economic resurgence in 1976's "fifth quarter".

• Campaigning in Rockland County, New York, Ford ended a rousing stump speech by telling a crowd that he wished to represent them "in the Oval office in the next two years."

• In a pitch for the black vote, Ford pledged an all-out war on "sickle cell Armenia."

• In a diplomatic toast to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Ford hailed Sadat's leadership of the "great people of Israel."

• At a White House breakfast, Ford announced that Daniel Moynihan's successor at the United Nations would "follow the same policy of challenging some of the Third and Fourth World powers, calling a spade a spade."

• As part of the Bicentennial celebration, Ford explained the famous lantern code in the story of Paul Revere as "one if by day, two if by night."

But why pick on good old Jerry Ford you ask? No particular reason. Ford seems to be quite a fine fellow, one of the few men over 60 without a hitch in his golf swing. Many similar episodes could be recalled in the case of other candidates. But this is a short column. I have to be satisfied with a suggestive, rather than an exhaustive, presentation of the evidence that big-time politicians do indeed flub up.

Harold Stassen knows that. He keeps listening to his opponents. The more he hears, the more he is encouraged to keep on campaigning. He actually had quite a few achievements to be proud of in 1980. His name was recognized by more voters than that of Peter Frederick Tittl. One of his bumper strips made it to the wall of a television newsroom in Kansas City, Missouri. (I know, because I saw it there not a week before the election.) And Stassen actually ran well ahead of the 1976 Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole in a number of 1980 Republican primaries.

So I close out this straggling report on the 1980 election, better late than never, with one cheer for doddy old Harold Stassen for giving us stand-up proof that the distinction between the losers and the also-rans is not as firm as many would like to imagine. But that will be proved all over again, beginning sometime around next Halloween, when the 1984 presidential campaign begins.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union. His book The Squeeze is now available in a paperback edition from Pocket Books.