The worst political convention ever?

The first two days of the Republican National Convention have been criticized for a variety of things, from its dark, menacing tone to its lack of narrative pacing to the first walk out of a state delegation since, I believe, 1948 to allegations Melania Trump plagiarized portions of her speech by borrowing several sentences, virtually verbatim, from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention address.

It’s too early to tell just how good or bad the RNC in 2016 is; we still have two more days to go so any verdict is clearly based on incomplete evidence. If Donald Trump wins in November, the problems of the convention will be forgotten, but if he loses it may join a pantheon of infamous national conventions that were so disorganized and combative that they clearly portended electoral disaster.

The very worst national political convention had to have been the 1860 Democratic National Convention, which met in Charleston, South Carolina. Southern “Fire-Eaters” walked out of the convention to prevent Stephen Douglas from securing the nomination, as Douglas was a fierce opponent of secession. The Democrats had to reconvene six weeks later in Baltimore and secessionists bolted again, but this time Douglas had arranged for enough alternate delegates to provide a quorum for his nomination. In a four-man race, Douglas carried only one state (Missouri) in the fall election.

Douglas won only 29.5 percent of the popular vote, yet that was still better than the 28.8 percent of the popular vote John Davis won as the Democratic nominee in 1924 in a three-way race that included Progressive Robert LaFollette. Davis was chosen as the Democrats’ standard-bearer after an incredible 103 ballots during a convention torn apart over debates about the Ku Klux Klan. The convention was so arduous that Will Rogers joked that men who attended it would be asked one day by their children, “Father, were you in the big war?” And the father would reply, “No, son, but I went through the New York convention.”

Adlai Stevenson showed that even a successful convention does not guarantee the nominee will win election..

Adlai Stevenson showed that even a successful convention does not guarantee the nominee will win election..

The 1968 Democratic National Convention is remembered almost exclusively for the clash between anti-war protestors and police on the streets of Chicago. Tear gas drifted into the convention hall where delegates cursed and shoved one another, reflecting the divisions outside the hall. Nominee Hubert Humphrey lost to RIchard Nixon in an election so close that Humphrey could rightly point to the chaos at the convention as the deciding factor that sealed his fate.

In 1972, Democrats were again badly divided as forces loyal to Humphrey tried to prevent the nomination of South Dakota Senator George McGovern, whose anti-war rhetoric was so strident that party regulars were sure it would lead to a landslide defeat. It did. The fight with Humphrey prevented McGovern from focusing on selecting a running mate until literally hours before the nomination needed to be presented to the convention.  Since most leading Democrats refused to be considered, McGovern chose Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton without proper vetting. Weeks after the convention, McGovern forced Eagleton from the ticket after it was discovered Eagleton had received electro-shock therapy for depression. The convention was so chaotic that McGovern also was unable to give his acceptance speech at 2:45 a.m. EDT. McGovern was likely doomed to lose as 1972 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s presidency, but McGovern aides believe all the problems stemming from the convention cost McGovern ten or twelve states. McGovern, like Douglas, carried only one.

The most notorious Republican convention was likely 1964 in San Francisco. This was the year conservatives retook control of the GOP and nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for president. Goldwater supporters made no effort to reconcile with the liberal wing of the Republican Party, loudly booing New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and refusing any compromises on the platform, especially on the issue of civil rights. Political commentators Rowland Evans and Robert Novak later wrote that conservative Republicans in 1964 made clear that they believed the GOP was “the White Man’s Party.” This refusal to unify the party was captured in Goldwater’s famous aphorism, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice .. moderation in the pursue of justice is not virtue.” Hearing that, a stunned reporter blurted out, “My God, he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!”

These five notorious conventions suggest that the best definition of a failed convention is that it nominates a losing candidate, but there have been raucous conventions that nominated a winning candidate in the fall, and there have been losing candidates who came out of conventions that are still viewed with affection.

In 1952, Republicans went through a bitter fight in which the moderate/liberal wing out-foxed conservatives who had hoped to nominate “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft. In fact, 30 percent of the delegates voted for Taft rather than make future President Dwight Eisenhower’s nomination unanimous. Interestingly, 30 percent of Republican delegates in 2016 also declined to support Donald Trump. Since 1920, the only Republican nominee to receive less support at a convention that Trump or Eisenhower was Gerald Ford in 1976 when Ford was nearly upended by Ronald Reagan, who received the support of 47.5 percent of the delegates.

Four years earlier, in 1948, delegates from a half-dozen Southern states walked out after Democrats adopted a pro-civil rights plank in their platform.  Despite this move by the so-called “Dixiecrats,” Harry Truman still won election in a four-way race.

Republicans were divided at their 1952 convention, but Democrats were unexpectedly found themselves united.  Yet, that did not lead to a Democratic victory in November. The party had come into their convention in Chicago dispirited, convinced they would lose the White House after twenty years’ control because of President Harry Truman’s great unpopularity, mostly over the Korean War. Democratic spirits were revived when Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson gave an eloquent welcoming address, which led to his (reluctant) acceptance of his party’s nomination. Stevenson lost to Eisenhower, the war hero, but his erudite campaign won millions of admirers and added a rare luster to political discourse that is still fondly remembered–and seldom repeated.

The 1896 Democratic convention, also held in Chicago, the site of many memorable conventions for both parties, also yielded a candidate who lost in the fall, but William Jennings Bryan had electrified the convention and changed the Democratic Party forever with his “Cross of Gold” speech.  William McKinley, by contrast, ran a boring campaign and still won.

So, it is difficult to say what the early missteps of the 2016 Republican convention may mean for the fall general election. There are still two more days to address the perceived problems and have a successful convention — though success has two possible definitions.

Most (though not all) Republicans hope it means that Trump will win in November. On the other hand, this convention may simply mean that Trump has changed the Republican Party forever. Only history will eventually tell us whether, if that happens, it  will be a good thing or a bad thing.

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The Catholic vote–does it exist?

It has long been debated whether there is such a thing as “the Catholic vote.” Self-identified Catholics make up about one-quarter of the population of the United States–by far the largest single religious group in the United States.

It is true that whoever has won the so-called Catholic vote has won every presidential election since 1932 except one, in 1952 when Catholics marginally support Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower. Otherwise, if you win the Catholic vote, then you win the national election.

This is further bad news for Donald Trump in that the Pew Research Center in a survey conducted this month found Trump trailing Hillary Clinton among Catholics by 17 points (56-39).  Trump actually has a slight lead among white Catholics (50-46) but is behind among Hispanic Catholics 77-16.

The conventional wisdom is that Catholics tend to be liberal on economic teachings and conservative on social teachings. Since that perspective is represented by neither Republicans or Democrats, it seems difficult to imagine how either party could calibrate its message to appeal to distinctly to Catholics.  And maybe they don’t need to. The truth is that Catholics are now so assimilated that Catholic attitudes are indistinguishable from those of the general population.

Photo of 1928 Democratic presidential nominee

A recent survey finds Catholics feel much more at ease in American society than when Al Smith (above) ran for president in 1928.

If that’s true, then it is further evidence that Trump is trailing badly among the general electorate, despite winning handily among white evangelicals and marginally among white mainline Protestants.  Clinton and the Democrats do significantly better among people who claim no religious affiliation and win overwhelmingly among black evangelicals.

Perhaps the latter explains one odd anomaly in the Pew poll.  In virtually every issue–the economy, guns, immigration, abortion, health care–white evangelicals overwhelmingly say that Trump would do a better job than Clinton–save one.  On the issue of race relations, white evangelicals say Trump would do better than Clinton by only a small 46-44 percent margin.

Another interesting finding is that while nearly half of white evangelicals believe their religious views are under assault in American society today, less than 20 percent of Catholics feel that way and, according to Pew, their anxiety about being Catholic in America is not increasing.

This is surprising, of course, given the animosity faced by Al Smith when he was the first Roman Catholic candidate for president in 1928 and anti-Catholic bias remains one of the more widely-held prejudices in the United States, with more than half of all Americans (fromt he right and left) concerned that the Catholic Church wishes to impose its moral values on the country at large.

Disclosure: I am a Catholic and worked for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne as Director of Communications for nearly four years (1995-1998).

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Linking Trump and Goldwater (cont.)

I was clearly not the only one who has seen parallels between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Barry Goldwater’s 1964.

As noted in the post below, Democrats ran an ad in 1964 titled “Confessions of a Republican” in which an actor portrays a life-long Republican who balks at supporting Goldwater because of Goldwater’s extreme views, including on the potential use of nuclear weapons.

Actor William Bogert reprises his 1964 political commercial for Hillary Clinton.

Actor William Bogert reprises his 1964 political commercial for Hillary Clinton.

This week, Hillary Clinton’s campaign asked that same actor, William Bogert, to reprise “Confessions of a Republican” to make the same point about Trump in 2016.

Bogert should be a familiar face to any viewers of classic television, having appeared as a guest star of dozens of shows, including M*A*S*H, Lou Grant, Alice, Barney Miller, and, more recently, the various Law and Order franchises. He has also appeared in some A-list movies, including Dog Day Afternoon and War Games.

He is still going strong — I am always amazed that actors never seem to retire, which is great — but if IMDB is to be believed, his commercial on behalf of Lyndon Johnson was one of his first paid gigs.

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Trump and Goldwater

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump is by many measures sui generis, but there are echoes of other campaigns in his. Certainly, his status as an outsider billionaire running against a “corrupt” establishment brings to mind Ross Perot, but perhaps the closest analogy to Trump is Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign.

Goldwater suffered an epic defeat to Lyndon Johnson, winning just 38.5 percent of the popular vote and carrying only six states–his native Arizona plus five states in the Deep South where Democrats suddenly voted Republican for the first time, not only in their lifetimes, but in the history of several generations of their families. They were primarily motivated to do so because of Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Leading Republicans in 1964 were as reluctant to endorse Barry Goldwater as they are Donald Trump today.

Leading Republicans were as reluctant to endorse Barry Goldwater in 1964 as they are Donald Trump today.

Yet, the Goldwater campaign, once labeled “the Woodstock of American conservatism,” also fundamentally changed the Republican Party. The GOP had been a “big tent” party with both liberal and conservative wings and plenty of moderates in between, but the Goldwater campaign began the process by which the Republican Party became a party only of conservatives.

More than that, the power center of the Republican Party moved South. Where for its first 100+ years the Republican base was centered in New England and the Upper Midwest, its stronghold today is in Dixie plus a few Mountain states.

Today, the Goldwater campaign is a point of pride among conservatives, but, like Trump in 2016, it caused considerable consternation among many Republicans at the time.

As with Trump, many leading Republicans refused to campaign for Goldwater (Richard Nixon being a notable exception). The only two living former Republican presidents today, George H.W. Bush and son, George W., have refused to endorse Trump. The only living Republican ex-president on Election Day 1964 (Herbert Hoover had died the month before) was Dwight Eisenhower, who offered a grudging endorsement of Goldwater, whom he thought “dumb,” and later said, “I voted for Goldwater but I did not for him, I voted for the Party” — words nearly identical to many GOP endorsements of Trump.

Republican leaders in 1964 worried that most Goldwater supporters cared nothing for the GOP. Jeb Magruder, later a Nixon aide enmeshed in Watergate, recalled that Goldwater volunteers were “zealots” who were “uncontrollable. They cared nothing about the Republican Party, only about their hero.”

While Goldwater had made plenty of provocative remarks, what especially incensed Republican liberals like governors Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney was Goldwater’s association with extremist groups, such as the John Birch Society, and, worse, white supremacists.

Trump, too, has attracted and apparently given heart to modern-day racists such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who has enthusiastically endorsed Trump and who has been inspired by Trump to run for Congress.

Trump friends and supporters insist Trump is not a racist, but Trump has only vaguely and reluctantly “disavowed” these types of supporters — just like Goldwater.

Goldwater, too, was endorsed by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, including Alabama Grand Dragon Robert Creel who said, sounding a lot like Duke today, “I like Barry Goldwater. I believe what he believes in. I think the same way he thinks.” Asked about Creel’s endorsement, Goldwater’s running mate, New York Congressman William Miller said, “Senator Goldwater and I will accept the support of any American citizen who believes in our posture, who believes in our principles, who believes in our platform.”

The Johnson campaign pounced, running an ad titled “Confessions of a Republican” where actor William Bogert portrays a Republican allegedly embarrassed that Goldwater is the GOP nominee, saying, “When the head of the Ku Klux Klan, when all these weird groups, come out in favor of the candidate of my party–either they’re not Republicans or I’m not.”

Goldwater had once donated money to the NAACP and Urban League (anonymously) and had desegregated the Arizona Air National Guard as early as 1947, but it took weeks of prodding before he finally repudiated Creel’s endorsement. Meanwhile, Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, lobbied hard to be Goldwater’s running mate. Goldwater campaign advisor J. William Middendorf II, ruefully acknowledged, “It was not Barry’s intention, but indeed was a fact, that racists thought he was their friend.”

There were, of course, significant racial tensions in 1964, far more than 2016. While the non-violent tactics advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. and others had won support for the cause of civil rights, many white Americans feared black equality.

A national Harris poll conducted in July 1964 found 58 percent of white Americans were concerned that blacks might “take over” their jobs, and significant pluralities did not want blacks to live in their neighborhoods or go to their children’s schools.

Whites were further shocked when blacks in northern cities, such as New York and Philadelphia, rioted after passage of the Civil Rights Act. The law may have changed but the circumstances of daily black life in underserved ghettos had not. Johnson aides glumly called the riots “Goldwater rallies.”

Goldwater thought about exploiting the riots, believing they confirmed his belief that laws were ineffective in addressing prejudice, but he then decided the situation was too explosive and pledged not to use the riots as a campaign issue. But then, realizing he had no chance to make even a respectable showing unless he could find some issue that worked, Goldwater began talking about race in code, focusing on the themes of “law and order” and charging that urban “disorder” was due to “moral … rot and decay.”

In 2016, race is again front and center in a presidential campaign. Shootings by police of young black men under murky circumstances have led to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has unsettled many white Americans with their aggressive protests.  In response, Trump recently declared, “I am the law and order candidate.”

After a deranged gunman killed five policemen in Dallas during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, Trump’s initial response, like Goldwater 52 years ago, was restrained, but within days, mirroring Goldwater’s change in tack, Trump began talking about the Dallas murders in harsher terms, even insisting, without evidence, that “somebody” has called for a moment of silence to honor the murderer. “Anger. Hatred. Hatred!” Trump exclaimed at a rally.

As with Goldwater, many Republicans were again asked to defend Trump’s remarks. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had previously said Trump had made obviously “racist” statements during the campaign, was asked how he could morally support Trump if that is what he believed. Sounding like Eisenhower, Ryan responded that he still believed a Trump victory would be better for the Republican Party than a Hillary Clinton presidency. “You don’t get a third option,” Ryan said.

That, of course, was also true in 1964.


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More praise for Inga!

I remain thrilled that my next book, Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect, continues to receive excellent advance praise.

Here is what Nathalia Hold, New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us From Missiles to the Moon to Mars and Cured: The People Who Defeated HIV, had to say:

Inga Arvad at age seventeen when she competed in the Miss Europe contest and married an Egyptian diplomat -- a decade before her intense romance with John F. Kennedy.

Inga Arvad at age seventeen when she competed in the Miss Europe contest and married an Egyptian diplomat — a decade before her intense romance with John F. Kennedy.

“In this beautifully detailed biography, Scott Farris shines a light on the complex life of Inga Arvad, a woman who received admiration from Hitler and sincere love from JFK. With exhaustive research and a fast-paced narrative, Farris reminds us that Arvad was more than just a pretty face, but a woman of tremendous influence and ability, one whose story deserves to be told.”

Nathalia joins such other exceptional modern writers as Nigel Hamilton, Kate Anderson Brower, and Andrew Nagorski, in providing glowing reviews of Inga.  The publication date for Inga is October 6, 2016, and copies can be purchased through your favorite local or online bookstores, and it will be available in e- and audio formats.

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What if Hillary Clinton is indicted?

It may be unlikely to happen, but in a year full of political surprises the question should at least be considered: What if, between now and Election Day, Nov. 8, Hillary Clinton is indicted over her use of a private e-mail server to handle official correspondence during her tenure as Secretary of State?

Clinton’s interview with the FBI on July 2 suggests the FBI’s investigation of the case is nearly complete. The Democratic National Convention schedule calls for Clinton to be formally nominated for president the evening of July 28 in Philadelphia, though it is unknown whether the FBI will issue its report prior to that date.

Whenever the FBI report is issued, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said the Justice Department will follow the FBI’s recommendation on whether Clinton should be prosecuted and for what crime.

If the FBI concludes only policies and no laws were broken, Clinton is home free, though bad publicity surrounding how she handled her e-mails will undoubtedly dog her throughout the campaign.

If the FBI suggests Clinton should be prosecuted for a misdemeanor, it seems likely that she would remain the Democratic nominee given that the offense, even if she were convicted, would be perceived a relatively minor by her supporters.

But what if the FBI recommends that Clinton be charged with a felony?

There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits anyone under indictment or even anyone convicted of a crime from seeking election.

In presidential politics, the only precedent is Socialist Eugene Debs, who ran for president from a prison cell in 1920 while serving a ten-year sentence for sedition after protesting military conscription during World War I. Debs had no reasonable expectation of winning, although he did receive more than 900,000 votes—3.4 percent of the total.

There are more instances of congressional and gubernatorial candidates being charged with and even convicted of crimes during an election. A celebrated recent case occurred in 2008 when Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was convicted of several corruption charges eight days before the election—and Stevens still lost by only the narrowest of margins—47.8 percent to 46.5 percent.

More notoriously, in the midst of the Civil War, Clement Vallandigham ran for governor of Ohio while in forced exile in Canada after having been convicted of sedition by a military tribunal. He lost.

Would these stories would give Clinton hope or cause despair?  It is difficult to imagine that Clinton, who has vigorously maintained she is guilty only of poor judgment, not a crime, would simply step aside unless she were actually convicted prior to the November election.

But what if the Democratic Party, loathe to concede election to a flawed and odious candidate like Donald Trump, concludes that Clinton is so damaged by the FBI report that she should not continue as the party’s standard bearer?

If this scenario plays out before July 28, delegates at the Democratic National Convention could absolutely select a different nominee, though it would be a chaotic affair, to say the least—which would also be true if there is, also, an earnest effort at the Republican National Convention to shed Trump as that party’s nominee.

Despite what you have read, no delegate to either the Republican or Democratic convention is truly “bound” to vote in line with how the delegate’s state primary or caucus was resolved. While some states have laws that insist delegates must vote in accord with primary and caucus results, these laws are almost certainly unconstitutional and non-binding.

Political parties are not public entities; they are essentially private clubs run by their own set of approved rules and by-laws. A state legislature cannot tell a political party how it must operate anymore than they could do so with the Rotary Club.

The rules of the Democratic Party state only that so-called “pledged” delegates
“shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” The phrase “in all good conscience” certainly opens the door for a delegate to vote for anyone they choose.

Unlike Republicans, the Democrats will also have roughly 640 “super delegates” at their convention who are not bound even by the good conscience clause. Clinton has 2,220 pledged delegates going into the convention, but 2,383 delegate votes are needed to win the nomination. Clinton needs at least some “super-delegates” (and right now she has the support of 591) to win the nomination.

It would be possible, if enough super-delegates or delegates pledged to Clinton believed it to be the best course of action for the party, for the convention to deny Clinton the nomination.

Her withdrawal or a failure by Clinton to clinch the nomination on the first ballot would turn Philadelphia into an open convention with delegates having tremendous leeway to select a new nominee.

Senator Bernie Sanders could make a strong case for the nomination, having won 12 million votes and 1,800 pledged delegates during the primaries and caucuses. But he would have no legal or procedural entitlement to the nomination.

Would John Kerry get another chance at the presidency in an open Democratic convention?

Would John Kerry get another chance at the presidency in an open Democratic convention?

Delegates would be free to place all sorts of names into nomination in addition to Sanders. Perhaps Clinton might have already named a running mate who struck the delegates’ fancy, or perhaps they might turn to such party favorites as Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, or Secretary of State John Kerry. It would be a free-for-all—as it often was in those days when the nomination was solely up to the discretion of convention delegates.

Primaries and caucuses have only been the primary method of selecting who convention delegates ought to support since 1972. Before then, primaries might help a candidate demonstrate popular appeal, but the results did not, in most instances, “bind” delegates to support the candidates who won them.

In 1968, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic presidential nomination without even entering a single primary, let alone winning one. This so outraged reformers that the Democratic Party, followed quickly by the Republican Party, instituted new rules that said delegates should be allocated at conventions on the basis of the primary and caucus results.

Prior to 1972, when open conventions were the norm, virtual unknowns could suddenly emerge and claim the nomination over more high-profile competitors, as occurred with the nominations of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 or Wendell Willkie in 1940. These dark horse candidates could even emerge the very week of the convention, as occurred with William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

Sometimes bitter convention fights are a debacle, such as occurred in 1924 when a badly divided Democratic Party needed an astonishing 103 ballots before finally settling on John W. Davis—who then received less than 30 percent of the popular vote in a three-man race.
On the other hand, the 1952 Republican convention was also a bitter affair, but it did not prevent Dwight Eisenhower from winning the presidency.

What happens if the FBI report does not come out until after the Democratic National Convention? How might the Democratic Party respond if enough party leaders concluded Clinton was now doomed to defeat?

The closest analogy occurred in 1972, when Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton was forced to withdraw as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee weeks after the convention when it became known that he had undergone electro-shock therapy for depression. After Eagleton resigned, the Democratic National Committee met and ratified George McGovern’s selection of Sargent Shriver to be his new running mate. McGovern, of course, lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon.

Given that the selection of a presidential nominee is of greater consequence than of a vice presidential nominee, however, the Democratic National Committee might decide to call a “snap convention” to select Clinton’s replacement to give the selection greater legitimacy.

The closest precedent for this situation, and it should be no comfort to Democrats, is 1860 when the party was unable to agree on a nominee when its convention first met at Charleston. When eight Southern delegations walked out and denied the convention a quorum rather than allow the nomination of Stephen Douglas, the convention adjourned and reconvened six weeks later in Baltimore where alternate delegations from the South helped secure Douglas’s nomination. During the general election, Douglas was able to carry only one state—Missouri—out right.

Finally, what happens if Clinton runs for president, wins, but is later indicted?
In 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned as part of a plea agreement in exchange for his plea of no contest to a charge of corruption in office. Richard Nixon was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate scandal, but resigned to avoid impeachment and was later given a blanket pardon by Gerald Ford that prevented him from ever facing criminal charges.

In 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr was indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey for killing former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel, but Burr never went to trial on the charges, which were eventually dropped.

Many constitutional scholars have argued that a sitting president could have their prosecution postponed until after he or she leaves office, or if they had been convicted prior to assuming office could defer serving any sentence until after leaving office.

This is a more theoretical than practical argument, however, as it seems certain that any sitting president convicted of a felony would face impeachment by Congress. In Clinton’s case, this would form an odd bookend to the impeachment her husband faced eighteen years ago. Of course, Bill Clinton was not convicted and finished his term in office.

There was one president who broke the law several times in office and paid the price, though he never contested the charges. President Ulysses S. Grant was cited for speeding in his horse-drawn buggy three times by District of Columbia police, but Grant quietly paid his fines each time.

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How Clinton’s and Trump’s running mates may predict the election

Based on past history, who Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton select as their running mate may help us predict who will win the presidential election in November. While, as I have noted in past posts, the sample size of presidential elections is small (making it difficult for the past to be predictive of the future) there are some interesting facts that may be more than coincidence. (To place this in context, the winning tickets are listed in parentheses)).

More often than not, for example, the more experienced vice presidential running mates are on the winning tickets. Those vice presidential nominees with less experience are on the losing side. That has seldom been more evident than in the disparity in 2008 between Joe Biden, who had served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years when Barack Obama tapped him as his running mate, and Sarah Palin who had been governor of Alaska less than two years.

One explanation is that losing campaigns often look like losing campaigns well before the election. This has two effects: it discourages some of the best possible vice presidential candidates from offering their names for consideration, believing a loss will tarnish their reputation, and it also often convinces the losing presidential nominee to go for a “hail Mary” to shake up the race. That was clearly why John McCain selected Palin. But this almost never works. In other landslide losses in presidential history, the vice presidential candidates were also obscure.

Walter Mondale swung for the fences in selecting Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, but choosing the first woman for a major party ticket did not work out.

Walter Mondale swung for the fences in selecting Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, but choosing the first woman for a major party ticket did not work out.

In 1984, Mondale carried just one state; his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, had served just six years in the U.S. House (Reagan/Bush),  In 1972, after many credible candidates turned him down, George McGovern, who also carried only one state, chose Thomas Eagleton who had only been in the Senate four years.  When Eagleton was forced off the ticket when it was revealed he had undergone electro-shock therapy for depression, McGovern turned to Sargent Shriver, who had never held elective office but led the Peace Corps (Nixon/Agnew).

Barry Goldwater also lost in a landslide in 1964.  His running mate, New York Congressman Bill Miller had served 14 years in the House, but he was not well-known outside his district.  Goldwater later admitted he chose Miller primarily because he believed Miller “drove (Lyndon) Johnson nuts.” (Johnson/Humphrey)

It does seem an axiom that those vice presidential candidates whose tenure was exclusively or primarily in the U.S. House — such as Miller, but also including Ferraro, Paul Ryan, Jack Kemp, and John Sparkman — are usually on the losing side.  The last exception was John Nance Garner, who was FDR’s running mate in 1932 after serving 30 years in the House.

There are other examples.  In 1936, Alf Landon — who won two states — selected newspaper publisher Frank Knox as his running mate (Roosevelt/Garner); Knox had never held elected office.  In 1920, James Cox selected a man whose highest post had been assistant secretary of the Navy, but even his magic last name did not give Franklin Roosevelt the cache to help Cox avoid a catastrophic defeat (harding/Coolidge).  The same occurred in 1924 when Charles Bryan, brother of William Jennings Bryan, was added to the ticket despite having served only two years as governor of Nebraska and two years as mayor of Lincoln.  In a three-way race that year, Bryan and the Democratic presidential nominee John Davis failed to get even 30 percent of the popular vote (Coolidge/Dawes).

This suggests another truth, that those who do not currently hold elective office when nominated — Kemp, Shriver, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Knox, also tend to be on losing tickets.

Youth — separate from experience — seems to bother voters less than inexperience.  Paul Ryan was 41 and FDR was 38 on losing tickets; Richard Nixon was 39 and Dan Quayle was 41 on winning tickets.

Despite his youth, Nixon did not have appreciably less experience than his counterpart in 1952, Adlai Stevenson running mate Alabama Senator John Sparkman.  Nixon had only served four years in the Senate and two in the House, but Sparkman had been a senator only two years after ten in the House (Eisenhower/Nixon).

Baby-faced Quayle might certainly have seemed junior to Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who had 18 years experience in the Senate when tapped to be Michael Dukakis’s running mate, but Quayle had served eight years in the Senate and four in the House.

Of course, there are exceptions to the idea that a more experienced vice presidential running mate portends victory.  Ed Muskie, who had been a senator for ten years and was formerly governor of Maine, had more experience than Spiro Agnew in 1968 when Agnew had been governor of Maryland for just two years after being a county executive for four, but generally it can be said that when there is a clear advantage in electoral experience held by the vice presidential nominee, that nominee is likely to be on the winning ticket, while those races where there is relatively equal experience between the two vice presidential nominees there will be a relatively close race.

This general rule suggests three things.  First, perhaps voters pay more attention to vice presidential running mates than we think they do and they reward the selection of experience, knowing that fourteen vice presidents have become president — eight because  the president they served died in office.

Second, not only does who is nominated to be vice president say something about the presidential nominee’s judgment, it also says something about the state of their campaign.  High risk choices suggest a campaign at risk.

Third, high risks almost never pan out.

With history as a guide, I will predict that the winning ticket will have as its vice presidential nominee someone who currently holds elective office, who has at least a decade of experience in elected office, who has earned more of that experience as a senator or governor than as a congressman, cabinet secretary or some other post.  I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to sort out who that leaves as the best choice from both Clinton and Trump to make in the next few weeks.

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Early praise for “Inga”

I am very gratified that several authors whom I respect a great deal have read an advance copy of Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect, and have offered the following generous thoughts:

“Scott Farris’s Inga is a jewel of a book—for Inga Arvad led a life that no novelist could have invented. Danish by birth, an immigrant American by choice, she bewitched men by her beauty, her journalistic flair, and that rarest of talents: to make others feel better about themselves than perhaps they had a right to. Inga’s extraordinary life story takes us across whole continents, featuring financiers, filmmakers, adventurers and politicians—including, most spectacularly, the young JFK. It is the stuff of legend—yet every word is true, told by a biographer of great sensitivity, narrative skill, and unremitting honesty.”

Nigel Hamilton, New York Times bestselling author of JFK: Reckless Youth and Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle with Churchill, 1943

Inga Arvad became one of Hollywood's leading gossip columnists while John F. Kennedy still hoped to rekindle their romance. Here is Inga with W.C. Fields circa 1944.

Inga Arvad became one of Hollywood’s leading gossip columnists while John F. Kennedy still hoped to rekindle their romance. Here is Inga with W.C. Fields circa 1944.

“Scott Farris pulls back the curtain on a fascinating era in American history and an intriguing woman who lived through it. Inga Arvad’s complexity is what makes the book so compelling. It seems she lived multiple lives and was part of the brightest and darkest moments in twentieth-century American history.”

Kate Andersen Brower, New York Times bestselling author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies and The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House

“Scott Farris has written a meticulously researched, scrupulously sensitive account of Inga Arvad’s truly remarkable odyssey and her genuine romance with the young John F. Kennedy. A page-turner par excellence, Inga disentangles fact from fiction about the woman who enchanted everyone from Hitler to Hollywood stars.”

Andrew Nagorski, award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of The Nazi Hunters and Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Inga is scheduled to be published by Lyons Press in October. For more information on the book, see the post below from June 16.

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The third term myth

One of the most oft-repeated bits of conventional wisdom among political pundits this year, as they weigh Hillary Clinton’s chances in November, is that it is exceedingly difficult for any party to win the presidency three consecutive terms. This is completely wrong and represents some very lazy analysis.
First, whether arguing pro or con, we need to recognize that presidential elections provide a limited sample from which to make predictions, as there have been only 54 contested presidential elections in our history. Further, how we select our presidents has changed over the years.

Al Gore came as close as you can to giving the Democrats a third consecutive term occupying the White House.

Al Gore came as close as you can to giving the Democrats a third consecutive term occupying the White House.

As we study the question of how difficult it is (or isn’t) for a party to win three conservative presidential terms, let’s begin with 1896 which in many respects was the first modern campaign with mass media playing a key role and Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan abandoning the traditional “front porch” campaign to barnstorm across the nation.
Bryan lost that year to William McKinley, which ushered in sixteen straight years of Republican control of the White House. After eight years of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, Republicans won the White House in three consecutive elections before Franklin Roosevelt’s victory in 1932, which then led to 20 consecutive years of Democratic control of the White House.
It was Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952 which supposedly began, so the conventional wisdom goes, the tradition of each party trading the White House every eight years.
But is there really a new-found voter resistance to one party holding the White House for more than eight years?
In 1960, Richard Nixon very nearly won a third “Eisenhower term,” falling just short against John Kennedy in one of the closest races in American history. Nixon’s margin of defeat — 112,000 votes — represented just one vote per precinct nationwide. Lingering accusations of voter fraud in Texas and Illinois have convinced many that Nixon did, in fact, win in 1960 and should have extended Republican rule four more years.
Eights year later, Nixon this time barely won over Hubert Humprey, who was seeking to extend eight consecutive years of Democratic control of the White. The popular vote margin was only 500,000 — and this with Democrats being held responsible for the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, urban riots, and the fiasco of their convention in Chicago. George Wallace’s independent campaign skewed results, and whether Humphrey would have lost even without Wallace in the race is difficult to say, but it would have been a close election, which is remarkable given that 1968 has been called “the year when everything went wrong.”
Another remarkably close race occurred in 1976, when Gerald Ford enjoyed a late campaign surge that might have allowed Republicans to hold the White House for a third consecutive term — and this was after Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, and Ford’s subsequent pardon of Nixon! SOme historians believe if the election had gone one week more, Ford’s momentum would have led to victory.  As it was, Carter won just 50.08 percent of the popular vote.
In 1988, Vice President George Bush did win a third “Reagan term,” and in 2000 Vice President Al Gore seemed ready to give Democrats a third “Clinton term” by winning the popular vote by a 540,000-vote margin. Gore , however, lost the election in the Electoral College because he fell 537 votes short of winning Florida. Had Gore won Florida, he would have won the Electoral College 291-256.
The fact is most presidential elections, especially when there is no incumbent president on the ballot, are close. Over the past 120 years, the presidential nominee of the incumbent’s party has only lost decisively twice — in 1920 when Warren Harding annihilated James Cox, and 2008 when Barack Obama handily defeated John McCain.
As of late June 2016, Hillary Clinton’s chances of election look quite good, but if she loses in November, history suggests it will not be because of some phantom resistance by American voters to giving a party control of the white House for three consecutive terms — or more.

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New book in October 2016!

I have not posted for a while as I have been busy completing my third book, Inga: Kennedy’s Great Love, Hitler’s Perfect Beauty, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Prime Suspect, which I am pleased to announce will be published by Lyons Press on October 6, 2016.

The dustcover for my new book, on the remarkable Inga Arvad.

The dustcover for my new book, on the remarkable Inga Arvad.

Inga is the story of the life of Inga Arvad, Miss Denmark of 1931, who, according to those who claim to know such things, was the great love of President John F. Kennedy’s life while Kennedy was an ensign in the Office of Naval Intelligence at the onset of World War II.

Sadly for their romance, Inga was not only already divorced from a dashing Egyptian diplomat, she was still married to the brilliant Hungarian filmmaker-turned anthropologist Paul Fejos.  This alone made marriage into the most prominent Roman Catholic family in America unlikely.

Worse, Inga had been a foreign correspondent in Nazi Germany in 1935-36, where her charm, beauty, and intelligence made her a favorite of leading Nazis, including Adolf Hitler, who granted Inga several exclusive interviews and made her his personal guest at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.  Those ties led to suspicions that Inga, who became a columnist for the Washington Times-Herald newspaper (then run by the notorious isolationist Cissy Patterson), was a Nazi spy.

Her case attracted the personal attention of not only FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but also President Franklin Roosevelt, who was fascinated by Inga’s interactions with so many prominent Americans, such as Wall Street tycoon Bernard Baruch, who, like many men, was mad about Inga.  The FBI kept Inga under constant surveillance, tapping her phone and bugging her apartment, so that they recorded her time spent with young JFK, including a great deal of time spent in bed.  Her FBI file would eventually cover 1,200 pages.

When gossip columnist Walter Winchell exposed their romance, Kennedy was nearly cashiered out of the Navy, but was instead eventually transferred to sea duty to command the PT-109.  The sinking of the 109, which Inga helped to publicize, made Kennedy a war hero.  Despite all these difficulties, Kennedy was reluctant to break with Inga and he wrote her some of his most revealing and heartfelt letters.  New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, who was a mentor to Inga, claimed Kennedy would ask about Inga up until his assassination.

There is so much to this story it defies belief that one person could have lived it all in one life, but Inga also lived with a tribe of headhunters in the East Indies,became one of Hollywood’s most powerful gossip columnists, was engaged to a man once in line to be Prime Minister of Great Britain, and married famous movie and real-life cowboy Tim McCoy.

It’s a fascinating story of how gossip and history not only intersect, but are often the same thing.  It also speaks to how difficult it was for a woman of genuine talent to find their place in the world of that time, and to the truth that Inga herself stated: “We pay for everything in life.”  I think it will appeal to many types of readers and, as with my previous two books, will be available at your favorite local bookstore, through the major online retailers, and in a variety of formats, including hardcover, e-book, and audiobook.

I’ll post more later and let you know as I schedule readings around the country.


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