Intellectual dichotomies 101: If you’re not a polymath, you’re doomed to be tarred a dilettante, a tyro nursing a hobby that developed for whatever reason, but one that serves no greater purpose than filling the time you don’t spend on what you’re actually good at. Failing to attain expertise in a subject has somehow evolved into academic anathema—after all, why should anyone listen to you if you can’t claim absolute authority? The idea of a gamut of knowledge about the world has lost its luster; magazines like Intelligent Life bemoan “the last days of the polymath” but, frankly, I think the more prominent issue is the death of the dilettante, the latter term’s pejorative connotations giving cover to people who claim something’s not worth knowing if you don’t have the time or capacity to know it well. As a result, most people simply know nothing.
All of this is to say that books like Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, journalist Scott Farris’ collected expositions on losing presidential candidates throughout American history, should be read, and widely. The book is a highly readable, often thrilling account of not just the campaigns of particularly noteworthy also-rans like Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Dewey, George McGovern and Ross Perot (for whom the author reserves an amusing bit of subtextual contempt), but also of how these men ensured their place in history by contributing to or prematurely anticipating the political zeitgeist. Clay’s feud with President Andrew Jackson, Stephen Douglas’ fealty to the Union and salvation of the Democratic Party, Bryan’s populism and outspoken opposition to social Darwinism, Al Smith’s Catholicism, Dewey’s pragmatism, Adlai Stevenson’s so-called elitism, Goldwater’s hard-line conservatism and race-baiting, McGovern’s anti-war moralizing and Perot’s lionization-of-capitalism ethos, the author argues, all contributed as much if not more to the American story than the men who claimed victory in each respective election. (Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain share the final chapter, and Farris has also included an appendix that covers the entire historical range, from Charles Pinckney to Bob Dole.) Each chapter is by no means a fully-realized portrait of the influential loser in question, but it almost doesn’t matter; the chances that even the most die-hard US policy wonks are going to pick up a two-volume biography on William Jennings Bryan are slim enough that Almost President serves its purpose very well. It’s a book for dilettantes in the best possible way, providing broad rundowns of the major political races of the past two centuries and piquing the respective particular interests of readers fascinated by all or simply certain portions of American history.
I call myself a “history buff” (though who doesn’t these days?), but the American Civil War has never really been my thing; I admit to a deeper enchantment with twentieth-century history, particularly the World Wars interregnum and the Vietnam era. Friends of mine exalt the Lincoln presidency; it would never even occur to me to name him my favorite president. But the chapter on Lincoln’s Democratic opponent, Stephen Douglas, both enhanced my understanding of the period leading up to the Civil War and satisfied my intellectual curiosity—meaning I felt, after about forty pages, that I knew the basics of the famous race and could safely call myself “informed.” Of course, given my predilections, I felt the pieces on Barry Goldwater and George McGovern were lacking. But that’s precisely the point. The book is balanced, well-rounded and meant to contextualize the people most of us have probably already formed an opinion about. Despite the fact that some men come off better than others (the author retains the clearest admiration for McGovern and Bob Dole), Farris is not romantic, and each candidate’s foibles share equal time with his assets.
All that said, I have to insert a brief encomium to George McGovern. More than even Bobby Kennedy, I think he personifies the “good” politician, the candidate willing to speak in overtly ethical terms about policy—the US’s misadventure in Vietnam in particular. Farris maintains that McGovern was trounced in part because Americans don’t like to be told their country is bad; they can acknowledge mistakes, sure, but ultimately they believe their nation’s heart is in the right place. McGovern wasn’t afraid to at least try to open Americans’ eyes, and after what pundits have repeatedly deemed “another Vietnam” in Iraq, the absence of a moral voice on the scale of McGovern’s is conspicuous. They really don’t make ’em like that anymore.