“So JFK is going to be the new president. Right? Not so fast. Some goober decides to drive up to the Kennedy compound with dynamite in his car….”
I have a long memory, so I’m still unwilling to bet that Mitt Romney will win or keep the Republican nomination, much less the election. I know Romney has the magic number sewed up. But let’s sew up something else, a 50 year patchwork of surprising electoral twists, many of which you may remember. All of this really happened, except for the stuff about Nostradamus.Â
It’s 1960, and Richard Nixon is already a national fixture. John F. Kennedy is Catholic, less experienced, and relatively unknown. (Yes, there was a time when nobody had heard of JFK.) A rich Catholic can’t beat a seasoned two-term vice-president, right? Wrong. Dick Nixon, poster boy for the five o’clock shadow, shows up for America’s first live televised presidential debates inadequately shaved, sweaty-lipped, and un-pancaked. Kennedy wins the debates and the election.Â Â
So JFK is going to be the new president. Right? Not so fast. Some goober decides to drive up to the Kennedy compound with dynamite in his car and blow up the president-elect. So Kennedy’s finished. Right? Wrong. Jackie and the children come out of the house with Jack, and the wannabe assassin, who hadn’t planned on killing a couple of kids, discovers his inner Nice Guy and changes his mind. JFK is inaugurated.Â
It’s going to be four years of the New Frontier, and in 1963 Kennedy is at the height of his popularity. He’s sure to achieve a landslide victory over the right-wing Barry Goldwater. Right? Wrong again. In the space of six seconds JFK goes from the heights to the depths. Lyndon Johnson, after assuming the presidency, gets the nomination and scores that landslide.
Back to 1962. Nixon is going to win the governorship of California so he will have a platform to jump into a rematch against presumptive re-nominee JFK in ’64. Right? Wrong. Nixon loses the gubernatorial race. He is then declared politically dead after holding his infamous “last press conference.” But wait. In 1966 he racks up enough political favors to be a contender in 1968. Seems like he’s not politically dead after all, and that last press conference will be remembered as one of his first.
But in 1968, Nixon faces Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan in the primaries. Pretty stiff competition for a dead man. Additionally, he faces the father of future contender Mitt Romney, Governor George Romney of Michigan. Ohio’s governor picturesquely describes the elder Romney’s campaign as like watching a duck trying to make love to a football. Nixon’s campaign performs better, bumping off the ducky governor, the wealthy Rocky, and the charismatic Gipper, securing once again the Republican nomination for Richard Nixon.Â
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Earlier in 1968, the ever-formidable President Lyndon B. Johnson is holding the fort in Vietnam. He’s going to run as the incumbent. Right? Not so fast. A poetry-mumbling, anti-war senator named Eugene McCarthy has mobilized the college kids and embarrassed the president in the early primaries. So on March 31, without even telling his wife, Lyndon announces he’s not going to be in the race after all. It looks like McCarthy’s The One. Except that JFK has a little brother who realizes, after McCarthy’s impressive results, that he himself would be the stronger anti-war candidate. He electrifies the electorate and winds up winning the California primary. So it looks like RFK‘s The One. Right? Wrong. A few minutes after his victory speech in Los Angeles, Kennedy is voted out by bullets, just like his brother. LBJ’s veep, Hubert Humphrey, beats out McCarthy for the Democratic nomination.
A great victory, right? Well, not really. The site of the convention, Chicago, is traumatized by anti-war rioting which holds television viewer interest better than the Democratic roll call. Humphrey’s selection seems soiled, his chances against Nixon diminished. But LBJ throws out a last minute Vietnam peace initiative that could put Humphrey over the top and indeed kill off Richard Nixon. The peace initiative fizzles. So in the end, at least the end of 1968, Nixon’s The One.
But there’s yet a third Kennedy, Teddy, who wants to be The One in 1972. In mid-1969 it’s still too early to say, but he could be unstoppable. Yet Teddy does get stopped – at Chappaquiddick. He drives off a bridge with a girl in his car, she is not his wife, Ted delays reporting the accident until after she drowns. And oh yeah, he was probably drunk. Ted’s career is over.
Not so fast. His presidential career is over, but Edward M. Kennedy spends the rest of his long life crafting an impressive record as a Senate leader.
Just two nights after Chappaquiddick, Nixon gets some once-in-the-history-of-the-world international live TV coverage early in his term by talking to the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong. This is the moon launch from the space program inspired by Nixon’s nemesis, John F. Kennedy. Things are already going swimmingly for Nixon as he looks toward 1972. But in 1971, he shakes up the Vietnam stalemate by bombing Vietcong supplies in Cambodia. Then he mines Haiphong Harbor in 1972, just six months before the election, a decision which the pundits swear will widen the war and put Tricky Dick out of office.
Not so fast. Nixon’s “silent majority,” older and grayer than when he nearly got kicked off the Eisenhower ticket in 1952, makes noise again for their old friend. The war starts winding down. Then George McGovern, one of the weakest candidates the Democrats had ever chosen, wins their nomination. Senator Tom Eagleton gets the VP nomination and is going to run with McGovern. Right? Wrong. After formally being nominated, Eagleton admits he has a history of depression and electroshock treatments. Not as fortunate as Nixon was in ’52, he has no “Checkers Speech” in his pocket to rally the public behind him. Eagleton drops off the ticket, and another Kennedy family member, Sargent Shriver, marches with McGovern to a historic landslide defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon, who has now died and resurrected several more times than Jesus.
Nixon’s The One for four more years, along with Vice President Spiro Agnew. Right? Uh, here’s where things get really complicated and even more surprising than the memory lane tour you just took with me.
1973. Nixon and Kissinger have bombed the Vietcong into a ceasefire agreement. But the 1972 Watergate break-in, which was a snoozer with the voters, awakens and stays awake with weekly caffeine jolts from cover story exposure in both Time and Newsweek for the next many months. Agnew pleads no contest to some obscure criminal charge from his days in Maryland, and he resigns. Under the 25th Amendment, Nixon chooses the noncontroversial congressman Gerald Ford to be appointed to replace Vice President Agnew.
This paves the way for something even Nostradamus never foresaw – President Gerald Rudolph Ford, when Nixon resigns in August of 1974. Time to trot out the 25th Amendment again to select yet another vice-president, the third one in less than 18 months. It’s Nelson Rockefeller, the national synonym for wealth who’d never been vice-anything.
Ford will serve out his term. Or will he? We nearly got a fourth vice-president when Ford survived two assassination attempts in the space of 17 days. We don’t have female assassins in this country. Wrong – twice: Two women, each with handguns, each with mental illness histories, each in southern California, tried in separate incidents to shoot Ford. Each was unsuccessful.Â
1976. Ford, with his penchant for hitting people with golf balls and falling down the steps of the unfamiliar Air Force One, faces the impossibly charismatic Ronald Reagan in a battle for the nomination. No one announces their veep choice ahead of the convention, right? Well, not back then. Reagan sweetens his odds by selecting a fellow conservative, right? Wrong again. He selects the liberal Senator Lowell Schweiker, but this bold move is not enough to keep Ford-Rockefeller from keeping the Republican nomination. But that fall, in still another surprise, even Ford’s incumbency and Rocky’s money can’t prevent a little known governor from Georgia, James Earl Carter III, from taking the White House from them.
So it’s four years of Jimmy Carter, right? Right! Hey, we finally got one!Â
But only four years. It’s 1980, Reagan’s back, and this time he has finally been chosen as the GOP standard bearer. This time he’s waiting until the last minute to announce his running mate choice. This time he wants to put some drama into the convention. This time, for several hours, word circulates that he is trying to convince former President Ford to run as his vice-president. No one ever serves as vice-president after being president, but the media is nearly drunk over the possibility that it’s gonna happen. Then it doesn’t happen. Surprise! A very groggy George H. W. Bush is awakened with the news that he’s been picked. He helps win one for the Gipper, a big one, in a landslide rebuke of Jimmy Carter.
So it’s 1981 with four years of Reagan-Bush ahead. Right? Not so fast. Two months after taking office, Reagan is shot. It doesn’t look too bad, since that irrepressible ex-actor is quoted as joking with the doctors. But it is very bad. Reagan nearly bleeds to death from a bullet that barely misses his heart. Yet the reported “exploding bullet” doesn’t explode. Reagan recovers rapidly. It’s eight years of Reagan-Bush, since the only huge surprise of the 1984 election is that there are no huge surprises.
1988. Two words: Dan Quayle. Enough said. George H. W. is elected to continue his predecessor’s “voodoo economics.”
In 1991, Bush 41 has a 91 percent approval rating after the first Iraq War. Unbeatable in ’92, right? Not so fast. The election is a year away, remember? And ’92 marks the beginning of the Clinton phenomenon and two terms of doomsday predictions gone horribly wrong.
Bimbo Eruption #1: Gennifer Flowers at the beginning of the 1992 primaries. She has tapes. No candidate has ever politically survived an avalanche of coverage about an illicit affair. Clinton is finished. Wrong. Clinton survives, his wife standing by her man, on a “60 Minutes” episode. They nearly don’t survive when the cameras stop running and the metal girders holding up the studio lights give way, fall, and darn near crown them the dead king and queen of America, but no royal couple is harmed in the making of this video.
Bimbo Eruption #2: Paula Jones, who files a sexual harassment lawsuit. Clinton is finished. Wrong.
Then the Volcano of Bimbo Eruptions, #3: Monica Lewinsky. She has the evidence on her dress. Forty million dollars is spent to fund a partisan Republican special prosecutor, Clinton is guilty of perjury (depending on what the meaning of the word is is), he is impeached, he is finished. Wrong. Would-be assassins prove that Bill is not only scandal-proof, he is bulletproof, airplane-proof, and a bunch of other-proofs too numerous to keep up with. The cheesecake girls couldn’t kill him off, and neither can the cheeseburgers. Clinton leaves office powerful, wealthy, and respected.
Along comes Mr. Misunderestimated. On election night 2000, George Bush is projected to be the new president. Wrong … maybe. Projection is rescinded. Then George Bush is projected to be the new president. Wrong again . . . maybe. Back and forth it goes for nearly seven weeks, a battle between lawyers that is not decided until the Mucky-mucks of Law, the venerable Supreme Court, settles the matter just days before the Electoral College meets. George Walker Bush, who received fewer votes than Albert Gore, is finally the president-elect. Nostradamus got a migraine on the day he saw all this and went to bed without writing it down since he kept seeing two guys being elected president at the same time.
In 2007, I asked a fellow political junkie if she’d ever heard of Barack Obama. She had not. It was all totally predictable of course. Wasn’t it inevitable that we would elect a one-term senator, an African-American who went to grade school in Indonesia, whose middle name was the same as the first name of the Iraqi dictator we’d just hung? Wasn’t it an utter no-brainer that a bright but politically unschooled woman with less than one term as governor of Alaska would be selected as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, and that every news organization in the country would wear out their dictionaries finding euphemisms to focus endlessly upon how “sexy” she was? What’s so surprising about a sexy vice-presidential selection – aren’t they all? I mean, look at Dick Cheney.
2012. Do you still wonder why I’m not ready to predict Romney will ride his nomination all the way to election day? There’s hardly a Republican in America who is thrilled with him. He has the charisma of a squid and looks to his Number Two choice for some leadership. What if Paul Ryan is the one the GOP really wants? If they manufacture a scandal to push Romney off the ticket after the convention, Ryan will become their new nominee without ever having to be tested in a single primary. That would be the biggest surprise of my lifetime.
Nostradamus foresaw America’s previous 50 years, right? Maybe. But if so, he just put down his pen and shrugged. There are far easier ways to be a prophet than by getting a crick in your neck from shrugging, trying to predict American elections.Â Â