History repeats itself with presidential candidates

Brushing up on U.S. history was never so relevant.

On a whim and a Wikipedia recommendation, I checked out of our defunct library Irving Stone’s 1943 book “They Also Ran.” The subtitle explains the reason I was interested in the first place: “The Story of the Men Who Were Defeated for the Presidency.”

It takes the form of an anthology of biopics of all the never-presidents representing the two major parties who campaigned between 1824 and 1940.

While reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the current contests for each party’s nomination.

When discussing well-spoken politicians unafraid to use religious metaphors, the first candidate that comes to mind is Mike Huckabee.

In this book, his name is William Jennings Bryan, a three-time loser as the Democratic presidential nominee:

The brain with which he first entered Congress in 1890 gave promise of contributing ideas, service and movements of social value to the American democracy. The brain with which he died in 1925, after spending the last years of his life in an attempt to prevent the teaching of sciences in the high schools and universities, was one of the most corrosively dangerous under which the American people had labored.

Is Huckabee a Bryan? Both represent more progressive standards, both hold dear very bad economic ideas — the FairTax might as well be the silver standard — and both campaign largely as religious demagogues. Bryan was much more extreme on all points, but Huckabee still fits the mold if, toned-down a little.

The author describes Bryan as perhaps one of the most dangerous men ever to fight for the presidency.

What about Huckabee?

Think about the Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama debate about experience, for one, and then consider this John Fremont vs. James Buchanan argument:

And once again, the nation was saddled with the wrong kind of experience. What was wanted in a president was courage, vision, love of his people over his party. Pierce and Buchanan had none of these; they had only the disadvantages of experience: cutting the corners, picking up the marbles. In eight of the nation’s most critical years the White House was occupied by small-minded politicians who had absorbed all the bad tricks of their profession without assimilating much of the good.

It’s unfair to Clinton to make this comparison.

Has Obama the charisma of Fremont, which this author argues was more valuable in “eight of the nation’s most critical years?” Probably not — Fremont’s charisma was because he was a well-regarded, clear-thinking military man, and the book argues in his favor because his presidency would immediately precede — and prevent, it argues — the Civil War. Moreover, Clinton, while many things, is not small-minded.

Consider, then, this much later description on a different Also Ran:

The story of Stephen A. Douglas demonstrates that although a democracy needs specialists in government, the young men who clasp politics to their bosoms as a career often become too clever, too experienced in the tricks of the trade to be valuable to the nation as a whole. Thus democracy is sorely beset by a dilemma: experience is needed in the men who are to run the government without experience, yet in politics, above all other callings, experience corrupts!

This does Obama the all-too-friendly favor of being compared to Abraham Lincoln — Obama does that himself — but it’s striking how similar this argument on experience is to Obama’s.

Is Clinton corrupted, or does the analogy fall flat? Is Obama as much of an insider, considering his years in the state legislature?

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