The Perils of Running for President

The Perils of Running for President

The last stage of the campaigns for the Democratic and Republican nominations for President has begun. The candidates have started to attack each other. No more nice guy – the gloves have come off – and as history shows – just about anything goes in American politics.

In the 2000 campaign, John McCain was probably the most popular politician in America, among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. His maverick positions, straight talk no nonsense style, combined with his war record as a wounded prisoner in the Vietnam War gave him cachet much more attractive than the establishment background of Texas Governor George W. Bush, who had the big money and the party apparatus behind him.

In a stunning upset, McCain defeated Bush in the New Hampshire primary by a massive 18 percentage points, becoming a serious threat for the nomination. But he had to confirm the victory in the next primary in South Carolina, to prove that the New Hampshire election was not a freak. People of unknown origin, perhaps associated with Bush, perhaps Bush supporters working on their own, organized a whispering campaign to destroy McCain’s reputation – and they succeeded.

Examples: Push telephone polls asked questions like, “If you knew that John McCain fathered a child out of wedlock, would you vote for him?” Whispering campaigns spread rumors that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, that he was homosexual, that his wife was a drug addict, that he had committed treason as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, that he scorned the Confederate flag, etc.

Will there be similar dirty tricks or appeals to secret prejudices in the current elections?
Against Barack Obama on account of his color?
Against Hillary Clinton on account of her sex?
Against Mitt Romney on account of his Mormon religion?
These prejudices may not show up in the polls but they certainly exist in some people to some degree, influencing their conduct and their votes.

Keep in mind that the United States has had 45 presidents and all but one has been male, white, Protestant. Some Americans have a built-in idea of what a president should look like, his background, his voice, his personality. The only president to vary from the expected mold was John F. Kennedy, who fulfilled the built-in idea in every way except that he was a Roman Catholic.

Can another Roman Catholic be elected, for example Rudolph Giuliani, the GOP front runner? And if that factor is overcome, how about his ethnic Italian-American name? In the 1988 election, by far the most talented Democratic politician was the Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, successful executive, recognized intellectual, powerful speaker, effective politician. Surprising the entire political world, Cuomo did not seek the Democratic nomination, opening the door for Governor Michael Dukakis. Cuomo told his intimates that he thought the country would never elect a person whose name ended in a vowel.

Another hurdle for Giuliani: at least one of his three marriages violated the marital rules of the Catholic Church. Will he be granted communion when he seeks to worship or will he be denied that right as was John Kerry in the 2004 campaign, denied in such a public manner that it became a political issue that probably cost Kerry votes.

The dangers are great, some obvious, some hidden like roadside bombs. It is impossible to prepare for all of them. But, then again, the reward is enormous – President of the U.S.A. – right now the equivalent of President of the World.

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