Sunday, November 15, 2009

John W. Who?

Does anyone remember John W. Kern?
John Worth Kern was a Democratic politician from Indiana who was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He had a scant record in Hoosier politics; he was elected to the Indiana Senate in 1893, where he served for four years, and he simultaneously served assistant - assistant - U.S. Attorney for Indiana. Kern also served as city solicitor of Indianapolis from 1897 to 1901 and ran unsuccessfully for governor of Indiana twice, in 1900 and 1904. I read all of this on Wikipedia.
Why am I telling you this? Because Kern has another distinction in his political career, and a rather dubious one at that; he was the losing vice presidential candidate in 1908, the running mate of Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan. (They lost to William Howard Taft and James S. Sherman. Sherman was the last Vice President to die in office.) Kern was the unsuccessful vice presidential candidate who ran exactly one hundred years before Sarah Palin.
You knew I had a valid point, didn't you?
History may be unkind to most Vice Presidents of the United States, but it's even crueler to most of those who vie for the office and don't get it. Unsuccessful vice presidential candidates tend to be forgotten rather quickly, especially after they retire from politics or die. No one remembers New Jersey's William L Dayton, the first Republican vice presidential candidate (he ran with John C. Frémont in 1856), John A. Logan (a Republican who ran with James G. Blaine in 1884), Joseph T. Robinson (a Democrat who ran with Alfred E. Smith in 1928) or Charles L. McNary (a Republican who ran with Wendell Willkie in 1940). The only reason we may remember William E. Miller, Barry Goldwater's 1964 running mate, is because of his American Express card commercial. "Do you know me? No, I don't.
I'd like to suggest that Sarah Palin is trying to buck the trend of history by turning her loss into an opportunity to position herself for greater things, but if I did that, I'd have to grant that the noted book-banning wolf killer is a student of history. But Palin is indeed trying to make herself the future of the Republican party by "writing" her "memoirs" (actually a screed against media figures and aides in John McCain's presidential campaign), going on a book tour to the "heartland" (cities to small to even have a minor league baseball team) and appearing on Oprah Winfrey's talk show (well, that was smart, I'll give her that). She thinks that her personal magnetism and her alleged sex appeal (she still has that annoying speaking voice that reminds me of eighties sitcom actress Edie McClurg, who was at least intentionally funny) will make her a leading contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
And she may be right. She has the power of persuasion; look how she persuaded me to write sentences with parenthetical thoughts! Despite her lack of interest in policy, she gets crowds fired up and generates excitement in a way that GOP presidential contenders like Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, or Mike Huckabee can't. Plus, she has the support of Rush Limbuagh. Chris Matthews seems to think this will help her among Republican primary and caucus voters in 2012. When Chris Matthews suggests that she may be a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, we can't afford to laugh her off.
After all, back in the nineties, we all laughed at the notion of "President George Walker Bush." Some of us still do.
But, of course, Palin has to overcome the unsuccessful vice presidential candidate syndrome. We all know the joke; a woman had two sons, one of whom went to sea while the other was elected Vice President of the United States, and neither was heard from again. Well, she had a third son who ran for Vice President and lost, and he was never heard from again either. Very few unsuccessful vice presidential candidates survived the indignity of their loss. The exceptions include Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democrat, 1920) and Earl Warren (Republican, 1948). Geraldine Ferraro (Democrat, 1984) also has escaped this curse simply by being the first woman and the first Italian-American to be nominated for the vice presidency by a major party. Sarah Palin only has the distinction being the first female Republican vice presidential nominee. She ain't even Italian.
Oh yeah, John W. Kern. Although Kern lost, he redeemed himself as a member of the United States Senate, where he became a staunch progressive and supported the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, and enactment of antitrust laws. Nevertheless, he faded into history, just as I'm sure more recent unsuccessful vice presidential candidates will. (RIP, Lloyd Bentsen.) Palin’s political record in 2008 was as weak as Kern’s was in 1908, but Kern at least did his homework and went on to better things. Palin, who can’t even name a magazine she regularly looks at pictures in, is too lazy to bother. She seems to think she can become a political superstar on charisma alone.
But she could still break the curse of the unsuccessful vice presidential candidate, because the awful truth is . . . it’s possible that she could pull it off.
After all, she has a star quality that John W. Kern obviously did not have. :-O

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