The Longform Guide to Presidential Losers
Romney, McCain, Kerry, Gore—a collection of stories about life after losing the big one.
Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.
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What’s life like for those who reach for the brassiest of brass rings—the American presidency—and miss? Mitt Romney, repeat loser, is about to find out. He may want to consult his predecessors for a possible glimpse of his future. (Note: George H.W. Bush was not, as our 41st president, a total loser.)
The Man Who Never Was
Todd Purdum • Vanity Fair • November 2010
“McCain and his wife, Cindy, have been living essentially separate lives for years. She has spent most of her time in Arizona while he has spent the workweek in a Virginia condominium where, he once told me, he sometimes went months at a time without ever entering the living room, simply coming home to the kitchen and bedroom late at night and leaving again early the next morning. In 2008, McCain was deeply stung by a long New York Times article about his working relationship with a lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, and its assertion that certain McCain aides feared the relationship had some years earlier morphed into an affair. To this day, McCain declines to give interviews to the paper, which was once one of his favorite outlets. While associates say the McCains are companionable, one former aide allows, ‘I’m not going to tell you that they have a conventionally close marriage, but I’m just not going to get into it.’
The Senate is McCain’s whole life, his reason for being. ‘This is what he does,’ one former aide says. ‘He is a United States senator. This is his ecology. It’s a big job, but it’s a really small world. It’s like a killer whale born in captivity in SeaWorld; it doesn’t know any better. It doesn’t know it’s supposed to be in the Pacific Ocean.’ ”
James Traub • New York Times Magazine • July 2011
“Why, then, does Kerry bother? Why is he racing back and forth to put out the fires being set by a serial arsonist? I asked him about this on the short flight from Kabul to Islamabad. Kerry tried to put the best possible face on what he had learned. Despite the warlords in Kabul, he said, Karzai had appointed some talented officials at the provincial and district levels. ‘It’s a mixed bag,’ he concluded gamely. Kerry knew Karzai’s failings as well as anyone, but he was not prepared to abandon Afghanistan’s president, because he was not prepared to abandon Afghanistan. But why not?”
The Wilderness Campaign
David Remnick • The New Yorker • September 2004
“In a parliamentary system, a candidate for Prime Minister, after losing an election, often returns to the party leadership or at least to a prominent seat in parliament. It doesn’t work that way in the United States. Here, you make your own way: you give speeches, write memoirs, accumulate a fortune, find a righteous cause. Sometimes a reporter might come calling, but not often. In any case, Donna Brazile, Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, said, ‘When it was over, the Democratic Party kicked him to the curb,’ preferring to forget not only the Florida catastrophe but also Gore’s own misplays: his mutating personality in the three debates with Bush; his reliance on political consultants; his inability to exploit Bill Clinton’s enduring popularity and his failure to win Clinton’s Arkansas, much less Tennessee; his decision not to press immediately for a statewide recount in Florida. Now, everywhere he goes, Gore is faced with crowds who despair of the Bush Administration and see in him all that might have been, all the what-ifs. The heartbreak of a lifetime. Sometimes people approach him and address him as “Mr. President.” Some try to cheer him up and tell him, ‘We know you really won.’ Some tilt their heads, affecting a look of grave sympathy, as if he had just lost a family member. He has to face not only his own regrets; he is forever the mirror of others’. A lesser man would have done far worse than grow a beard and put on a few pounds.”
Bob Dole: Great American
Jeanne Marie Laskas • GQ • July 2012
“I ask if he ever thought about what the country would have been like if he'd been president.
‘I've thought about it, not a lot, but I thought my relationship with Congress—the Democrats and Republicans—would help me get some things done. Not everything, but at least they'd be willing to try.’
Bipartisan leadership, he tells me, was not exceedingly complicated. ‘We'd meet on an issue. If we could work it out, we'd work it out. If it wasn't possible, we'd have a vote.’
The Revision Thing
Paul Burka • Texas Monthly • November 1997
George H.W. Bush:
“Bush has settled into the role of ex-president. It is a good job once you get used to it. At first Bush took defeat hard; the Parmet biography says that on the weekend after the election, he told Colin Powell, ‘It hurts. It really hurts to be rejected.’ Bush said that the return to private life wasn’t hard, but his description to me of his first hours out of office—‘We flew to [Houston’s] Ellington Field and went straight to a small house where nobody was living’—sounded pretty bleak. In those early months, according to friends, he sometimes lapsed into apologies and regrets when he was around colleagues from the White House years. For Barbara Bush the transition was easier: ‘We’re not dumb enough to want what we don’t have,’ she said. What they did have, courtesy of the federal government, was seven staffers and more than a dozen Secret Service agents, an annual pension of $148,000, and an annual budget of $391,000. And there are side benefits. If, say, you want to jump out of an airplane, the Pentagon will provide you with a paratrooper escort, at your cost.”
What Might Have Been
Michael Leahy • Washington Post • February 2005
“He puts on a brown overcoat, shuffling toward the door, then stops abruptly. Over his shoulder, hung in a hallway, is a framed photo of himself on the cover of what appears to be the November 13, 1972, issue of Newsweek magazine—or a Newsweek from a parallel universe. The headline says, ‘THE GREAT UPSET.’ Beneath those words, alongside the candidate's beaming visage at age 50, is the cover's subtitle: ‘President-Elect McGovern.’ Newsweek prepared the cover, McGovern explains, just in case he beat the odds and won the '72 race. It is one more reminder for him of what might have been.”
Elon Green is a contributor to Longform.org.