Presidential candidates march in patriotic parades. The denizens of Washington, D.C. who can afford it flee to a nearby beach. The rest of us gather on rooftops later to watch things explode.
Jonathan Bernstein asks writers to name some of their off-the-books American political heroes. Matthew Yglesias lists his, and includes A. Philip Randolph, Gouvernor Morris, and most intriguingly, Thaddeus Stevens. In the back-of-a-napkin view of history, the radical Republicans of the 1860s and 1870s are still controversial -- Reconstruction! Impeaching Andrew Johnson! But a serious look at what they advocated speaks very well for Stevens et al.
I'll have to go with some obvious names. Of the ones who served at the national level, Alexander Hamilton was my favorite kind of politician -- supremely effective behind the scenes, but too thin-skinned to play nice in the electoral arena. He was right about everything he advocated on monetary policy, and got it done against a trend of crankery that would outlast and, temporarily, erase his vision for central banking. (Do go and see what happened when Andrew Jackson thought it would be good to pay off the national debt and destroy the central bank.) Andrew Mellon was supply-side before anyone thought it could work, and it did, although I wish we had a better national memory of his later mistakes. Frank Church was one of the best friend civil libertarians ever had.
At the lower political level? I'd go with Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta, and thus the first black executive of a southern mega-city, and someone who understood long-term spending on infrastructure as well as he understood the swampy politics of race. ("A City Too Busy to Hate" is really one of the great metropolitan slogans.) Win Rockefeller, the first Republican governor of Arkansas, defeated a particularly nasty Dixiecrat machine and left behind integrated schools and commuted death sentences. In Arkansas! Plus, anyone who runs against Orval Faubus gets points with me.
Outside of elected office? Ah, that's where things get less complicated. Bayard Rustin isn't so obsure anymore, and I think he gets proper dues as a great strategist of the Civil Rights movement and as prescient activist for gay rights. Bill Buckley's absence is felt more acutely in a time when the John Birch Society dispatches speakers to Tea Parties.