Please start by hearing Hail to the Chief in your head or maybe even going to YouTube to find a version, like this one from the Marine Corp Band.
Kansas hasn’t produced the number of presidents and presidential candidates as Virginia or New York but Kansans, both famous and obscure, have played an important role. We’ve had a war hero, a millionaire, a prohibitionist and a communist run for president.
We’ll talk about all of them, but we will focus on the 1996 Bob Dole campaign against Bill Clinton, which touched on things we’re still grappling with in 2016. It will sound familiar, except for how it ends.
The first Kansan to run for president was John Pierce St. John, the eighth governor of the state, who ran on the Prohibition Party in 1884. He lost, of course, but some historians believe he won enough votes in the swing state of New York to propel Grover Cleveland into the White House.
The first major party presidential candidate to come out of Kansas was Gov. Alf Landon who was somewhat of a Republican superstar for balancing the state budget during the depression. Some called him the “Kansas Coolige” but not all historians would agree.
Landon made millions in oil and gas and would later go on to make even more money in radio. He was also the father of future Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum.
Landon would lose in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, winning only Main and Vermont. He didn’t even carry Kansas.
Turns out Landon wasn’t the only Kansans on the ’36 ballot. There was also Earl Browder who was born in Wichita and was best remembered as the General Secretary of the Communist Party USA during the 1930s and first half of the 1940s.
The next Kansan to run was Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. The country not only liked Ike but loved him and elected the World War Two hero twice. He crushed Adli Stevenson in both 1952 and 1956 with Richard Nixon as his running mate.
Both Landon and Ike would play up their Kansas roots as would the next Kansan to run, Sen. Bob Dole.
When you look back things often seem inevitable.
Dole announced in Topeka on April 10th, 1995. He said, “Today, tempered by adversity, seasoned by experience, mindful of the world as it is, yet confident it can be made better, I have come home to Kansas with a grateful heart to declare that I am a candidate for the presidency of the United States.”
Dole led Senate Republicans for years, he ran for v-p in 1976 with Jerry Ford, he was GOP national chairman.
He was the odds on favorite when he got in the race in 1995 but there was a big field and diverse field. Pat Buchanan ran. So did billionaire Steve Forbes. Senators Lamar Alexander and Phil Gramm ran. Also some guy named Morry Taylor.
He was suppose to appear on the statehouse steps but the weather went south on him and they moved the event indoors. A lot of things would head south on Dole over the next 18 months.
The primary wasn’t a cake walk for Dole, he lost in New Hampshire, Arizona and Delaware, but in the end he got 59 percent of the primary vote with Buchanan finishing a distant second with 21 percent.
Dole was a conservative to be sure but he was a compromiser, someone you could deal with. But he was forced hard to the right by his primary challengers and that’s where he stayed. And just like Ike and Alf, Dole would sell himself as a plain spoken son of Kansas. Here he is accepting the nomination.
A couple of things about Dole in 1996. While 73 years old he looked great. Dark hair, tanned and looked like he could still be serving in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
But Dole wasn’t a great orator, he wasn’t folksy and at times had trouble sticking to the script and all that would hurt him against Bill Clinton, seeking his second term.
With a Clinton at the top of the ticket again this year, it’s a little spooky to see some of the same attacks from 20 years ago. Dole attacked Clinton for not being tough enough on illegal immigrants, on what kind of judges he would pick and charged that he was soft on crime. Has a 2016 ring to it, no? And while the republican candidate is the one with the sex scandals this year, Dole and the RNC had a field day with Clinton’s peccadillos.
But, in the end, nothing would help.
Clinton never trailed in the polls, the Dole campaign was in total disarray with epic infighting. The joke was the campaign would pick sites for a rally when Dole looked out of the plane window and decided to land.
In the last few days he lashed out not only at Clinton but the media, a sure sign in politics that things are going poorly. And in another nod to today, as the campaign neared its end, many congressional Republicans abandoned Dole to save themselves.
The RNC spent $4 million in targeted districts to save their newly attained majorities in the House and Senate. But it was a pasting. Clinton got 379 electoral votes, Dole 159. In the popular vote, Clinton got 49 percent, Dole 41 percent and Ross Perot got eight percent. While Perot had some amusing moments, in the end his run doesn’t mean much today.
The next night, unburdened by a campaign he knew he was going to lose, Dole went on the David Letterman show where he was very funny. He joked that the $200 talent fee was the first work he had in a long time and that he called Clinton, collect, to concede.
Dole quit as senate majority leader and gave up his beloved senate seat to run for president. Something the New York Times noted in it’s day after election piece:
“Mr. Dole sacrificed these things not merely to lose the Presidency, but to run one of the most ineffectual Presidential campaigns in recent memory. Always the legislative tactician, Mr. Dole, according to his close associates, approached the Presidential race much as he did a Congressional negotiating session, believing that the key to victory was a clever endgame strategy. But so bleak were the polls, and for so long, that Mr. Dole was forced to realize, far earlier than most losing candidates, that the endgame would probably not be enough.”
Ineffectual and bleak. Wow.
In his concession speech Dole called Clinton his opponent, not his enemy. As we write this, we don’t know the outcome of the Clinton-Trump race. But I don’t think it will end with someone saying that. Is that small town Kansas talking or just a different political era?
I don’t know, but it sure seems gracious and maybe even quaint.