On January 20, 1961, Richard Nixon retired from public life. After losing a painfully close race for the White House, the former vice president relocated his family to California—his home state and scene of so many early political triumphs, where he and his wife, Pat, now planned to build a handsome, four-bedroom ranch house in an exclusive subdivision in Bel Air.
For the first time in his life, Nixon was earning real money—roughly $3 million annually in today’s dollars—as a lawyer, syndicated columnist and book author. So it gnawed at his ego when the Los Angeles Times ran a sensational headline accusing him of receiving a “celebrity discount” on the purchase of the lot where he planned to raise his new home. “What’s wrong with what I did?” Nixon demanded of Frank McCullough, the editor of the Times. He wasn’t an officeholder anymore. His personal financial affairs were no one’s business.
“You’re not entirely a private citizen, Dick,” the editor tartly replied. Deep down, Nixon knew that was true.
Hillary Clinton is by no means the first major party nominee to lose a close presidential election and find herself the subject of continued scrutiny months later. What McCullough observed of Nixon has been true of candidates before and since: Once in the public fray, it’s difficult to make a graceful transition to private citizen—even in defeat.
But that’s where the precedent ends. Like those who came before him (Henry Clay, Thomas Dewey) and those who followed (Hubert Humphrey, Gerald Ford, Al Gore), in defeat Nixon remained a widely credible figure: respected by the political establishment, popular in his own party and a member in good standing of the country’s small community of statesmen. The same has not, thus far, been true of Hillary Clinton, who lost the presidency to Donald Trump despite handily defeating him at the polls and winning more votes than any presidential candidate in American history.
Unlike every other near-miss candidate, Clinton remains a pariah among a large portion of the population: widely disparaged by pundits, blamed by some on the left wing of her party for Trump’s victory, despised by Republicans and many independents. Her singular fate – basically unprecedented in American history – tells us far more about the state of contemporary politics and journalism than it does about Hillary Clinton, whom history may very well judge with greater retrospection and consideration than her contemporaries.
For Nixon, losing the 1960 race by a wisp was bitter medicine. In farewell remarks to his staff, he began to recount how, the morning after the election, his daughter Julie had burst into her parents’ bedroom to ask, “Did we win, Daddy?” His eyes swelled with tears at the thought of her disappointment. Unable to finish the story, he abruptly left the room.
Yet Nixon took little time to rebound. By May 1961 he was back on the national speaker circuit, filling halls from Michigan to Maryland. In Los Angeles, 1,600 enthusiasts piled into the Press Club to fete his return. His first book, Six Crises, proved an instant best-seller, with a print run of more than 250,000 copies. By late summer, he faced mounting encouragement – even pressure – to launch a campaign for governor the following year. That November, the chief officers of Bechtel, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Pacific Gas and Electric, Levi Strauss, and Kaiser Industries attended his kickoff fundraiser and enthusiastically lent their financial support to his comeback bid.
To be sure, Nixon remained a sharply polarizing figure. But for every voter who recalled with disfavor his role as an anticommunist hatchet man in the 1940s and early 1950s, there was another who loved him for it.
Nixon entered the gubernatorial contest against his better instincts. Democrats enjoyed a large registration advantage in California, and the state GOP was bitterly divided between moderate and conservative factions. He lost badly to incumbent Pat Brown.
Hurt and dejected, the former vice president addressed reporters the day after the election and bitterly announced, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” It was a peculiar and ill-mannered performance. In its aftermath, ABC television aired a special segment entitled “The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon.” “Barring a miracle,” Time Magazine announced, “Richard Nixon can never hope to be elected to any political office again.”
Yet Nixon wasn’t down and out for long. He soon surfaced as a potential candidate for president in 1964, though he ultimately decided not to run. After Barry Goldwater cinched the nomination, Nixon traveled the country on his behalf, delivering over 150 speeches in 36 states and accumulating good will among grassroots conservatives who resented the refusal of moderate and liberal Republicans to work for their right-wing nominee. Goldwater lost badly, but Nixon came out ahead: In 1966 he accelerated his political activities, headlining dozens of fundraisers for congressional candidates and delivering more than 600 speeches in 40 states. When the party netted 540 state legislative seats, 47 House seats, three Senate seats that year, Nixon – whose political operation already employed full-time advance men and speechwriters – emerged as a leading contender for the presidential nomination in 1968.
Nixon had always been controversial. But he remained a viable party elder and national statesman. Few credible voices suggested that he retire into permeant hiding or hide his head in shame following his strong of electoral losses. In this regard, he was like many others who traveled the same path before him.
In the nineteenth century, Henry Clay ran four times for the presidency. In his last race, in 1844, he lost New York state to Democratic candidate James Polk by roughly 5,000 votes, in large part because 15,000 voters cast their ballots for James Birney, the candidate of the antislavery Liberty Party. It was a crushing defeat for the Clay’s Whig Party and paved the way for the Mexican American War, an aggressive military venture that that most Whigs deplored. That war, in turn, left the United States in possession of vast new territories that expanded the footprint of American slavery and accelerated the sectional crisis that ultimately resulted in civil war.
In theory, Whigs might have turned on Clay, whose failure to vanquish a dark-horse opponent introduced all variety of evils onto the national political stage. But most Whigs agreed with Abraham Lincoln, who regarded “Harry of the West” as his “beau ideal of a statesman.” Clay resumed his place in the Senate, where – alongside Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun – he was one of the chamber’s most influential members. Before his death, he played a central role in crafting the Compromise of 1850.
In more recent times, Thomas Dewey – a two-time Republican nominee – fared just as well. After mounting an uphill battle against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, Dewey, then governor of New York, became the presumptive frontrunner in his race against embattled incumbent Harry Truman in 1948. Polling that fall showed the Republican candidate clinging to a comfortable, 13-point lead; even many Democrats assumed that the race was all but lost. “We wish Mr. Dewey well without too much enthusiasm,” wrote the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, days before the election, “and look to Mr. Truman’s defeat without too much regret.”
Of course, Truman won, and not just by good fortune. He hustled for it. The president barnstormed the country by train, covering 31,000 miles over the course of several long, early autumn weeks. Dewey, in turn, ran an uninspired race, delivering bland speeches that, according to one reporter, could be “boiled down to these four historic sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. The future lies ahead. (We might add a fifth: the TVA is a fine thing, and we must make certain that nothing like it happens again.)”
Despite his laconic performance, Dewey suffered neither recrimination or disgrace. He was re-elected in 1950 to a third term as governor. Two years later, though he declined to seek the presidency, he emerged as a party power broker. As a leader of the GOP’s moderate, northeast faction, he helped convince Dwight Eisenhower to challenge Ohio’s arch-conservative Robert Taft for the Republican nomination and was equally instrumental in convincing Ike to tap Nixon as his running mate. After retiring from public office in 1954, he built a lucrative legal practice in Manhattan and remained, until his death in 1971, an elder statesman of the GOP’s liberal, internationalist wing.
Having lost in a squeaker in 1960, Nixon won an equally close contest in 1968 against Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Two years later, Humphrey – now out of office and teaching college-level history and politics in Minnesota – trailed the incumbent president by 20 points in a notional rematch. But as the New York Times noted at the time, this gap was neither unusual or disqualifying – “A look back to early 1962, after President Kennedy’s first year in office, shows that Mr. Nixon, who then was in the position that Mr. Humphrey is in now, trailed the incumbent by 35 to 52 per cent, which is similar to the present Nixon-Humphrey results.”
Humphrey returned to the Senate in 1971 and ran a competitive race for the Democratic nomination the following year. He sponsored the Humphrey-Hawkins bill – an ambitious proposal reminiscent of the Employment Act of 1946 that would have guaranteed all Americans remunerative work and required the government to create public-sector or private-sector jobs to meet this mandate. In 1977, a year before he succumbed to cancer, his colleagues named him to the new post of deputy president pro tempore of the Senate in recognition of his long and distinguished public service.
There is also the case of Gerald Ford, who fended off a spirited primary challenge by Ronald Reagan and erased a 23-point deficit to come within two million votes – and less than two points – of winning election in his own right in 1976.
Even before ascending to the presidency, Ford was widely regarded as a decent but not particularly brilliant man. “Jerry’s a nice guy,” Lyndon Johnson once remarked uncharitably, “but he played football too long without a helmet.” His decision to pardon his predecessor cost him dearly. That he came so close to winning owed in no small part to the popular perception that Ford, if not the most polished chief executive in the nation’s history, was a fundamentally honest person.
Yet even in defeat, Ford remained a respected figure. Public surveys in 1978 and 1979 consistently pitted him against Carter in a notional rematch, and Patrick Cadell, Carter’s pollster, later acknowledged that of all their potential GOP opponents in 1980, Ford was the one who kept them up at night. In 1979 the former president asserted that he was “not a candidate” and had “no plans to be a candidate,” though he would not “duck the responsibility” if the convention were ultimately deadlocked.
After Reagan secured the nomination, party elders considered for a brief time a “co-presidency” scenario in which Ford would serve once again as vice president but enjoy a broad portfolio of responsibilities over the budget and foreign policy. Both men ultimately deemed the idea unworkable. But for a time, it commanded serious consideration and spoke to the high regard in which many serious people still held Ford.
There is, finally, the example of Al Gore, the former vice president who bested George W. Bush in the popular vote but lost the Electoral College after a hotly contested recount in Florida.
The 2000 campaign in many ways launched the sharply polarized, hyper-partisan environment that has characterized American politics over the past decade and a half. Pundits and political opponents mocked the popular vote-winner over matters as petty as his temporary weight gain and his equally transitory experiment with facial hair. Dewey, Nixon, Humphrey and Ford did not endure that level of mockery after their defeats; they hailed from an age when reporters, columnists and members of the opposition party mustered greater empathy, class and restraint.
Nevertheless, Gore remained a presumptive candidate in the next cycle. In 2002, in the aftermath of a bitter contest, Gallup found that respondents in equal numbers held favorable and unfavorable of the former vice president – hardly a difference from the campaign. Only a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, with Bush still riding a job approval wave, Gore trailed his onetime opponent by 12 points in a hypothetical matchup – a daunting gap, but better than then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman, both of whom trailed the incumbent by 17 points.
In recent months, the chattering class has treated Hillary Clinton without mercy. The headlines speak volumes.
It’s a trope that gained new life last week, in the wake of Clinton’s scorching assessment during at Recode’s Code Conference of the external forces contributing to her defeat.
On some level, it’s to be expected that some people will continue to re-litigate Clinton’s candidacy. But the near-universal vitriol she confronts is historically unprecedented among candidates who came so close to victory, and all the more galling in light of what we’ve since learned about the role of the Russian government in crippling her campaign.
Some of the answer is surely rooted in gender. None of the other near-miss candidates bore the burden of being the first woman ever to run as a major-party nominee. Since the beginning of her public life, Clinton has served as a prism through which America has refracted its social anxieties. Critics branded her a radical feminist and left-wing agitator in her husband’s state house and White House – a cutthroat opportunist when she ran for the United States Senate – a woolen, “likable enough” alternative to Barack Obama – and, finally, a millionaire denizen of Wall Street. Each of these caricatures reveals distinct ways in which gender proxies for a broader constellation of social concerns. That dynamic did not magically recede once the election was over.
In this sense, it’s unsurprising that many of the pundits quickest to share their latest hot take about Clinton’s failure as a candidate (or human being) are men, including CNN’s Chris Cillizza, Business Insider’s Josh Barro or the ever-irascible Charles Krauthammer. To be sure, the pundit’s stock and trade is contrarian snark. It’s not that they aren’t hard on men, too. It’s that it seems outside their experiential ability to consider that gender might have played a determining role in how the public perceived – and the press treated – the first female nominee.
There is also the coarsened state of our politics. American elections have always been rough and tumble. Andrew Jackson’s opponents openly accused his wife, Rachel, of bigamy. When he ran for re-election in 1864, Abraham Lincoln withstood brutal attacks from his Democratic opponents, who coined a new term, “miscegenation,” to describe Lincoln’s alleged plan to enforce the compulsory mixing of the races – an electric charge in that day and age. But what happened to Clinton was profoundly different.
For more than two years, Republicans did more than demonize her – they criminalized her, first through the Benghazi hearings (a congressional boondoggle if ever there was one), and later, by representing her use of a personal email server – a politically unwise decision, but one that resulted in not a single felony or misdemeanor charge – as a national emergency. Chants of “Lock Her Up” – Trump’s moniker, “Crooked Hillary” – the mock trial staged by Chris Christie, who these days is hardly in a position to threaten anyone with criminal prosecution. Nothing of this sort has ever transpired in American history. It created a toxic environment and false narrative that may have led especially gullible voters to believe that Clinton, if elected, would face imminent impeachment, removal and imprisonment. In its pursuit of this scorched-earth project, the GOP was aided by mainstream journalists who covered the email story far out of proportion to its legal consequence; bad actors who exploited today’s fractured media environment; and the Russian government. And then, of course, there was James Comey.
Criminalization worked with brutal precision, a point that Nate Silver hammered home in his assessment of Comey’s infamous letter to Congress of October 28. Headline: “The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton the election.” It goes a long way in explaining how a candidate with a favorability/unfavorability rating of 66-29 in mid-2012 ended her public career upside down, 41-57.
The same journalists who covered the 2016 campaign get the first crack at writing its history. Many reporters have turned their attention away from Clinton, but others seem stubbornly invested in laying the blame for Donald Trump squarely at her doorstep. To do otherwise would be to challenge a narrative they helped establish. Armed with unshakable self-confidence and no end of 140-character gems, they’d like Hillary Clinton to do what no one else in her position has ever been asked to do: apologize, though for what, it’s not clear.
For running a bad campaign? Perhaps, though the jury is still out on that question. History will clearly document Trump’s repeated evisceration of more than a dozen other GOP candidates – most of them men – in 11 separate debates. It will also remember that he managed no such triumph over Clinton when they met on stage. On the contrary.
Lest one immediately conclude that the political right owns exclusive rights to the Clinton-bashing franchise, prominent voices on the far left have also staked their claim. In the wake of Trump’s victory, filmmaker Michael Moore excoriated Clinton’s “disgraceful” campaign for its neglect of the Rust Belt. How else to explain her loss to Donald Trump, of all people? In this criticism, the extreme right and extreme left appear to agree: Clinton lost the election because she disrespected working-class (they really mean white working-class) voters in key Midwestern states.
But that, too, is more the stuff of conventional wisdom than established fact. Jeff Liszt, a Democratic pollster who consulted on Clinton’s campaign, argues that the current narrative – to wit, that Democrats let Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania slip away by virtue of not showing up – doesn’t bear scrutiny. “In these three states the campaign took three different approaches,” he wrote in an email, “with three different levels of resources, all yielding the same result. Wisconsin got very little TV, some investment in field, and no visits. Michigan got a moderate amount of TV, a moderate investment in field, and some late visits. Pennsylvania…got a massive investment in TV, a massive investment in field, and a massive commitment from the candidate and surrogates. Yet in each state Trump won a narrow victory. The difference is vanishingly small…despite the dramatically different approaches the campaign took in those states.”
That’s the type of detail that historians and political scientists will pore over in the coming years. Unencumbered by conventional wisdom that they did not help write, they’ll weigh the evidence and consider the broader context. They won’t chafe at the memory of press interviews that Clinton didn’t grant in Altoona, because they weren’t in Altoona, and they have no personal stake in the game. They won’t secretly feel guilty for treating email server management as if it were the most important electoral issue of 2016. They’ll consider that, perhaps, Clinton wouldn’t necessarily have won simply by throwing more money at the Rust Belt. They’ll compare what happened here to events in France, Britain, the Netherlands and Greece.
But historians will also ask a more fundamental question: why Hillary Clinton was the only near-miss candidate to endure lasting recrimination – the only such contender to meet with demands that she apologize, “take responsibility,” or otherwise just “shut the fuck up.”
It’s possible that her treatment says more about the kind of country we’ve become than why she lost Wisconsin.