Two weeks ago, we reported the results of the Republican primary for governor of Alabama: incumbent Bob Riley, down in the polls for attempting (unsuccessfully, it turned out) a tax increase but on the rebound for his performance in Katrina relief, won with 67% of the vote over Roy Moore, famed worldwide as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court who was deposed in 2003 for attempting to place a monument bearing the Ten Commandments in the high court building.
To political observers from afar, the results could appear somewhat stunning: Judge Moore had been a national conservative icon, his stand and subsequent ouster from his office in defense of the word of God winning him fervent admirers and a year-long agenda of radio-TV appearances and paid speaking dates. He was HUMAN EVENTS’ “Man of the Year” in ’03.
“Judge Moore,” predicted Montgomery (Ala.) attorney Raymond Hawthorne, who is a familiar operator in state politics, “will beat Riley like a drum.”
He didn’t. The consensus of pundits and pols I know in Alabama was that Moore—albeit a well-rounded person, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Vietnam veteran, and prosecutor and jurist—could never be perceived by voters as anything beyond being the central figure in a controversy. Put another way, they saw him as the “Ten Commandments judge,” but nothing more.
In retrospect, his defeat should not be that much of a surprise. Historically, American voters, however sympathetic to a tragic figure for his or her tragedy, rarely translate their sympathy into awarding elective office to that figure. With the exceptions of widows of deceased Members of Congress (Mary Bono of California being a recent example), the victim of unfortunate or seemingly unfair circumstances more often than not doesn’t cut it as a candidate. And even widowhood of a congressman doesn’t always guarantee victory at the polls; in 1983, after Rep. Larry MacDonald (D.-Ga.) was killed when Flight KAL-007 was downed by a Russian jet fighter, wife Kathy MacDonald nonetheless met defeat at the hands of fellow Democrat Buddy Darden in the special election to fill his seat.
“Martyrdom unrewarded,” is how Michael Barone of the Almanac of American Politics characterized it—the failure of victims to turn their unfortunate circumstances into political success. He even offered me the example of Patty Wetterling, Minnesota housewife and math teacher, whose 11-year-old-son Jacob was kidnapped in 1989 and never seen again. She formed the Wetterling Foundation to address the crisis of missing children and became a nationally-known advocate on the subject. But when she ran for Congress in 2004 against Republican Rep. Mark Kennedy, she lost with 43% of the vote.
Judge Moore and Mrs. Wetterling won’t be the last “unrewarded martyrs.” They certainly weren’t the first.
Old Soldiers Fading Away
When Gen. Douglas MacArthur was removed from his command by President Truman in 1950, the country was in an uproar. Truman was lustily booed when he threw out the first ball to open the baseball season at Washington DC’s Griffith Stadium. MacArthur was given a hero’s welcome after his nationally-televised address to Congress, when he hushed the audience with the conclusion: “Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Fade Away.”
The general, sacked for publicly disagreeing with the President’s directives in the Korean War, then began a nationwide speaking tour, his welcome by several million in a limosine ride through Manhattan also drawing 2,859 tons of litter (or more than Charles Lindbergh’s parade after he returned from his heroic flight across the Atlantic in 1927). Overflow crowds greeted the 71-year-old MacArthur from Lansing, Michigan to Seattle, Washington. A presidential bid seemed the next logical step in his vindication.
“My mother loved General MacArthur and we got involved in politics through the movement in New York to draft him for President,” recalled Annette Courtemanche Kirk, now head of the Russell Kirk Center in Michigan. Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Tex.) reminisced about being a teenaged “soda jerk” at the time and, through listening to radio commentators discuss the general, growing interested in politics because he wanted MacArthur for president. Republicans who wanted MacArthur launched various “draft campaigns” in different states. “Texas had a ‘Demand MacArthur’ movement, California an ‘Americans for MacArthur’ drive, New Hampshire a ‘MacArthur for President’ caucus, Pennsylvania a ‘Fighters for MacArthur’ Committee,” noted William Manchester in his epic biography An American Caesar, quickly adding “[t]hey were, however, weaker than they seemed.”
For all the sympathy for his sacking, all the parades and cheers and draft movements, MacArthur never even got started as a Republican presidential candidate in 1952, and, in fact, left the national convention before it was over (and nominated his onetime executive officer, Dwight Eisenhower). In his autobiography, the old soldier barely mentions the talk of his running.
“By wading into the political surf,” concludes Manchester, up to his pipe and braided cap, the public opinion polls reported, he had sacrificed much of his following.” The biographer notes that every speech MacArthur gave after returning home “heightened the impression that he was just another partisan politician, a spokesman for the right-wing creed whose other pulpiteers lacked his stature and his vision.” Commenting his old chief, Eisenhower told journalist C.L. Sulzberger that MacArthur was “an opportunist seeking to ride the crest of the wave.”
Gen. Edwin Walker, who resigned from the Army in 1961 after being rebuked for alleged conservative indoctrination of his troops filed for the Democratic nomination for governor of Texas the following year. He ran last in the six-candidate field with 10% of the vote. Gen. William Westmoreland, head of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1965-68, was reviled in the national media for the Tet Offensive in January 1968; the severity of the surprise strike from North Vietnam stunned Americans and helped turn public opinion against the war (although, with more than one million of the enemy dead, it was actually a tremendous U.S. victory). For all his demonization in the press, “Westy” was a hero in his homestate of South Carolina. When he ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 1974, the press likened Westmoreland to Eisenhower coming home to run for President (and like Ike and many career officers, Westy had never voted while on active duty, taking the view that the military should not determine the civilians who give them orders).
But Westmoreland was soundly beaten in the Republican primary by State Sen. James B. Edwards. John Napier, former Republican congressman from the Palmetto State, remembers that “the general would get out of his car at campaign stops, his supporters would stand at attention and he would salute them—he wasn’t suited for politics.” (The late Lee Atwater, who helped run the Westmoreland campaign, later wrote a thesis on why his man lost to Edwards).
It’s not just the brass that falls. US Marine Sgt. Kevin Hermening, the youngest (21) hostage held in the U.S. embassy in Iran, was profiled in such national outlets as USA Today and Good Morning America. But he lost two bids for Congress from Wisconsin, as well as a race for the state legislature.
My friend Jay O’Callaghan, whose knowledge of political history is a veritable Library of Congress, vividly recalled his youth in Florida. In 1970, G. Harrold Carswell, a federal judgeship rejected by the Senate for the Supreme Court the year before, suddenly resigned his judgeship to seek the Republican nomination for U.S. Senator. While many Floridians were sympathetic to the judge and felt his rejection came from being a Southernor, Carswell could never go beyond that and become a full-fledged politician. His speeches, as one wag put it, “made his judicial opinions sound eloquent. Carswell lost resoundingly to veteran Rep. Bill Cramer in the primary.
Matt Cvetic, nationally famed as an FBI undercover man in the U.S. Communist Party and subject of the hit film I Was A Communist for the FBI, could not talk about issues other than Communism when he ran for Congress from Pennsylvania in 1956. He was badly beaten in the Republican primary. Joe Finley, a New York City firefighter who suffered lung damage and severe asthma during 9/11, drew 40% of the vote as the Republican nominee in a Long Island congressional district in ’02.
There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. Carolyn McCarthy, a Long Island housewife whose husband was murdered in a grisly shooting on the Long Island Railroad, changed from Republican to Democrat and won a House seat in her maiden run for office in 1996. She serves in Congress today. Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Jerry Denton of Alabama, both Vietnam POW, served in the Senate, and McCain and Rep. Sam Johnson (R.-Tex.), also an alumnus of the Hanoi Hilton served in the House. But far more former POWs were defeated; in 1974, a year after they returned triumphantly from incarceration, three decorated former POWs all ran for office. All lost.
The morale of this side of American politics could easily be: “Martyrdom for a noble cause is honored—except at the polls.”