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Harold Stassen Wasn't Joking

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, March 7, 2001; Page A23

Even the obituary writers, schooled in the generosity owed to the dead, mention Harold Stassen's improbable toupee. This one great concession to the political realities of our age was stubbornly, proudly wrong, topping his great head like a sullen possum that had been dipped in bronze.

When I got sent to interview him, he was already well past the stage of has-been, far beyond the status of National Joke; he was a figure transcendently past his prime, a challenge faced every four years by one or another feature-writer in The Post's Style section. The assignment was a chestnut, a little like being sent to cover the president's annual pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey: Let's see what you can do with this, kid.

And that was 13 years ago. The story I wrote informs me that his pant leg was frayed; that he wore a blue summer suit with brown socks and fading black shoes and a transfiguring smile that he spent with care. But what it mostly recalled to me was the mystery that clung to the man, who died on Sunday at 93, after more than four decades of bearing with apparent serenity the fact that his name was synonymous with persistent failure.

Squandered promise is one of the great themes of American life, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's Dick Diver to Calvin Trillin's "Remembering Denny": the saga of the gifted young man (or woman) who never fulfills a seemingly golden fate. The precocious success who never entirely flowers. As the baby boom ages, it is a theme that obsesses us all the more: identifying the moment when the doors of possibility begin (or began) to close, noticing that the future at some point stops (or stopped) shimmering with hazy possibility.

And no one in politics embodied failed promise more thoroughly, more tirelessly, than Harold E. Stassen. Progressive "boy governor" of Minnesota at 31, reelected twice; recipient of the Bronze Star for service in the Navy during World War II; near-nominee in '48, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Cabinet member and confidant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. And then . . . perpetual candidate. In 1952. In 1956. In 1960. In 1964. In 1968 he won only one delegate, but that didn't stop him from running in 1972, or '76, or '88 or '92.

He ran for governor of Pennsylvania. He ran for mayor of Philadelphia. He tried to run for governor of Minnesota in 1998, at age 91, but was turned away because he didn't have a running mate. In other words, he submitted himself to the summary rejection of his fellow Americans for a good 40 years after he had last been remotely likely to win an election, spending almost half a long lifetime as a willing joke.

He did this with no visible humor or sense of irony. The journalist William White once described him as having "the most profound absence of a sense of humor in American politics." The interesting thing about him is that even in the midst of a lunatic campaign he didn't seem cracked, or crazy, or even deluded about his chances. He saw himself, with sublime seriousness, as the standard-bearer for a kind of moderate Republican internationalism that his party had abandoned.

"I sometimes wish," he told me, "people would ask not how many times I've run a campaign, but how many times I've been right on the big issues." And he was, fairly often: He was an early Republican critic of the Vietnam War. He had Richard Nixon's number in the '50s, and orchestrated a dump-Nixon movement before Eisenhower's second campaign. He decried his party's rightward turn under Ronald Reagan.

But he was not taken seriously even as the lonely beacon of moderation he hoped to be. Instead, he was the specter summoned whenever respectable opinion wanted to frown on any other fringe candidacy, on Pat Buchanan or Alan Keyes or Ralph Nader. The rest of the time, laughing at Harold Stassen was a way of whistling past the graveyard: what a chump, to press ahead when the faintest scintilla of promise was gone.

Yet Stassen couldn't be dismissed as a simple egotist. When he wasn't running for something, he had a flourishing international law practice; to our modern minds, it is unfathomable why he left it at regular intervals to court ridicule. But to meet him was to know that he was looking for something other than the strokes that most pols seek like water and air.

Stassen believed, straight-up, in the importance of his views, and he wore that belief, beneath his rumpled suit and dreadful hairpiece, with dignity. He may have been a national joke, but when I think back on the time I spent with him, he wasn't even a little bit ridiculous.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company