Essay

At the Finish Line of Life, Sometimes Second Is Best

A notable runner-up was Georgia peanut farmer and presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter, who was No. 2 in the 1972 Iowa caucuses behind
A notable runner-up was Georgia peanut farmer and presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter, who was No. 2 in the 1972 Iowa caucuses behind "uncommitted." (United Press International)

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007

It's rarely a good thing to be someone's second choice. The first runner-up to Miss America hates herself more than the girl who never came close -- she will never know if she would have won with another lipstick.

The shame of having to go to your safety school. The shame of being a backup prom date. Salutatorian is pronounced looo-sehr. Finishing second is where your mom comes in, trying to make you feel better. Being second, we are forced to accept our limitations and to consider the lesson of Tour de France cyclist Floyd Landis, a hard-working grunt, a natural second who tried to come in first via synthetic testosterone, it seems, and look what happened to him.

Except.

Except for the Iowa caucuses. There, the bizarre math practiced by the Democratic Party (the Republicans have different rules) means that being a citizen's second choice can be a very good thing. Follow this for a moment: In most precincts, each candidate must receive support from at least 15 percent of the folks in attendance to remain viable. If a smaller percentage of caucusgoers in a particular precinct supports Sen. Chris Dodd, for example, each Dodd supporter has the option of throwing his or her support to someone else, someone they like second-best.

And that may help the second-best person come in first.

This is why Barack Obama recently asked a Dodd supporter in Iowa if he could please be her second choice.

"Senator Obama was extremely gracious," Democratic activist Karen Thalacker told the Chicago Sun-Times. "I told him, 'Absolutely.' "

What a strange phenomenon -- begging to be someone's second choice. But it matters so much that pollsters ask Democrats in Iowa not only about their first choices but about their second choices, too. (Obama leads in both categories, according to the new Washington Post-ABC News Poll.)

Who begs to be second? There are few parallels in American life. Some countries rally around Olympic silver medalists as heroes, but Americans consider the gold the only one that really matters. We are forever measuring ourselves, trying to gain extra credit or shave an eighth of a second. (What is No Child Left Behind if not a triumph of decimal points over substance? But we have turned political. Forgive us.)

We say everyone's a winner, but we don't really believe it. We are a nation that believes in "winner take all" -- which was once the name of a game show, by the way, which is fitting because of the way game shows contribute to our first-place mania. Game show contestants are always holding out for the million-dollar suitcase, or for whatever's behind door No. 3. It's a gambler's mind-set, maybe, this wanting to be luckiest, fastest, richest, thinnest. No -- it's a Guinness Book of World Records measure of life, in which being first is more important than what you're first at.

Which is why No. 2 is so important. No. 2 is the yardstick. No. 2 is the person we had better be better than, the perpetual almost-been whose indignity is only compounded by the slang meaning of that phrase. Number two, intoned slowly with a wrinkled nose. Of course, No. 2 is sometimes secretly running the show. (See: Dick Cheney.)

No. 1 and No. 2 are fixed in their roles, which is why it's hard to imagine Bill Clinton as first spouse. Which is why the first runner-up to Vanessa Williams, whatever her name was, was forever destined to be just first runner-up, even after Williams was forced to resign and she became Miss America. Once a loser, forever lost.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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