When There's Nothing Left to Do but Wait

Audio: Presidential Oral History Program and Presedential Recordings Program, UVA Miller Center of Public Affairs. Video by Photos: AP, Reuters, UPIProduction: Terrence Henry/washingtonpost.com
Sunday, November 2, 2008

Soon it'll all be over but the voting. What goes through the candidates' minds in the final anxious days and hours of an election? These excerpts from oral history interviews about the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan campaigns and from original tape recordings of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon may shed a little light. They were provided by Russell L. Riley, chairman of the Presidential Oral History Program, and David Coleman, chairman of the Presidential Recordings Program, at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

The final days . . .

Jimmy Carter staffer Alonzo McDonald on Carter's fading hopes for re-election in 1980: When [Carter] went to bed [the Saturday night before the election], he still thought he was going to pull it off. When he got a call about three o'clock in the morning about the terms of the Iranian parliament [for negotiating the release of the U.S. hostages], he knew there was no way that he could act responsibly and still be president . . . .When he woke up in Chicago on Sunday morning, the game was over. It was just a question of how to try to play it out with dignity, character and responsibility . . . . [Iran] was just like a match in a powder keg. We could see it immediately . . . .[At] the last minute . . . the general level of frustration [in the country] changed dramatically . . . . All that had to shift was about four points. . . . That's exactly what happened on Sunday and Monday. It was also accentuated by the fact that that was the anniversary of the Iranian taking of our hostages. Every major television station did an hour-and-a-half to two-hour documentary that night, rehashing the whole emotional process. All America was re-embarrassed again.

Media adviser Gerald Rafshoon on why Carter lost: We did some [late] test campaign [ads] in Montana, North Dakota, . . . Republican states . . . . I'd run a week or two of television at three thousand dollars for two weeks, and then we'd poll again to see if there was any movement. . . . We could see [Reagan] softening up in Republican areas . . . . [On] November 4, 1980, that night when [the election] was over, [political adviser Tim Kraft] made the most perceptive comment of that campaign: "We should have taken that thirty million dollars [of campaign funds] and spent it on two more helicopters in Iran. That's what we should have done." It just was irrelevant what we were doing on the air. What was happening in the country was just overwhelming.

Personal aide James Kuhn on the 1980 Reagan campaign: My last [campaign] stop was the Thursday before the election . . . . It really wasn't clear up until then that Reagan was going to win this thing. You had a man who was very conservative, from the wacky state of California, former actor, Grade-B actor, a lot of people thought he was a warmonger. The women of America, a lot of them didn't like him because of his stand on abortion and the fact that he was going to start a war with the Soviet Union and send their sons off to war. . . . We thought he'd be a great president, but could he be electable? . . . So even though we had momentum and Carter was not in a position of strength, . . . we weren't even cautiously optimistic. We'll just keep forging ahead and see what happens. . . . [Then] November 4, 1980 -- unbelievable. . . .

Election night . . .

President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President-elect Hubert Humphrey in a telephone conversation on election night 1964:

Johnson: How are you, Hubert?

Humphrey: Well, I'm fine. And how are you?

Johnson: Oh, I'm just kind of broken up. I'm aching all over. I've got a headache. And my damn bones, hip's hurting me, and I just, I'm just worn out. I just called you because I hadn't bothered you, and I didn't want to, and I didn't think it, I didn't think it was a good thing to do, but I wanted to tell you first, before I told anybody else, that you had no orders and you had no instructions and you had no mistakes and . . . I just don't know how anybody could do any better than that.

Humphrey: Well, Mr. President, you're wonderful to me. We worked hard, and I enjoyed it very much . . . .

Johnson: You've handled it just perfect, and I couldn't improve on it. And I'd just give you an A++, and you'll probably never get that good of a grade again. . . .

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