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Stay the Curse
Political Junkie
Send your questions about campaigns and elections.

By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 7, 2000

Question: The 2000 presidential election is here, and I haven't heard anyone mention the "Year Ending in Zero" curse. Do you think that's because Ronald Reagan broke it? – Eric Newman, Hackensack, N.J.

Answer: I've seen very little mention of it – probably because, as you say, Reagan survived his tenure in the White House. The jinx to which you refer, for anyone not familiar with it, is that since 1840, every president elected in the year ending in a zero died in office. That it was Reagan who ended the string is a bit remarkable, given the fact that he was (a) the oldest man ever to serve in the White House, (b) the target of a would-be assassin's bullet, which came within an inch of his heart, and (c) diagnosed with cancer while still in office.

According to political lore, the curse began in 1840, when Tecumseh, the Shawnee Indian chief, was said to have been infuriated by the election of William Henry Harrison as president. Tecumseh was so outraged that he cursed Harrison, who just happened to catch pneumonia at his inauguration in March of 1841 and die a month later. For more than 100 years, the "curse" hit every president elected in a year ending in zero:

Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, assassinated in 1865;
James Garfield, elected in 1880, assassinated in 1881;
William McKinley, re-elected in 1900, assassinated in 1901;
Warren Harding, elected in 1920, died in office in 1923;
Franklin D. Roosevelt, re-elected to a third term in 1940, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945; and
John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, assassinated in 1963.

Question: What happens if a president-elect dies before the electoral college meets to formally elect him/her as president? Does the vice president-elect get the electoral commitments or does it become a free-for-all? – Jordan Kolovson, Norwalk, Conn.

Answer: Section 3 of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution states that if the president-elect dies before he is sworn in, then the vice president-elect becomes president. The 25th Amendment, which became part of the Constitution in 1967, states that in such an event, the vice president-elect would then appoint a new vice president, subject to congressional approval.

Question: Is there a book about the 1996 presidential election in the spirit of the Teddy White "Making of... " series, or the Germond/Witcover election books? I own something on every race since 1940 but can't find anything on 1996. I know the race was boring but someone must have wanted to write a book. – Craig N. Kidd, Atlanta, Ga.

Answer: I share your love for the Theodore White series, as well as the great books by Jack Germond and Jules Witcover on the '84, '88, and '92 campaigns. Alas, I fear that those kind of books have run its course. Witcover tried to get some editors and publishers interested in a book on the '96 campaign, but no one was. I don't know if the Clinton-Dole race was as boring as it was disheartening. And while the market for these kind of books is never that great to begin with, marketing a book on the '96 campaign might have been a hard sell even for us junkies.

There are, however, two books that I often refer to on the '96 campaign. Neither is of the Teddy White/Germond-Witcover genre. These are more droll, but they offer excellent analysis. One is called "Campaign '96: A Functional Analysis of Acclaiming, Attacking, and Defending," by William L. Benoit, Joseph R. Blaney and P.M. Pier (Praeger Publishers). The other is a series of reports and interpretations of the campaign, entitled "The Election of 1996," by Gerald M. Pomper, et al. (Chatham House Publishers).

Question: I'm 30 and can't remember the presidential election of 1976. I have heard about the infamous Poland gaffe that President Ford made in one of the debates with Jimmy Carter. Do you think the case could be made that Ford's debate gaffe was what lost him the 1976 election? Also, why exactly did Ford make the rare move in 1976 of dropping Nelson Rockefeller and replacing him with Bob Dole as his running mate? – Andrew Soller, Phoenix, Ariz.

Answer: It is hard to pinpoint exactly what cost Ford the election. Given the fact that he only lost to Carter by a million and a half votes (50-48 percent), you could make the case that any one of a list of factors – the Nixon pardon, the over-the-top partisanship of ticket-mate Bob Dole, lingering anger over Watergate, residue from his nomination battle with Ronald Reagan, high unemployment and inflation, a racist comment made by his secretary of agriculture – could be blamed for his narrow loss. But the "infamous Poland gaffe" didn't help his cause either.

Once down by double digits in most polls, Ford was coming back by late September when he and Carter debated three times. The president performed strongly in the first debate, blasting Carter as being inconsistent on the issues and likely to raise taxes, and took the lead in many national surveys. Then came the second debate, held in San Francisco on Oct. 6.

Carter was on the offensive from the outset, calling Ford a weak leader and faulting the president for a dismal foreign policy. At one point, Ford was talking about the 1975 Helsinki agreement, which called for strategic arms limitations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. "We have an agreement where they notify us and we notify them of any military maneuvers that are to be undertaken," the president said. "They have done it in both cases where they've done so. There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration."

Panelist Max Frankel of the New York Times couldn't believe his ears, and he asked Ford for a clarification: "Did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence and occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it's a Communist zone?" Ford responded, "I don't believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent or autonomous. It has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union."

In the following days, Ford began a series of "here's-what-I-meant" speeches. Meanwhile, the media had a field day with Ford's remarks. So did Carter, who called Ford's comments a "disgrace to our country." While most political wags insist that presidential debates really don't make much of a difference, this is one instance where that argument may be refuted.

As for your second question – why Ford dumped Vice President Rockefeller as his running mate – there is some uncertainty whether Ford precipitated the action or whether Rockefeller withdrew on his own. But there was no question that Rocky had become a lightning rod for conservative displeasure with the Ford administration. The right wing of the party well remembered how Rockefeller battled their hero, Barry Goldwater, for the 1964 Republican nomination, and how Rockefeller attacked the John Birch Society at their San Francisco convention that year. Rockefeller thus symbolized what conservatives didn't like about Ford. The V.P. didn't help his own cause for staying on the ticket when he refused to recognize conservative Sen. James Allen (D-Ala.) during a February 1975 debate – which unleashed a barrage of criticism of Rocky from the right.

With Reagan plotting a challenge to Ford's nomination, Rockefeller had become a drag on Ford's chances. Whether he was pushed or jumped on his own, there was near unanimity among Ford's brain trust that he had to go. Remember, at the same time, first lady Betty Ford told reporters that she agreed with the Supreme Court's decision that legalized abortion and spoke openly about premarital sex and experimenting with marijuana – views that were anathema to conservatives. And the president was not about to dump her.

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: junkie@washingtonpost.com

Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio, is also the creator of washingtonpost.com's ScuttleButton contest.

© Copyright 2000 Ken Rudin

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