Martha: "Tell me, dear, now that we're back in Washington, what's the most interesting thing you've seen so far?"
George: "I cannot tell a lie. It's the Unsuccessful Candidates for the Presidency, 1912-1976' exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. That's where it's at."
Willkie. Landon.Smith. Dewey. McGovern. Humphrey. Cox. Davis. Stevenson. Goldwater.
So what do they have in common besides losing? All male. All white. All blasts from the past. And today, on July 4, Independence Day, when we're 204 years old, just to show the mood of the country we're hanging the losers just down the hall from the winners. Everybody's up against the wall.
Losers. Beautiful, but losers.
"We don't like to call them that. We don't like to give that impression," said Beverly Cox, curator of exhibitions. "They are noble men. Some great men ran for the presidency and lost. Al Smith certainly would have made a good president. Adlai Stevenson. The best man doesn't always win."
"I voted for McGovern, too," she said.
George McGovern, who lost in 1972 by the largest popular plurality ever. His portrait, a May 1972 painting that was commissioned for the cover of Time magazine, is on the right wall as you walk into the exhibit, just across the hall from George and Martha. McGovern is, of course, facing left. The backgrounds, as befits his optimistic run, is a bright blue sky.
"I remember posing for some photographs, but so vaguely that I can't recall the details," McGovern said just the other day. "I think I posed here in my office, but I don't remember what I wore."
White shirt with blue pin stripes.
Purple and gold tie. Thick knot.
When McGovern learned of the exhibit, he said he would make sure to see it. During the conversation the caller wondered how the losers would look.
"You mean," McGovern asked, laughing loudly, "do we look defeated?"
McGovern didn't. He looked smashing.
As did, interestingly, the man who defeated him, Richard Nixon. Nixon was a loser in 1960. But the portrait shows a young man, a fresh man. None of the heavy jowl. None of the squinting suspicion. Nothing to suggest the checkered days of future-past.
In the wall space between Nixon and McGovern come two more losers, Hubert Humphrey (1968) and Barry Goldwater (1964). Humphrey's portrait, done on wood, has a decidedly Revolutionary-American look, and 1968, with its antiwar protests and violence, was a decidedly revolutionary year. Humphrey, looks haunted, perhaps by the shadow of LBJ. Above the portrait is a campaign poster with the slogan -- Some Talk Change. Other Cause It. A victim of change, Humphrey lost because he never went with the flow.
Goldwater's portrait, another in the series from Nixon to Ford that were commissioned as Time covers, suffers the most kitsch. There he is, Mr. Tall In The Saddle himself, with his nose more prominent than one ever remembers, imprisoned by black thick-rimmed glasses, resembling so much a physics professor coming out of the lab at Los Alamos. Within the portrait are gold Republican elephants, each wearing the same thick black rims.Goldwater seems so much handsomer now, so much more distinquished, so much stronger. In your heart, you know this portrait can't be right.
The media has grabbed onto this exhibit so hard that it threathens to grab even more publicity than the Gilbert Stuart portraits of the Washingtons. "In an election year, we knew it would be a popular subject," said Beverly Cox. "But it's somewhat embarrassing. We put this show together so quickly, and it's receiving all this attention. George and Martha are incredibly important. This is just fun."
How much fun could it have been to be William Howard Taft at 300 pounds? A one-term president who came in a distant third in his 1912 reelection bid. On the wall in recline, he looks like Orson Wells with a walrus mustache. No way he wins an election today with television adding even more weight to him so he comes across like a beachball that needs a shave.
And Gerald Ford (1976) isn't having much fun either. In his portrait his skin has the look of orange clay. Staring to his right with stern intensity, he seems equally angry and confused, as if he doesn't know the answer to the obvious question -- Why did Time color my face orange?
Stevenson, a double loser to Ike, in 1952 and 1956, is a bald eagle with piercing blue eyes. Or, if you liked the old image, an egghead.
Then, there's Thomas Dewey, who also dropped both ends of a twin bill, the opener to FDR in 1944, and then the nightcap to Harry Truman in 1948.Remember that Chicago Tribune headline fiasco -- Dewey Defeats Truman. That's on display. Even better is a campaign poster used against both men by third party candidate Henry Wallace. It's a parody of the famous picture in which Lauren Bacall stretches seductively on top of Truman's piano, while Give 'Em Hell Harry tinkles the ivories. This time Truman's at the keys, but on top a basking seal, is Dewey. Natty Tom Dewey, who inspired this question (by Alice Roosevelt Longworth) "How can anyone vote for him? The man looks like a bridegroom on a wedding cake."
The one-room exhibit, an updating of the "If Elected . . ." exhibit of eight years ago at NPG, has portraits and photographs and pennants and other paraphernalia from losing causes. A rare McGovern-Eagleton button. A copy of the ever popular song "Happy Landin' With Landon." A license plate, "Who But Hoover."
Who indeed? Herbert Hoover a.k.a. Hoobert Heever, another one-termer, a big loser in 1932 to FDR. Round face. Round collar. Roundly condemned for The Depression. A photograph. Patrician. Very distant. A violinist in the danceband on The Titanic.
Wendell Wilkie, the 1940 loser to FDR. Charcoal on paper. Looks a lot like Morley Safer. A real lot like Morley Safer. How do we know he wasn't Morley Safer? What kind of name is Morley Safer anyway?
Alf Landon, the 1936 loser to FDR. Another man with the college professor look, but more like a Chaucer prof than a scientist. He's grinning in his portrait. Having fun behind his glasses. Glasses were more acceptable then in presidential candidates. James Cox, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and Woodrow Wilson all wore them. Interestingly, Goldwater wears them in his portrait, but not in his campaign poster.
Al Smith was the man Hoover beat in 1928. The Happy Warrior. The Catholic governor of New York with the Tammany Hall roots, running under the slogan -- Honest. Able. Fearless. A real boulevardier from the photographs. In one he has his right foot up on a window ledge, his left arm around his wife's shoulders and his right arm pointing out as he and his wife stare out the window. Fill in the caption: "We paid $150 a day for this view and all it does is rain. We should've gone to Miami Beach."
It's walk down memory lane time.
Who lost to Wilson in 1916? Who lost to Warren Harding in 1920? Who lost to Calvin Coolidge in 1924?
Charles Evans Hughes in 1916. Hughes may be the most distinquished looking of the lot, posing in his Supreme Court justice robes with his bushy white eyebrows, the size of loaves of bread, and his bushy white Van Dyke whiskers. Whiskers were all the rage then. It was only in the '40s and '50s when men cut their hair Oliver Cromwell style. Hughes was either the butler in the Vincent Price movies, or a cough medicine.
James Cox lost in 1920. His slogan was Peace-Progress-Prosperity. Put them all together they spell -- Who? Cox was the governor of Ohio. He wore rimless glasses and his face was plain and seemed to be made of clay.
John W. Davis lost in 1924. (Don't feel bad. Nobody in his own party knew him. He was a Wall Street lawyer who won the Democratic nomination on the 102nd ballot. He was such a dark horse that if there'd been a black-out that year he might have been lost forever.) There's a bronze bust of him. Our guess is that it looks just like him.
Third party candidates?
Teddy Roosevelt, a loser in 1912 on the Progressive "Bull Moose" ticket.
TR's on the wall in photo, poster and pennant.
Robert LaFollette, a loser in 1924 on the Progressive ticket. There's a bronze bust of him, and another bronze bust of Henry A. Wallace, a loser in 1948 on the Progressive ticket.
Not making much progress, losing all the time, were they?
And the Socialist Party candidates. Talk about busts. Eugene V. Debs ran on that ticket five times between 1900 and 1920, including once while he was in prison for opposing the draft. Appeared on the ballot as Good Old Number 9653. Got several hundred thousand votes. He's cast in bronze. Thick-headed. As is Norman Thomas, who ran six times beginning in 1928. Thomas once said, "I'd rather be right than president." Congratulations, Normie.