"The Happy Warrior" is the label given two very different figures whose personalities brightened two generations of American politics. Even though neither of them attained the ultimate prize of the White House, Al Smith, the governor of New York and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate, and Hubert H. Humphrey, the senator from Minnesota, vice president and 1968 Democratic nominee, were loved by millions.
John Kasich, the representative from Columbus, Ohio, and chairman of the House Budget Committee, is not in their class as yet when it comes to accomplishments or renown. But if anyone in his generation -- he's 47 now and already has 17 years in Congress on his resume -- has the temperament to earn that affectionate title, it may be Kasich.
Rarely will you find someone who is enjoying defeat as much as Kasich is relishing being run out of the Republican presidential race. Despite suffering his first political setback since he lost a bid for student body president at Ohio State, his enthusiasm for public life is undiminished. His willingness to defy the odds -- the same trait that made him so appealing 10 years ago when he crafted strikingly smart budgets that had absolutely no chance in a Democratic-controlled House -- is as great as it's ever been.
I bumped into him back on July 14, the day he withdrew from the race, while he was touring a social service center in East Baltimore with the man he'd just endorsed, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Sitting on a little chair, surrounded by a couple of dozen inner-city youngsters, Kasich leaned forward and said, in dead earnest, "Remember, you can be anything you want to be!"
The dream of his presidential race was that he could fire up the enthusiasm of young people, turned off by politics, and convince them they could take over Washington if they would just put aside their cynicism and plunge into the battle. It worked, in small ways, in Iowa and New Hampshire, but Kasich said, "Given the capability of George Bush as a candidate" and the eagerness of the Republican governors and other party leaders to line up behind the man they thought could regain the White House for them, no one else really had a chance.
But that does not mean it was a wasted effort. In an interview last week, Kasich said he learned valuable lessons. Like what? "I was surprised that it starts out so grueling and then your body adjusts to it and your mind adjusts to it. The more I did it, the more I enjoyed it. Instead of running down, I was getting stronger. ...
"I even enjoyed raising the money. I kind of thought of it as if I were an inventor with a good idea who was looking for venture capital. It was fun to go to certain areas and present your ideas and see if you could raise money to support them. And I could talk about all the ideas I'd always wanted to talk about."
That last comment was pure Hubert Humphrey, a man who was energized by the sound of his own voice and could never pass up a chance to teach and preach, no matter how small the audience.
Kasich was delighted by the stubbornness of the Iowa and New Hampshire voters, so accustomed to being courted that they love to play coy. "This one guy -- a teacher -- in New Hampshire told me, `I've got a list of questions for you,' and after I'd answered about seven or eight of them, he said, `I guess I could do a coffee for you.' And I said, `Does that mean you're for me?' And he said, kind of shocked, `Well, not yet.' "
Kasich is storing all this experience away because the biggest lesson he learned was that "if you're a mailman's son, it is very hard to get to be president the first time you try. It's a big country."
Kasich is not running for reelection to the House. Been there, done that. "But I'm not giving up my dream of wanting to be president," he quickly said. He has a new bride and will soon become a father. He could be part of a Republican administration or even someone's running mate. Or he could step out into the private or nonprofit sector for a while. For the moment, he is savoring what Tim Penny, a former House member from Minnesota who retired voluntarily a few years ago and has become even more of a political force in his home state, told him in a phone call: "There is real power, John, in giving up power."
But I'd bet he'll be back. Nobody who enjoys politics and government as much as John Kasich does would let it end at age 47.