Presidential Also-Rans

Whatever happened to all those people who struggled so hard and long to be nominated and elected President of the United States, only to drop out of the race when overcome by lack of support, lack of media coverage, or lack of money?

If you want a comprehensive answer to this question, you need to read Hats in the Ring: Conversations with Presidential Candidates by Brad Koplinski [Presidential Publishing, 7018 Old Cabin Lane, North Bethesda, MD, 20852, $19.95.] Koplinski formats the tremendous amount of information he had collected with a brief biography of the candidate, his or her political party, offices held, campaign strategy, amount of money raised, present occupation, and assorted "interesting facts."

He interviewed 28 candidates, most in person, but a few by telephone. As you already know, they run the political gamut from left to right and up to down, from Independent John Anderson to Bob Dole to Shirley Chisolm, Gary Hart, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Paul Simon, and more. Ross Perot is strangely conspicuous by his absence. Author Koplinski is very skilled at bringing out the minute specifics of the campaigns, so copious in detail that it seems to me this book could serve as a small encyclopedia of the subject.

I decided to choose just one candidate out of this thicket as a case study for progressive populists. He is from a state dear to my heart. He's even from a part of that state close to where I grew up -- southwestern Oklahoma. Fred Harris is from Walters in Cotton County originally and now lives in Albuquerque, N.M., where he has been a professor at the University of New Mexico. His former wife, LaDonna, is a Comanche from the same area and has been a longtime activist in behalf of Native Americans.

Harris became a US senator at age 33 after the death of Robert S. Kerr. In 1972 he ran a six-week campaign for the presidency, then decided to run again in 1976. His motto was "The Issue Is Privilege."

(It seems incredible now that a state whose congressional delegation is now 100 percent conservative Republican should ever have sent Fred Harris to Washington. He even had Arlo Guthrie performing at some of his rallies during the campaign.)

What happened was that Harris underwent a significant change for the better when he served on the Kerner Commission, set up to study poverty in the black population. For a time he supported the Vietnam War but changed his mind on that too. His populism, which he dubbed New Populism, included breaking up multinational corporations like oil companies (from whom he had received money in his early political life), starting universal health care, and reforming our tax system to be fairer to the poor.

And speaking of poverty, riches, and money, Fred Harris raised a million and a half dollars for the 1976 campaign. By contrast, Bob Dole raised $37 million in the primaries of 1996 and $83.6 million in the general election. You could argue that none of these amounts was enough to win an election, that it takes money plus charisma plus any number of other political and economic conditions for an individual to be elected president. And of course the right connections at the top might help not only to raise lots of money but to leverage influence in behalf of the rich and the powerful, which is exactly what they expect when they give to campaigns in the first place. Populist Fred Harris was right. The issue is still privilege.

Alvena Bieri is a writer in Stillwater, Okla.

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