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Crazy runs for president don’t look so mad when you see what happens next

Laughably improbable candidates are an essential part of the process — and many of them do pretty well out of it…

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

 New York

It takes a strange bird to run for the White House. To think you’re worth all the fund-raising, the protection, the applause, the haters, the heel-clicking Marines. But with a mere 18 months till the next election, the field is taking shape: Hillary Clinton, still pitching herself as the nation’s benevolent grandma even after it emerged that she and her husband had in the past year raked in $25 million in speaking fees; Jeb Bush, 30 pounds lighter on his ‘paleo’ diet, trying to prove he’s not the Pete Best of the Bush family; and tucked in behind, various curiosities from the Senate (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul) and governors’ mansions (Chris Christie of New Jersey), all hoping they can channel some mysterious electoral force.

And then there are the carnival acts, hovering on the fringes, tempted by the spotlight and career boost a presidential run can bring. The fake or laughably improbable presidential run is an integral part of every American election. Donald Trump is pounding the bongos again for 2016, suggesting he is more serious this time than he was in 2012 when he teased with the prospect of a run which never happened. Trumpis like early Nigel Farage, uncut by genuine electoral dreams. When he talks about the country going to hell under its probably Kenyan, probably Muslim President, it’s hard not to hear the clink of scotch glasses and the rustle of white hoods. But he’s good box office in early campaign days when the press is otherwise stuck with candidates munching on funnel cake at state fairs.

Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s independent senator, is promising to show Hillary up as the corporate shill she is. But he may need to do some poll testing on his offer to make America more like Scandinavia — not a widely heard yearning south or west of his state. The robotic Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett Packard, is running as a Republican, as is Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon and rare black Conservative with a gift for whipping up hard white peaks of Tea Party rage.

Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister and former Fox television host and governor of Arkansas, is also running. He won the Republicans’ Iowa caucuses in 2008, the high point of a ‘Hucka-boom’ that quickly petered out. But a chunk of his party will always value his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, the teaching of Darwin and any legislation limiting the right to bear arms. Ultra-hawk Lindsey Graham has thrown his hat in, too, promising ‘to defeat the enemies that are trying to kill us’ — that’s radical Islam, folks. And the former Texas governor Rick Perry, whose 2012 run was brought to an end by a string of spectacular gaffes, announced his run this week.


What the campaign is still missing, though, is a candidate who can put the pantomime in perspective. Someone either so unintentionally bonkers, their cheese, as Texans say, ‘done slid off their cracker’; or a true Kabouter, a candidate in the spirit of the Dutch anarchists of the early 1970s who won seats on Amsterdam’s city council and then smoked weed and let off stink bombs during meetings to express their contempt for the political process. There are plenty of historical examples in both categories, and many in between.

The former pizza chain executive Herman Cain ran for the 2012 Republican nomination and led several early polls. He was then accused of various incidents of sexual harassment. In his withdrawal speech, he quoted at length from a song he had heard in the Pokémon movie, Donna Summer’s ‘The Power of One’: ‘Life can be a challenge. Life can seem impossible. It’s never easy when there’s so much on the line. But you and I can make a difference. There’s a mission just for you and me.’ He has since vanished from view.

Sarah Palin has drifted ever further to the political margins and recently launched an online Sarah Palin Channel. If a former vice-presidential nominee howls on the internet and no one hears, does she make a sound? It is strange to recall that Newt Gingrich was once the battering ram of the Republican party, as the speaker of the House of Representatives. His presidential hopes evaporated in 2012 when it emerged that he and his third wife owed nearly half a million dollars to the Tiffany jewellery company. Blue-collar Christians found him hard to trust after that.

The in-betweens include Chris Dodd, a former senator and drinking pal of Ted Kennedy, who moved his family to Des Moines, Iowa for a year leading up to the 2008 Democratic caucus. Iowans rewarded him with sixth place. But Dodd bounced back and is now head of the Motion Picture Association of America and earning more than ten times his government salary. Even when you lose as a presidential candidate, you can still win. Since losing in 2000, Al Gore has become a billionaire from his business interests.

The journalist Pat Buchanan fertilised his career as a pundit with presidential runs in 1992, 1996 and 2000 during which, like some backyard Napoleon, he urged his supporters to ‘mount up and ride to the sound of the guns’. Michael Bloomberg stayed relevant through the later years of his New York mayoralty by constantly menacing a national campaign. The Texan billionaire Ross Perot seemed sane for a while when he ran his third-party campaigns in 1992 and 1996, promising to run the United States like a business. But campaign life eventually got the better of him. At the end of his 1996 campaign he erupted: ‘War has rules. Mud-wrestling has rules. Politics has no rules.’

In the Kabouter category there was Joan Jett Black, the stage name of Terence Smith, a drag queen. Miss Black ran for the Queer Nation party in 1992 against George H.W. Bush, under the slogan ‘Lick Bush in ’92’. She then ran against Bill Clinton in 1996, asking voters to ‘Lick Slick Willie’. In 1968 at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the radical Youth International party, the Yippies, presented a pig named Pigasus the Immortal as their candidate. ‘Vote Pig!’ and ‘Pork Power!’ they yelled, until police moved them along on the grounds that it was illegal to bring livestock into the city.

The comedian Stephen Colbert ran in character in 2007 and said: ‘It’s clear the voters are desperate for a white, male, middle-aged, Jesus-trumpeting alternative.’ ‘I don’t want to be president,’ he added. ‘I want to run for president. There’s a difference.’ He ended his run before he had to pay $35,000 to enter the first Republican primary. But it served the useful purpose of creating what theatrical scholars call a ‘distancing effect’, separating the audience, the voters, from the show, the campaign, and revealing its absurdities.

And then there are those campaigns which never got beyond an idea. The greatest of these was Warren Beatty 2000. Beatty seriously considered running after making Bulworth, his splendid farce about a disillusioned liberal senator who loses his inhibitions on the campaign trail. To have watched Hollywood’s greatest lover try to seduce American voters would have been sensational. He would have made Bill Clinton look an amateur.

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Show comments
  • Bob Caruthers

    I hope Trump does run. It is a mistake to think he has no chance. Far from it. After all, Bonzo the chimp’s co-star won the presidential 1981 election.

    I don’t even like Trump, but if I was American I would vote for him for the simple reason that he would probably be able to put the US back on its feet.

  • rtj1211

    Actually, America needs heavyweight candidates who don’t kiss the ass of Wall Street, the US oligarchs and the Military-Media-Internet-Education seven-headed hydra.

    The problem America has is that ‘credible candidature’ is defined by a very small clique of entirely unaccountable powermongers, none of whom have the remotest interest in serving the interests of Joe Schmo of Main Street.

    That’s why it’s so despised when it tries to rule the world: everyone knows that it’s democratic system is so laughably ridiculous as to make advising anyone else about theirs so utterly cringeworthy.

    Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t be ‘credible candidates’ according to the mainstream US opinion formers. They would make very good candidates to shift the debate away from American corruption and onto making America live out the reality of its founding principles.

    • carl jacobs

      Yeh. The US was despised in South Korea as well. Right up until we threatened to go home.

  • Roger Hudson

    It’s the laughable probable candidates I worry about, we should all be very worried if it’s Clinton-Bush, so in hock to ‘big money’ that the American people and the world generally will be (even) worse off than now.

  • Faulkner Orkney

    America is too big and diverse to have a president that will properly represent it…it needs to completely diminish the legislative strength of the role and thus allow the workable presidency models found in Ireland or Israel.

    • carl jacobs

      No thanks. Not fond of Parliamentary Gov’t. We don’t need a ceremonial figurehead.

  • carl jacobs

    Rand Paul is a Libertarian – or as close as a politician can get to Libertarian and still credibly participate in American politics. Libertarians must be kept far, far away from Gov’t. It would be like giving a loaded gun to a four year-old.

    • AgZarp

      There are worse types than Libertarians to keep away from government. Socialists and crony capitalists for a start. Keynesians, ‘green’ candidates and gun-control nuts, too. In truth, I’m not sure you could go too wrong with a Libertarian considering the alternatives.

      • carl jacobs

        I don’t disagree about there being worse types. To establish a Socialist Gov’t is rather like giving a loaded gun to a psychopathic serial killer. At least the four year-old has an innocent mind.

        But when you hear Libertarians talk about dismantling the offensive capability of the US military, you start to fear for the Republic. Watch a Libertarian Convention some time. It’s an entertaining spectacle.

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    • Lorenzo

      Libertarians want to take over the government and not bother you anymore.

      • carl jacobs

        There are in my experience three basic types of Libertarian.

        1. The Stoner who wants to smoke his dope without interference.

        2. The Ideologue who thinks that virtue spontaneously emerges as authority declines.

        3. The Earnest Disciple of Ayn Rand with his dogeared copy of ‘Atlas Shrugged.’

        They all share the notion that autonomy is the greatest good. But if the West has proved anything it is that man by nature turns liberty into license. The inevitable product of the Libertarian is the Libertine. And you cannot sustain let alone build a civilization on such a foundation.

        There is no moral authority in Libertarianism. There is only the Market and meaningless abstract principles like the Non-use of force. Ultimately it is nothing but the presumed deification of man and the establishment of his desire as divine writ. And that is why it is so relentlessly atheist.

        • Lorenzo

          History has also shown that governments that deny individual autonomy can be bad for you (Communists, Nazis, Pol Pot…) and life under people who claim moral authority (Calvin, Savonarola, the Inquisition…) is often no picnic either.

          I prefer a government that leaves me alone as much as possible, whatever it’s called.

  • Lawence James

    Its not just the contenders that frighten one, its some of the winners: Bush the Younger, Warren G Harding, Calvin Coolidge in the last century and a knot of mediocrities and party hacks in the nineteenth.

  • BFS

    Another article written rapidly by a journalist that uses mockery as an easy tool to sound intelligent and provides information about candidates you can often find in the first 3 items of a google search.

    With such technique he may continue to tire people with non-sense but unfortunately have readers enough to keep polluting web pages for years to come
    …and do pretty well out of it…

    It makes me think of a quote from Gilbert.K.Chesterton
    “A man does not know what he is saying until he knows what he is not saying”

  • The commentary is highly disrespectful of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are very far from being ‘curiosities’ (whatever that might mean) from the Senate. They are serious politicians, and Rubio is certainly electable, even if Cruz might be easier to demonize.

    As my husband points out, even British commentators tend to buy the leftist narrative about Republicans as being extremists out of touch with the mainstream. That is the Left’s wish and dream: it is not reality. The reality is quite the opposite: it’s the Democratic Stephen Colberts that are extreme — and that cheat. The Clintons lie like breathing, and there is no Republican known to me of whom that can be said.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Jeb Bush Declared Martial Law in Florida on 9/7/01

    Governor “Jeb” then signed Florida Executive Order No. 01-262 immediately after the second WTC tower fell. Florida was the first state to declare a “State of Emergency” and did so before New York State or the Federal Washington City leaders did, yet no “terroristic” incidents had taken place.

    And of course Brother George was in Florida with his pet goat.
    Bottom line, “Not another Bush”.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

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