Wow. Twelve declared Republican presidential candidates as of today, and another four expected. Sixteen total. That’s seems nuts.
But thinking back to my college days when I had dreams of being another Theodore White and read every campaign history I could lay my hands on, I remember doing a rather long paper on the 1976 presidential election campaign. It’s probably stuffed in a box around here somewhere. That was the first election after Watergate, and the Democrats had blown the GOP to smithereens in the previous midterms. Watergate, you’ll remember. If you were a Democrat and breathing you were elected that year. And as 1976 approached, the excitement was too much for many Democrats and fifteen of them declared themselves candidates for president, and another sixteen considered but decided against it, which means at one point over thirty Democrats were picturing themselves in the Oval Office, signing bills and giving orders. I’ve seen no list yet of the Republicans who were thinking about running this year but changed their minds. But if the last four Republicans expected to announce this year do join the herd, they will have officially beat by one candidate the Democrat’s total in 1976, which I believe was the most ever. That was a helluva campaign on the Democratic side, the 1976 nomination race. Fast paced, fluid, full of surprises. The histories–I remember reading two of them, though the titles escape me–read like fast paced novels. The underdog, a peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter, won in a happy ending that made Americans feel warm all over. It was the most exciting election since 1968, the histories of which (An American Melodrama was one) also read like a novel, though a tragic one, full of death and betrayal, the ending just sad.
(The Republican race in 1976 was a desperate, angry match between damaged incumbent Gerald Ford and the rising star of the conservatives, Ronald Reagan. The delegate count was close, and finally got down to the convention, which was a squeaker. Ford was nominated, but barely. Reagan’s supporters, angry, promised never to let that happen again, and went out to take over the party from the ground up. But that was another election to come.)
So will the Republican presidential campaign be as wild and exciting as the Democrat race in 1976? Will it turn into a donnybrook? The signs of campaign madness are already emerging, and Ted Cruz demanding Supreme Court elections today was especially fun. When you have more candidates on the field than a football team, you do what ya gotta do, say what you gotta say. And who knows where the Confederate flag controversy will go, especially as South Carolina, the follow up primary to New Hampshire, traditionally a make or break state for Republican candidates, has the meanest Republican intra-party politics in the land. You have never seen mean until you’ve seen South Carolina Republican mean. You’ll be hearing all about this next February, believe me. Oh boy, this will be fun. I’m just wondering which candidate will have the first sex tape. My money’s on Bobby Jindal. He was young, he needed the money. But then they all need money. PACs don’t come cheap, you know.
As a side note, I remember running into Jack Germond at a wedding maybe fifteen years ago. He was a bit of a hero of mine, as he’d co-written (with Jules Witcover) a long out of print history of the 1968 presidential campaign that was so good I’d read it two or three times. A genuine classic of political literature, and I wish I could recall the title of it. It’s around here somewhere. Anyway, we had a nice conversation in the restroom about presidential primaries while side by side taking a leak. You don’t get to meet a lot of people you admire that way. I told him I loved that book. Those were the days he said. We both agreed nomination races weren’t (at the time) what they used to be. They weren’t. 1984 had been beyond dull (Wake Us When It’s Over was Witcover’s history of the thing). 1988 was Michael Dukakis in a tank. We both snickered at poor Dukakis. Hard to think of anything sadder than being laughed at by two guys taking a leak. Nice chatting with you, Jack said, and I went to shake his hand but thought better of it. At the sink I asked him who he figured would be the nominees in 2000. Vice President Gore, he said, and George W. Bush, but he wasn’t too excited about either, or the race. Not what they used to be I said, and we both sighed and went back to our separate tables, he with the grown ups, me with the musicians.
But thinking back now it seems maybe we were wrong about nomination races not being what they used to be. 2016 is starting to look a lot like 1976. Exciting, fun, crazy, ridiculous, expensive and American as, well, Jackson Pollack. His paintings don’t seem to make sense either, but if you stare long enough, there is order. Or so they tell me. And no matter how nuts it looks now, or how anarchic and ludicrous it’s going to be, eventually the presidential campaign field converges into just two, and then to one, and it’s all over but the inauguration.