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.