Every four or eight years, the media decides that the current crop of presidential contenders is not up to the task of being president, by their lights. They then create a bubble of relentless coverage of the person they deem might be.
Back in 1964, they helped fuel the short but memorable campaign Henry Cabot Lodge, then U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam. With the conventional wisdom then holding that Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater was too conservative and that former front-runner New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was too liberal, and that his personal life was too unconventional and complicated, leading publications and commentators touted Lodge as the perfect choice.
Tall, urbane, handsome Lodge seemed the prototype of what the media and the nation most wanted: a return of the martyred John F. Kennedy, who had succumbed to an assassin’s bullet barely three months before the New Hampshire primary. Neither of his brothers seemed available. Robert Kennedy continued as attorney general, while Edward (“Ted”) was a little more than a year into his first term in the Senate. The new president, Kennedy’s vice president, belittled by much of the liberal establishment and the Kennedy camp as “Dr. Cornpone,” was too much of a stretch from his predecessor for the chattering classes to handle.
Lodge appeared the perfect choice. After eight years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Ike, and as Nixon’s running mate in 1960, he enjoyed high name recognition. He was also well liked. Kennedy’s decision to appoint Lodge, whom he unseated in their senatorial square off in 1952, was regarded as the height of statesmanship, as was Lodge’s decision to accept. His handlers orchestrated a massive educational campaign instructing voters how to write in Lodge’s name. Lodge rolled up an impressive 35.4 percent of the vote, placing ahead of Goldwater, Rockefeller, and Nixon, whose supporters also had a write-in effort going. [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]
Lodge then hurt his own chances by refusing to resign his post and return stateside to campaign. His assertion that he could not abandon his post amid renewed “crises” in Vietnam prompted conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., a Goldwater supporter, to note that those “crises” erupted almost simultaneously with Lodge’s arrival there. (The reference was to Lodge’s participation in an American-sanctioned coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, who headed the government of the nation the Untied States was trying to save from communism).
Lodge eventually resigned to put down what he regarded as an even greater “crisis” at home—Goldwater’s pending nomination. After Goldwater had defeated Rockefeller by a narrow margin in the California primary, Lodge joined Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton’s eleventh hour attempt to stop Goldwater’s nomination. After Goldwater disposed of Scranton and lost to Johnson, LBJ returned Lodge to South Vietnam as the U.S. Ambassador. [Read more stories on the 2012 presidential election.]
The next object of the media’s affection was Illinois Rep. John Anderson. In a crowded Republican field in 1980, which included Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John Connally, and Howard Baker, Anderson ran as an unabashed liberal. He later ran as an independent against Reagan and incumbent President Jimmy Carter. After polling in double digits, he was included in the first presidential debate.
With Carter refusing to get into the ring with “two Republicans,” Anderson provided Reagan with ample time to present his case to the American people. As the pundits debated whether Anderson would draw more votes from Reagan or Carter, the Illinoisan eventually pulled less than seven percent of the popular vote.
The next short-lived flavor of the month was Gary Hart. The Colorado senator cast himself as the champion of new ideas, while offering relatively few of them. Walter Mondale brought the curtain down on this show in a debate when he asked, “Where’s the beef?” Hart’s second attempt at the nomination ended when he was photographed partying with a woman who was not his wife on a boat named Monkey Business.
Then came John McCain’s “heroic” campaign of 2000. The hottest ticket in New Hampshire that year was a seat on McCain’s Straight Talk Express. Aboard, the candidate exchanged pleasantries and jokes hours on end with those who fought to cover him. McCain took to referring to the media as his “base.” By 2008, when he actually received the GOP nomination, the media’s love affair with him ended when it dawned on it that the senator was as much a Republican as he was a maverick.
They appear to be at it again. Three days after the second Republican debate, half the stories are about the man who stayed away, Jon Huntsman. Like Lodge, the former Utah governor had accepted an appointment by a Democratic president to a country that is receiving increased American attention; this time, China. When he and his wife visited New Hampshire recently, reporters likened their appearances to those of John and Jacqueline Kennedy. (Some longings are eternal.) [Vote now: Who won Monday night's GOP debate?]
Huntsman has stayed in the news without offering many hints about how he would comport himself as president. His handlers are doing their best to work symbolism to their advantage and to establish a Huntsman brand. There was the candidate’s highly publicized meeting with Henry Kissinger. (Think “competence” and “intelligence.”) Next comes the announcement at Liberty State Park, N.J. (Think “nation of immigrants.”) And there is the promise of endorsements by yet to be named “heavy hitters.” (Think suspense.)
Huntsman’s rivals would be unwise to write him off. Just because the last four media favorites fizzled out does not mean that this one will. After all, the fifth candidate that made the media swoon serves as the current president of the United States.