When Antics on Trail Turn Ugly
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nixoncampaigns.jpgPresident Richard Nixon (George Mason University)
Sen. Barack Obama’s recent stopover in Kuwait where he “shoot a few hoops with the boys” is a rare instance of a presidential candidate engaging in harmless athletic fun on the campaign trail. Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, is lucky here; he can usually play pick-up basketball at any stop on the hustings. History is rife, however, with zany antics thought up by would-be commanders-in-chief to buck the boredom of a campaign’s rigid schedules and formal duties – which all too often sadly backfired.
Still a Midwest legend is 1936 Republican candidate Alf Landon’s penchant for galloping along atop the cars of his campaign train as it chuffed across the broiling Kansas plains. Landon would play Jesse James in a self-invented game of “Rob the Mail Car.” A harmless diversion? Perhaps not: Landon’s exhaustion from these exertions was widely blamed for a lackluster campaign wind-up and his ultimate landslide loss to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in November.
Candidate Obama’s basketball jones ranks below the near obsession with tap-dancing secretively pursued by Richard M. Nixon in his l960 White House run. The hypertense Nixon dedicated every spare minute to ducking solo into handy closets or bathrooms to let off steam in furious buck-and-wing bouts. Emerging sweat-drenched from one such workout and rushed to a TV debate with John F. Kennedy, he may have lost the election then and there. Experts recently identified the rat-tat-tat of Nixon tap-dancing on his Oval Office desk as the “weird noises” heard on portions of the notorious secret White House tapes.
On the other hand, Al Smith, the 1928 Democratic presidential nominee, was not the least bit physical. The Happy Warrior’s idea of relaxing amid the pressures of campaigning involved dropping water bombs from hotel windows. A harmless little prank, it might appear. But had Smith not always pointed to a hapless nearby aide or campaign donor when the police came knocking, he might have had a more loyal and hard-working staff. And a less humiliatingly lopsided loss to President Herbert Hoover.ll
Not all such didoes ended badly. For example, rolly-poly GOP presidential hopeful William Howard Taft used his own elephantine weight to break the tension on the campaign trail back in 1908. In any debate with a Democratic opponent, Taft would cross the platform after he had finished speaking and sit on him. The feeble cries for mercy coming from somewhere underneath convulsed his audiences, creating a wave of popularity that carried Taft and his 300-plus pounds straight into the White House.
Bruce McCall, a humorist, is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. He is the author of “All Meat Looks Like South America: The World of Bruce McCall” and “Zany Afternoons.”