Friday, September 23, 2016

Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections, by Fred Lucas

Who should read Fred Lucas’s book, Tainted by Suspicion?  Folks whose knowledge of Aaron Burr comes primarily from a milk commercial, individuals who think Benjamin Harrison was one of the Beatles, and especially moderately informed voters who labor under the illusion that there once was a golden age of political decorum in the United States.  Indeed, even history buffs are likely to discover a plethora of new facts and perspectives by perusing Lucas’s analysis of The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections -- specifically the elections of 1800, 1824, 1876, 1888, 1960, and 2000.

“Historiphobes” should be pleased to know that Lucas, a veteran White House correspondent, doesn’t overwhelm readers with unnecessary facts and generally focuses attention only on relevant details.  Most folks will easily cover one or two elections in a single sitting -- without the twin dangers of drowning in mind-numbing minutiae or being starved with cartoonish oversimplification.

For each contested election Lucas provides a succinct portrait of the primary candidates, issues, and campaigns -- descriptions that belie any notion of a kinder, gentler era of political discourse.  Indeed, on the whole, one could easily conclude that modern campaigns are less vicious than their 19th century predecessors.  In 1876, for example, Democrats chanted “Tilden or blood” when it appeared the supporters of Rutherford B. Hayes were going to string together enough disputed electoral votes to overturn what appeared to be a Tilden victory -- a victory achieved, one must add, with the help of KKK vote suppression in the South.  Fortunately, Tilden was more politic than his most ardent supporters, especially since both he and Hayes (subsequently known as “Rutherfraud”) were ready to end Reconstruction.    

The election of Jefferson in 1800 stands out from the others as it represents the nation’s first transfer of power from one fledgling party to another -- a transfer accomplished peacefully despite palpable distrust of the man Federalist partisans denounced as an atheist with sympathies for a French Revolution that only recently had produced a bloody “Reign of Terror.”  These fears led some members of the House of Representatives to consider Aaron Burr a preferable alternative to Jefferson when both received the same number of electoral votes for President.  Lucas clearly explains the reasons for this Constitutional crisis and points to a little-known player who helped avoid a rupture that would have threatened the existence of the young republic.  In addition, Lucas offers insights into Aaron Burr’s political life that adds a degree of complexity to the simple portrait of Burr as the unprincipled person who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and sought to become Emperor in the Louisiana territory.      

Twenty-four years later, Andrew Jackson, principal founder of the Democratic Party, was willing to wait till 1828 to capture the Presidency that eluded him in a four-way race where he received a plurality, but not a majority, of electoral and popular votes.  Lucas describes the relevant ins-and-outs of the perfectly legal decision by the House of Representatives to award the Presidency to John Quincy Adams.  This decision, however, was denounced as a “corrupt bargain” by Jackson supporters when another contender in the Presidential race, Henry Clay of Kentucky, was named Adams’s Secretary of State.  Old Hickory’s successful 1828 campaign began promptly when he was nominated by the Tennessee state legislature in 1825.  So much for the idea that only modern campaigns seem interminable. 

Older folks are probably familiar with the chicanery that occurred during the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race.  While Lucas provides a few specific examples of election fraud in Kennedy’s favor, he’s doubtful they changed the ultimate outcome of the election. This is certainly a debatable point since, as Lucas notes, Kennedy carried Illinois by a mere 9,000 votes and Texas by 46,000.  A little-recalled aspect of the 1960 election that Lucas also explores involves the Alabama ballot that was split between five Democrat electors pledged to Kennedy and six unpledged electors who ultimately voted for Virginia Senator Harry Byrd.  Given this split, it’s plausible to argue that over half of the Democratic vote in Alabama wasn’t for Kennedy.  Thus, Nixon, at least according to Congressional Quarterly, actually won the national popular vote by 60,000.  Perhaps the most significant detail in Lucas’s account of the 1960 election is Nixon’s patriotic reason for not contesting the vote.  Such a legal battle amid the Cold War would send the wrong signal to nations about America’s democratic system. 

Lucas’s discussion of the 2000 Bush-Gore election provides a detailed but readable summary of the litigation in Florida and concludes that, as in all the other cases, nothing was stolen.  He emphasizes that while the Supreme Court split 5-4 in favor of stopping the Florida recount, it was a 7-2 vote that rejected the hand counts taking place in only four select Democratic counties, with varying standards.  Lucas also notes that Bill Daley, son of the Chicago mayor whose political machine cranked out phantom votes for Kennedy in 1960, was a prominent member of Gore’s legal team.  On the other side, of course, was Florida Governor Jeb Bush, George W’s brother.

A “what if” chapter concludes each election analysis.  What if Gore had been President?  What if Grover Cleveland had won in 1888 instead of Benjamin Harrison? (That election was never formally contested but was included because Cleveland won the popular, but not the electoral, vote.)  Citing various historians and journalists, Lucas illustrates how widespread opinions are on these what-if questions.  He thus adds to Yogi Berra’s observation, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” the fact that it’s also very hard to make predictions about the past.  I feel safe, however, in predicting that anyone who reads Tainted by Suspicion will be wiser for the effort.