How to Run for President in the Middle of a PandemicRoundup
tags: elections, presidential history
Jon Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, is the author of the forthcoming The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915.
Is it possible to run for president during a pandemic, without the handshaking and the baby-kissing? Can Joe Biden and Donald Trump stay a safe six feet from their own campaigns? Ever since the arrival of the coronavirus, we’ve all wondered whether democracy can operate at such a distance.
Not only is it possible, but history shows that for the first century of American politics nearly all candidates stayed home. Parties ran their races for them. The idea of a man promoting his own election, The New York Times wrote in 1892, “disgusts the people.” In an age of tribal partisanship, feuding candidates and frequent epidemics, this style of socially distanced stumping drew record turnouts and protected a candidate’s honor, and maybe his health. Such a retro campaign might suit the weird world in which we live today.
In early America, presidents were expected to “stand,” not “run,” for office. They did not attend conventions and whiled away a dull election season at home. Lincoln read joke books. Grant took a vacation. Andrew Jackson had to be reminded by campaign advisers: “You live in retirement on your farm, calm and unmoved by the excitement around you, taking no part in the pending canvass.” One can imagine Jackson’s handlers repeating that line as his temper flared.
Instead, an ideal candidate was expected to “sit cross legged and look wise,” as an antsy James Garfield complained. Running for one’s own election betrayed what The Atlantic Monthly condemned as “vulgar self-assertion,” proving that a man was too narcissistic to hold high office. In a time of otherwise brutal politics, the president was set apart as a virtuous national grandfather, above the fray. An incumbent running for re-election from the White House seemed especially craven.
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