They Failed on the Trail

updated 06/18/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Senator Ernest F. Hollings had a dream: He wanted to grow up to be President of the United States. He wanted that job so badly that for 11 months he spent 12 hours a day making speeches to tiny crowds, holding press conferences that few attended, issuing position papers that few read, shaking hands with voters who didn't recognize him and kissing mewling infants in 42 states. All of this frenzied activity produced one readily observable result—a titanic ground-swell of voter apathy. On Feb. 28 the Democratic Senator from South Carolina finished a pitiable sixth in the New Hampshire primary, collecting 4 percent of the vote. Two days later, suddenly jolted back to his customary common sense, Hollings abandoned his grandiose dream and went home to Charleston and the U.S. Senate, where he is highly respected. "Thomas Wolfe was wrong: You can go home again," he quips now. "In fact, the people of New Hampshire insisted on it.... I learned one thing in this campaign. I learned that when E.F. Hollings talks, nobody listens."

As this season's primary mania closes and the nation girds for the climactic main event between Ronald Reagan and the Democratic contender, 13 campaign veterans agreed to examine their old wounds for PEOPLE. Fritz Hollings, now 62, emerged from the New Hampshire mugging with his sense of humor intact, but his ego took some bruising. "You learn a little humility out on the campaign trail—and it's a healthy thing," he says. "Every congressman thinks he should be a senator. Every senator thinks he should be President. And ultimately, they all get bogged down in the pedantic detail of legislation—or end up catering to some special interest. Someday the people will put these politicians in their place. I know."

Such is the outcome of a presidential campaign: The winner becomes President and the losers become philosophical. Like puberty and boot camp, these campaigns are such bizarre rites of passage that anybody who hasn't experienced one cannot possibly imagine just how truly strange they are. We pick our Presidents in a rugged, year-long ritual that is a cross between a marathon race and a frat-house initiation.

Those brave souls who have endured the public humiliation of a losing presidential campaign are rewarded with a consolation prize—an inexhaustible supply of material for a lifetime of comic raconteuring. Stuart Symington, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1960, likes to tell the story of how he stepped off an airplane in Florida and found a large, enthusiastic crowd awaiting him. He strode statesmanlike toward the cheers, basking in the love of The People—until he realized that The People had come to see Pat Boone, who happened to be on the same plane. Pete McCloskey, who ran for the Republican nomination in 1972, tells of witnessing real popularity while campaigning with Paul Newman. "Every woman in New Hampshire showed up at those meetings," he says. "They ripped the buttons off his shirt and took threads from his coat. We had to have a guard at his motel room."

Tiny Congresswoman Patsy Mink, 56, another 1972 also-ran, remembers asking a towering Oregonian to vote for her as President only to receive the reply, "President of what?" John Anderson, who ran as an Independent in 1980, broke new ground in campaigning at a fund raiser in San Francisco, where he was entertained by exotic dancers performing a sadomasochistic boogie, complete with whips and chains. And George Romney, now 76,
who ran for the Republican nomination in 1968, laughs when he tells of his ill-fated attempt to woo the voters on a New Hampshire ski slope. "I wasn't a skier," he says. "A little 5-year-old girl got on the beginner's hill with me. After she helped me take off my skis, a reporter asked her, 'Do you know who that is?' 'No,' she replied, 'but I can sure ski a lot better than he can!' "

Some campaign stories are not quite so amusing. Anderson, 62, remembers getting bombarded with eggs during an appearance in Denver. Fred Harris, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1976, had a pilot who nearly flew his tiny campaign plane into a mountain in New Hampshire. The pilot was putting down through thick clouds until Harris persuaded him to delay the descent for another 20 minutes. "Later we learned we'd only just cleared the mountains," Harris recalls. Even more terrifying was the moment when Harris' campaign manager disarmed a would-be assassin in Chicago. "It was like slow motion," Harris says. "He grabbed the guy's hand just as he reached inside his jacket for his gun."

But near accidents and threats are cards dealt by fate and beyond a candidate's control. His real problem is his aides. They tend to saddle him with a schedule that would kill a Sherpa. The candidate may find himself traveling through five states and giving 22 speeches in a single day. "I was going nonstop dawn 'til midnight every day, seven days a week, for 22 months," says George McGovern, now 61. "I had an insistent urge to strangle every scheduler and every state coordinator who wanted to keep me going when I desperately wanted to lie down somewhere in the sun." Rep. Morris Udall (D-Ariz.) believes that his long, intense campaign for the 1976 nomination might have been a contributing factor to the onset of Parkinson's disease. "It was just the exhaustion," he says. "I had been on the go for six or eight months. I was more susceptible to disease and its long-term effects. I was like so many others—I was macho. I thought I could go without sleep, hit every state and every possible pocket of support."

Who would voluntarily go through all this to win four years of grueling work as the most powerful man in the Western world? "Crazy people," answers Pete McCloskey, 56. He ought to know. In 1972 McCloskey, then a mere congressman, was crazy enough to challenge Richard Nixon, then President, for the Republican nomination. McCloskey won one delegate but lost his wife. "My wife and I had been happily married for 23 years and had four children," he says, "but you can't run for President without 18-hour days, seven days a week. The wife was expected to gaze at you adoringly while you made speeches, to look good and not say too much. My wife was cheerful throughout the campaign, but about two months before it was over, she decided that she didn't want to be the wife of a politician anymore."

The campaign brought another strain to McCloskey's family. "The saddest thing," he says, "was reading in a magazine something that my son, John, had never said to me. They did an article on the children of candidates, and John, who was 16, was quoted to the effect that 'before Dad got interested in politics, we did everything together—we went camping, we went fly-fishing—since then we don't get to see him.' I was so wrapped up in what I was trying to do, I never gave a thought to others in my family."

Not all the defeated pols share McCloskey's sentiments. Edmund Muskie claims that his marriage was strengthened by his 1972 campaign—particularly the now-famous incident in which he reportedly wept outside the offices of a New Hampshire newspaper while speaking in defense of his wife's reputation. The incident washed away his presidential hopes, yet today Muskie, 70, denies that he shed any tears that day—"It's simply not true. I was choked with anger and the snow melted over my bare head"—and claims that the subsequent flap brought him and his wife, Jane, closer. "It was a traumatic event that led directly to my defeat and we both realized it," he says. "But neither blamed the other and our marriage grew stronger."

Other former candidates also rebut McCloskey's views of campaigning. Fred Harris, 53, a New Mexico college professor and author, likes to put all this talk about campaign exhaustion into a populist perspective. "I never found it that grueling," he says. "I used to pick cotton for a living and I found campaigning much easier." Alan Cranston, 69, who dropped out of the Democratic race after this winter's New Hampshire primary, is positively rhapsodic about the whole process. "I love campaigning," he says. "Far from being tired, I found it invigorating. I met a lot of wonderful people and saw a lot of our wonderful country." And even Udall, 62, recalls fondly the almost physical thrill of a friendly crowd. "It's a sort of narcotic," he says. "Those big crowds, people holding up their children to see you. It's heady and intoxicating stuff. It makes politicians keep coming back for more."

And come back they do. No matter how miserable, how exhausting, how truly absurd campaigning becomes, more and more would-be Chief Executives keep tossing their fedoras into the ring. The veterans of campaigns past can provide some helpful hints for those newer victims of Potomac fever. "The first requirement," says Stuart Symington, now 82, "is iron skin. You mustn't let things upset you." The prime requirement, according to Eugene McCarthy, 68, is a good driver. "You can sacrifice an advance man and at least two press secretaries, but if you get a good driver, stick with him. Otherwise all that slowing down and speeding up can make you carsick. And don't eat cold beef sandwiches and Coke in the car. That can destroy you." Dapper John Lindsay, 62, the former Mayor of New York City, has some sartorial tips for candidates. "Have a couple of suits that don't crease," he says. "The other thing you need is washable shirts, the kind you can walk into the shower with. Don't worry about your shoes. They're not on camera that much." And one more thing any candidate needs—a good, strong, healthy sense of the absurd. For Fred Harris the feeling returns whenever he is recognized in an airport. "I normally tell the person I'm with that it only cost me several million dollars," says Harris, grinning.

Written by PETER CARLSON, reported by MARSHA DUBROW and other correspondents

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