ANY TOM, DICK OR HARRY
If history is any guide, and occasionally it is, Barack Obama should have lost the presidential election last year. But, then history would have had him losing back in 2008 as well. Why is that? It’s because of his first name. With few exceptions, men who enter the White House have have had very ordinary, exceptionally common first names. (Maybe it has something to do with the fact that our first president was named George. Washington, as every schoolboy or girl knows, established many precedents.) Barack, why that’s off the charts. How in the world he defeated a John in 2008 is by that measure altogether astounding. Now, Willard is not all that common, and Mitt – that would be a first. But all that suggests is that it should have been a close election (and explain why a Donald, John, Rick, Michelle, Herman, Ron and another Rick were encouraged to enter the race, and why a Newton never had a chance).
By and large, the oddly named presidential candidates fared poorly at election time. DeWitt (Clinton) was defeated in 1812, while James (Monroe) easily bested Rufus (King) in 1816. It could be that DeWitt and Rufus were not all that uncommon back then, but still what could be more unexceptional than the first names of our early presidents – George, John, Thomas, James, John and Andrew. Allow me then to continue.
It’s true that in 1850 a Millard (Fillmore) ascended to the presidency, but that shouldn’t count. He did so only because President Zachary Taylor died after only sixteen months in office. In 1852, Winfield (Scott) lost to a Franklin (Pierce) and sixteen years later Horatio (Seymour) was defeated by a Ulysses. Aha, you say. Was Ulysses all that common? Perhaps not, but for defeating the Confederacy and saving the Union, let’s allow some leeway here. (Actually, his given name was Hiram Ulysses, but he eventually assumed the name of Ulysses S. Grant – U.S. Grant – when a Congressman nominating him to West Point mistakenly listed it that way.) You might want to pause in 1876 and ask how a Rutherford (Hayes) bested a Samuel (Tilden), but it was a disputed election that resulted in a somewhat sordid deal in which Rutherford ended up in the White House. Four years later yet another Winfield (Hancock) lost, not unexpectedly to a James (Garfield).
Moving into the 20th Century, Alton (Parker) predictably fell to a Teddy (Roosevelt), but let’s not overlook the fact that a Woodrow (Wilson) won in 1912 over a Theodore (Roosevelt), William (Taft) and Eugene (Debs), but that’s just the point. In this crowded field, had not Roosevelt, somewhat out of spite, entered the race, William Howard (Taft) could have won. Much further along few were surprised that a Wendell (Wilkie) lost out to a Franklin (Roosevelt). One should have known that an Adlai (Stevenson) could not win even after trying twice against a Dwight (Eisenhower). But then Dwight was really “Ike”, and like Grant, was an enormously popular war hero. Probably by that time in our history, with the record so startlingly clear, no unconventionally named candidate dared to challenge the verdict of history. Unless you consider Hubert (Humphrey) a bit off the beaten trail. (But, of course, he lost.)
When you review the list of victors in our presidential races you have to be impressed with just how commonplace their given names. There are a multitude of Johns, James, Williams, Georges, and a long list of names quite plain – Benjamin, Abraham, Richard, Gerald, Ronald, etc.
So that brings us to 2012. To counter this historical imperative, Obama’s people took to their history books and pointed out the following: Did not Ulysses win two terms, as did Grover (Cleveland), Woodrow and Dwight? So much for your precedents, they argue.. But, of course, you knew they would spin it all away.