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Conrad Black

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Time to Re-Civilize the Nomination Process

Posted: 12/08/11 12:11 PM ET

The failure of the best-qualified Republicans to run for president against a vulnerable incumbent and at a critical time is largely overlooked, other than by the giggly snipers of the New York Times and other liberal assassination squads, as they pick off the non-Mitts. And as Mitt keeps popping up like a carnival shooting range target, they count down to the full airing of the roof-top ride on the Romney family car from Boston to Quebec made by the Romneys' dog, Seamus, who may become America's most famous dog since Checkers or even Fala, and his hair-raising ride the most famous since Paul Revere's.

The distinguished Wall Street Journal columnist, Daniel Henninger, even lamented the decline into unrespectable disuse of the political "smoke-filled room" as the venues for choosing nominees. He dated the origin of the phrase as the successful championship by industrialist Marcus A. Hanna of Ohio Governor William McKinley for the Republican presidential nomination in 1896. It is more frequently associated with the selection of Ohio Senator Warren Gamaliel Harding by the Republicans to break a deadlock between better-known candidates in 1920.

The Republican bosses tended to be, like Hanna, wealthy power brokers, as the Democratic bosses ran city and state machines and were more practised judges of political horseflesh. When FDR acknowledged that the mystical fellow traveller Henry A. Wallace, his eccentric choice for vice-president in 1940, should not be renominated as the president contemplated an unheard-of fourth term in indifferent health in 1944, the party chairman, Robert Hannigan, successfully sponsored his fellow Missourian, Senator Harry S Truman. (Hannigan gained a cameo reference as postmaster general in the seasonal film Miracle on 34th Street). FDR convened, with Hannigan, the mayor of Chicago, the party treasurer, and a few other barons and party elders. Of course, Truman was a good choice and proved to be a distinguished president at a critical time.

Republican bosses tended to make reactionary selections like Harding, as when they stuck with President Taft in 1912, over former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was more popular and won most of the primaries. (Roosevelt walked out, declared "We are at Armageddon and I fight for the Lord," ran ahead of Taft as an independent and by splitting the Republicans, elected the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, president.)

In 1952, the Republican bosses wished to seat the unelected southern delegates of President Taft's son, the Republican Senate leader, Robert A. Taft, over the supporters of the more popular General Dwight D. Eisenhower. They were prevented from doing so by the 39-year-old Senator Richard M. Nixon, who stampeded the favorite son's California delegates of then Governor Earl Warren to Eisenhower, for which undoubted service, Nixon, (who was publicly pledged to Warren and privately to both Taft and Eisenhower also), was rewarded with the vice-presidency.

Though primaries played an increasingly important role, Democratic faction heads, kingpins and wheel horses were influential in choosing the long sequence of distinguished nominees put forward by that party from 1928 to 1968 (Alfred E. Smith, FDR, Truman, Adlai E. Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Hubert H. Humphrey), before the riot-torn convention of 1968 dumped the nomination process largely into the lap of forces of protest and affirmative action. Long-serving House Speaker Sam Rayburn famously said to then-Vice-President Johnson, of the "Best and Brightest" around President Kennedy: "Lyndon, I hope they're as smart as you say, but I just wish one of them had ever run for county sheriff." They propelled the country into Vietnam and left it there, instead.

Even in the terrible year of 1968, with the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations, with 550,000 draftees mired in Vietnam and 200 to 400 of them coming home in body bags every week, and racial and anti-war riots erupting almost every week in American cities, at one time or another, Johnson, Kennedy, Humphrey, Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan were all running for their parties' nominations for president.

The problem seems not to be the method of selection; it is that the best people aren't running, though the two may be related. By general agreement, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio are more probable contenders for the presidency than Willard M. Romney. (We may be stuck with him as a candidate, and could do worse, but we don't have to chin ourselves on Mitt.)

Most of the succession of non-Mitts deserved to be mowed down; Rick Perry has been a hip-shooting, big-mouthed Texan blowhard; Christie was a bit of a teaser and a no-show; Herman Cain is a fine candidate who forced the party, including Romney, into tax simplification, and has been smeared by doubtful, long-mute women, probably prompted by Democratic enticements; and Newt Gingrich is a bright, amiable flakey retread who can't possibly make it to Christmas through the gauntlet of the gaffe-seeking missile-aimers of the New York Times and other liberal national media executioners. There may be a possibility for a last gasp by Jon Huntsman, but otherwise, America should prepare itself for the rise and moral crisis of Seamus.

Romney might not be a bad candidate, and should win against a president with such a disappointing record as Barack Obama's, but he isn't the best possible candidate or president. And the reason for this is that a presidential campaign is a terribly punishing and destructive process. Nothing is off-limits to the media; no dirty tricks are too dirty, as the assault on Herman Cain demonstrates. And at the end of the gold and black rainbow is the bi-partisan enthusiasm to criminalize policy differences.

Richard Nixon, an extremely successful president, was crucified, and millions died in Cambodia's Killing Fields and among the Vietnamese Boat People and in the Viet Cong massacres as a result of it. Bill Clinton, although he came close to perjury, didn't cross the double white line, and there was no more justification to impeach him because of his peccadilloes than there was to do the same to many other presidents.

The nation and the world's need for an effective and inspiring American president is very high; suitable candidates are in the wings. What is needed, apart from an excellent head of the country, is for someone in a position to do it to demand a re-civilization of the process. The best and first place to start would have been for Herman Cain to tell his unspontaneous, delayed-fuse accusers to go to hell and to continue his campaign.