THE BLOG

Unexpected Presidencies

07/23/2013 06:39 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2013

A presidential campaign is a tedious and protracted process where strategies are developed, employed, and usually changed, and where operational tactics are formulated and brainstormed for every possible situation the campaign finds itself in. However, sometimes a president assumes office by mere serendipity. One odd or unusual event can lead to a chain of events, leading to an unexpected presidency.

A good example of this is the 1880 presidential election. One of the Republican candidates vying for the presidential nomination was U.S. Treasury Secretary John Sherman. The nomination at the time was decided at each party's National conventions. U.S. Representative James Garfield (R-OH) was a member of the Ohio delegation to the Republican National Convention. His role was to deliver an address on behalf of the Ohio delegation nominating Sherman, a native son of Ohio. Garfield was not a candidate for president. In fact, he had just been elected by the Ohio State Legislature to the U.S. Senate (At that time, the legislatures, not citizens, elected their U.S. Senators). Earlier that year, Garfield and Sherman had agreed to a deal whereby Garfield would support Sherman's presidential bid if Sherman endorsed Garfield for the U.S. Senate. The Republican Convention was deadlocked between Sherman, former President Ulysses S. Grant, and James G. Blaine. Garfield, unlike the person he was nominating (Sherman was nicknamed the Ohio Icicle), electrified the crowd and a chorus of "We Want Garfield" ensued. Stunned by the chant, Garfield insisted that his name not be placed for nomination. However, by the second day, with no end in sight to the stalemate, Blaine and Sherman both agreed to support the rising star, James Garfield. The nation was astounded by this set of unlikely events as was Garfield himself. Garfield mustered the nomination on the 36th ballot.

Garfield was a supporter of Civil Service Reform. In fact, there was a schism in the GOP over this issue. The leading supporter of the current system was the omnipowerful U.S. Senator Roscoe Conkling (R-NY). To unify the party, Garfield offered the Vice Presidency to U.S. Representative Levi Morton (R-NY), who strongly desired becoming president. However, Conkling persuaded Morton, his protégée, that Garfield was destined to lose the election, and that Morton would share the blame for the loss and would never win the Republican presidential nomination. Morton reluctantly heeded that advice and declined the offer. Garfield's second choice was Chester A. Arthur, also a supporter of Conkling. As with Morton, Conkling beseeched Arthur not to accept the nomination. Arthur refused Conkling's request and was nominated as Vice president. The ticket scraped out a victory and Garfield assumed the Presidency. Garfield was subsequently assassinated in just his first year in office. Arthur, not Morton, assumed the Presidency.

Four years later, James G. Blaine, now the GOP presidential nominee, made a strategic blunder by not dissociating himself from a supporter. This faux pas likely cost Blaine the election. A few days before the 1884 presidential election, Republican presidential nominee James G. Blaine made a campaign appearance in New York, where Presbyterian Minister Samuel Burchard, a Blaine supporter, excoriated the Democrats as the Party of "Rum, Romanticism, and Rebellion." Blaine sat silent during this tirade, making no effort to disassociate himself from these volatile remarks. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting Blaine, many Irish voters took umbrage by the use of the word "rum," believing that the Minister was perpetuating a stereotype that Irish-Americans, who were mostly Democrats, were alcoholics. This galvanized the Irish vote against Blaine in the swing state of New York, where Democrat Grover Cleveland eked out a razor-thin victory, defeating Blaine by just 1,047 votes. New York proved to be the state that made the electoral difference in this razor-close presidential election.

Under the category of "be careful what you wish for," comes a story of a political boss who made history by elevating a foe to the nation's highest office. Vice President Garret Hobart had died in office of heart disease, and the Republican Party needed a new vice presidential running mate for President William McKinley in 1900. New York Republican Party boss and U.S. Senator Thomas C. Platt, a rival of New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, successfully urged the Republican Party to select Roosevelt as the running mate to President William McKinley in 1900. Platt did this to get Roosevelt out of the Governorship because Roosevelt was challenging the Platt political machine in New York. Platt thought with Roosevelt gone that Lieutenant Governor Benjamin Barker Odell Jr. would become the Governor and would be more compliant to Platt's political machine. The thinking was that Roosevelt would be rendered inconsequential in that the Vice Presidency has little power. As circumstances would have it, President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, during the first year of his second term in office, and Roosevelt became president. Upon hearing the news, a shocked Platt exclaimed: "Oh God, now that dammed cowboy is president of the United States." To add insult to injury, Governor Odell, similar to Theodore Roosevelt, became a crusader for reform, shunning the Thomas C. Platt political machine.

The name Irvine Lenroot is not exactly a household word, but had the Republican Party high command and the GOP presidential nominee had their way, he may have become president. U.S. Senator Warren G. Harding garnered the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. Harding came from the conservative bloodline of the GOP. The Republican Party establishment wanted to balance the ticket with Lenroot, a U.S. Representative from Wisconsin and a tribune of the party's liberal bloodline. However, conservative delegates to the Republican National Convention rebelled against the high command and nominated Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge was a rising star in conservative circles for his role in standing up to organized labor during the Boston Police Strike. Ironically, Harding died in 1923, allowing Coolidge to ascend to the Presidency, winning a term in his own right a year later. Irvine Lenroot faded back into obscurity. The capstone of his career was not the Presidency, but a judgeship on the United States Court of Customs and Appeals.

Enveloped in the Watergate scandal, President Richard M. Nixon resigned his office in 1974 and was succeeded by Gerald R. Ford, the only man to succeed to the Presidency without ever being elected vice president or president. But, if Nixon had his way, Ford would not have succeeded him as president. When Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign his office nolo contender (no contest) to charges of failure to report income, President Richard M. Nixon's first choice to succeed Agnew was Treasury Secretary John Connally. However, Democratic Congressional leaders told Nixon that they would not confirm Connally. They viewed Connally as a turncoat for his recent departure from the Democratic Party. Nixon resigned his office just eight months later. Ford, not Connally, assumed the Presidency.

This brings us to the meteoric rise of our current president. In 2004, State Senator Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. The party's presidential nominee, John Kerry, was impressed with the coalition of upscale independents and African-Americans that Barack Obama had stitched together to win U.S. Senate nomination. Kerry also like Obama's oratorical prowess and took a gamble when he asked Obama to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Obama delivered an electrifying address and became a national figure overnight. Democratic Party activists immediately floated his name as a future president. Once elected to the U.S. Senate, Obama became a rock star with the party faithful as he campaigned for Congressional Democrats running for re-election in 2006. Obama saw his opportunity and announced his presidential candidacy in 2007. He was elected president in 2008, just four years into his only term in the U.S. Senate.

Becoming president isn't always the result of years of strategic maneuvering and winning over a widespread section of constituencies and benefactors. As odd it may seem, sometimes becoming president can simply be the result of being in the right place at the right time.