Review: chronicle of past campaigns | Book Reviews and News



“Quest for the Presidency: The Famous and Surprising History of America’s Presidential Campaigns,” by Bob Riel, Potomac Books, 416 pp, $36.95.

George Washington was elected unanimously by all 69 electoral college electors in 1789. His re-election in 1792 was the last uncontested campaign. Today’s voters may feel that our four-year struggle to choose a new leader has only worsened since then.

There have been 59 presidential elections in the United States and the reviewer has voted in 15, each time confident that his vote would have an immediate impact on his own future. Although the reviewer endorsed some winners and some losers in these contests, he somehow managed to stay afloat while the US state ship, under each captain, has sailed ahead without hitting an iceberg.

Freelance political journalist Bob Riel has provided a succinct and impartial account of all the previous election campaigns in his highly readable new book, Quest for the Presidency.

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Beginning with George Washington’s oath of office in New York and ending with the controversial 2020 election, Riel is careful to remain as neutral as possible throughout the book, focusing on the campaigns rather than the presidential appearances of the victors. In addition, he provides insights into the transformation of American politics through real historical events.

Riel organizes the campaigns into seven distinct epochs and introduces each, beginning with the clever conceit of discussing politics over coffee at gathering places corresponding to each epoch. It begins in 1774 at Fraunces Tavern in New York and ends in 2008 at the original Starbuck’s in Seattle.

This book is recommended for readers who may not care about the Bull Moose Party but are passionate about supporting one of today’s parties in 2024.

Democrats may be surprised that their party staunchly defended the rights of the state well into the 1960s. Republicans may also be amazed that their party was devastated when the 1860 convention chose an unknown compromise candidate who was considered a “fourth-class teacher.” He was, of course, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, Nebraska’s favorite son, William Jennings Bryan, is prominently portrayed as a three-time unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate.

Readers horrified by today’s negative television ads will recognize that mud fights are a long American tradition. The 1844 Whig candidate, Henry Clay, was once described as “notorious Sabbath-breaker, profane swearer, gambler, common drunkard, perjurer, duelist, thief, robber, adulterer, thief, slave-owner and murderer”. And that was in an era before Twitter.

In summary, Riel’s book will serve as a tasty appetizer for those readers craving another juicy campaign in 2024.

J. Kemper Campbell MD is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who is best described as a confused observer of American politics.


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