Four years ago today, Donald J. Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate. It was hardly a seamless process, and when the presumptive Republican presidential nominee finally made his pick, he announced it on Twitter.
Donald Trump became a household name in this country by hosting a reality TV show in which he fired people. This time, he was hiring someone -- an incumbent governor facing an uphill reelection battle, as it happened -- in a manner so convoluted that Pence had only 68 minutes to remove his name from the Indiana ballot.
In the ensuing 48 months, Americans have watched (some in horror, some in delight) as Donald Trump brought this makeshift management style to the White House. Or perhaps it can be chalked up to the vagaries of the Ides of July, which has been a momentous occasion for U.S. presidents and presidential candidates since at least the time of John F. Kennedy.
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For the past six decades, July 15 has been a momentous date for presidents and presidential candidates. Here's only a sampling:
-- July 15, 1960, John F. Kennedy accepts the Democratic Party nomination for president in Los Angeles.
-- July 15, 1964, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater is nominated for president by the Republicans meeting at their San Francisco convention.
-- July 15, 1971, Richard Nixon announces he will visit the People's Republic of China.
-- July 15, 1979, Jimmy Carter delivers a televised national address lamenting what he termed Americans' "crisis of confidence."
-- July 15, 1992, at the Democrats' New York convention, Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered the party's nominating speech. "We need Bill Clinton," he said, "because he is our only hope for change from this nation's current disastrous course."
It's not quite coincidental that these rhetorical milestones took place on the same date -- midsummer is when the two major political parties often hold their quadrennial national conventions -- and yet a thread runs through them that seems more than happenstance.
For starters, all these speeches remind us that partisanship is not new. Similar themes recur repeatedly, as do the same families and individuals. The hope of new beginnings is tempered by politics' own limitations, by tragedy, and by the fateful vagaries of life.
World War II veterans Barry Goldwater and Jack Kennedy were friends in the Senate. They expected to face each other in the 1964 general election and they mused about using the same campaign plane while traveling the country to hold a series of congenial debates. It was probably a pipe dream, but by July 15, 1964, Kennedy was dead and Goldwater was extoling the virtues of "extremism" -- his own word -- in San Francisco. Goldwater's campaign self-immolated, even while giving rise to the political career of Ronald Reagan
Richard Nixon surprised the world by going to China, but also by squandering his own presidency. Ten years to the day after Goldwater's acceptance speech, Nixon was holed up in his San Clemente estate trying to brave the Watergate scandal by publicly sending press secretary Ron Ziegler to brief the media on good economic news while all but confirming the open secret in Washington that Alan Greenspan would be replacing Herbert Stein as chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers. What was really on Nixon's mind on July 15, 1974, however, was saving his presidency. In furtherance of that doomed pursuit he flew to the Palm Desert home of Walter H. Annenberg to meet Rabbi Baruch M. Korff, chairman of the National Citizens Committee for Fair Play to the Presidency. There, Rabbi Korff would present the president with a signed copy of his new book, "The Personal Nixon: Staying on the Summit." It wouldn't be enough.
Jimmy Carter was the corrective who understood the lessons of Watergate and the importance of diplomacy with hostile foreign powers. And as a candidate he also spoke directly to Americans' desire to turn the page. "Our country has lived through a time of torment," he said in his July 15, 1976, acceptance speech at the Democrats' convention in Madison Square Garden. "It's now a time for healing. We want to have faith again. We want to be proud again. We just want the truth again."
That speech also contained an odd line, barely noticed at the time, that may have been an omen. "I have never met a Democratic president," Carter said, "but I have always been a Democrat." One supposes that Carter meant he wasn't a creature of what we'd now call "the swamp," and this was certainly true. But the way things turned out, it might have been better had Carter seen presidential power from a closer vantage point before assuming national office. Once in the White House, he seemed not quite to grasp how important it was for a U.S. president to project strength abroad while instilling optimism here at home. The upshot was the so-called "malaise speech" of July 15, 1979.
Bill Clinton did understand all this. He had often interacted with presidents before coming to Washington (including Jimmy Carter, whom he knew well) and as a teenager had met John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden -- and was inspired by JFK. Clinton was savvy enough to invoke Ronald Reagan's name positively while campaigning, and to consult with both Carter and Nixon while serving as president. Yet Clinton managed the neat trick of getting himself impeached, a la Nixon, for emulating Kennedy's private behavior.
Four years ago on this date, Bill Clinton was seeking redemption of sorts -- although he would view it as vindication -- via the presidential campaign of his wife. She would lose to a man who would also get himself impeached. If Democrats had succeeded in that effort, the man Donald Trump chose as his wingman on this date in 2016 would now be president. All of which raises an interesting parallel-universe question. Had congressional Democrats gotten their way, would Joe Biden hold the same lead in the head-to-head polls over Pence that he enjoys on July 15, 2020 against Trump?
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.