Scott argues that Hillary Clinton is the worst Democratic nominee for president ever. I think Scott has a good case if we confine ourselves to the period since the Civil War.
My nominee for the worst nominee in the past 152 years until Hillary is James Cox. He ran for president in 1920 against Warren Harding. Harding, though underrated, was no great shakes. However, America did not err when it elected him over Cox (and Socialist Eugene Debs) in a landslide.
Cox was a mediocre governor of Ohio. When the Democrats nominated him after 44 ballots, Woodrow Wilson declared, “they’ve picked the weakest one.”
Wilson was right. Throughout the campaign, Cox waffled.
He had never been a strong supporter of the League of Nations, and certainly not a hard line, “no reservations” man. However, according to David Pietrusza, author of the excellent 1920: The Year of Six Presidents, Cox became an ardent League supporter after a meeting at the White House with an extremely ill President Wilson.
In his prime, Wilson was a very persuasive fellow, but not in his present condition. Pietrusza says that Cox was simply overcome by emotion.
Cox also could not make up his mind about Prohibition. He began 1920 as the staunchest major “Wet” candidate in either party, but he “evolved.” After a meeting with Dry leaders he promised not to overturn Prohibition.
When it came to race, however, Cox was consistent. He and his party ran a racist campaign, and it is this, in my view, that clinches his status as worst nominee.
As governor, says Pietrusza, Cox had sharply reduced black patronage. He had pointedly ignored the homecoming from World War I of Ohio’s black Ninth Regiment. And, reversing the decision of his predecessor, he had allowed D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to be shown in Ohio. (As a supporter of free speech, I agree with this decision, but Griffith’s film was an utterly racist work; Woodrow Wilson, by the way, was a big fan).
As presidential candidate, Cox warned: “There is behind Senator Harding the Afro-American party whose hyphenated activity has attempted to stir up troubles among the Colored people upon the false claim that it can bring social equality. . . .” Claims like this, and much worse, were echoed throughout the campaign by Cox’s associates and supporters.
The Republican platform promised to “consider the most effective means to end lynching” (as president, Harding would back, unsuccessfully, anti-lynching legislation). Harding’s running mate, Calvin Coolidge, spoke in favor not just of ending lynching, but also granting “equal opportunities” to “the colored race.”
On these matters, Cox (in the words of one civil rights activist) offered “absolutely nothing.” His running mate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, offered “not one word.”
The Democrats played the ultimate race card by promoting the claim that Warren Harding “is not a white man.” The claim had been made vociferously by Harding’s father-in-law, who approved neither of Harding nor his own daughter, and whom Harding had attacked relentlessly in his Marion, Ohio newspaper.
The evidence doesn’t appear to support the claim, though as Harding said privately, “who knows if one of my ancestors jumped the fence.” As I understand it, the rumor, which predated the attack by Harding’s father-in-law, seems to have been based on the fact that Hardings had lived in close proximity to blacks in Ohio and were abolitionists.
What was Cox’s involvement, if any, in spreading the rumor that Harding wasn’t white? There is hearsay evidence that Cox privately gave it voice. There is also good evidence that the Ohio Democratic state committee promoted it. And, according to Pietrusza, a member of Cox’s staff was implicated in handing out flyers peddling the rumor to individuals in the pay of the Democratic party.
We will probably never know if Cox personally ordered or approved of the attack. But even if the matter of Harding’s race had never been injected into the campaign, I would still rate Cox the worst post-Civil War presidential nominee until now.