The Strange Lives of Failed Presidential Candidates

Mitt Romney's charity fight against Evander Holyfield points to an obvious truth about running for president: if you lose, nothing you do afterward will quite compare to being the leader of the free world.

by Kevin Lincoln
May 15 2015, 7:49pm

Image via CharityVision

Tonight, Mitt Romney will fight Evander Holyfield. Seriously: the 68-year-old former Massachusetts governor and failed Republican presidential candidate will enter the ring with the 52-year-old ex-heavyweight champion of the world, and they're going to box. I mean, they're not actually going to box — the whole thing's a stunt to raise money for charity, which is cool; it's expected to bring in a cool $1 million for CharityVision. But it's somewhat bracing to realize that, if things had gone a little differently two years ago, Romney would be sitting in the Oval Office right now. Instead, he's about to fight the guy who got his ear bitten off by Mike Tyson.

The most surprising revelation from this particular fight is that it turns out Mitt Romney actually has a personality—an attribute he neglected to show during his two runs for president. In an interview with New York Times Magazine's Mark Leibovich, he was even quite funny: when Leibovich asked him if it'll be a "modest performance," Romney replied, "It'll be a modest performance in more ways than one." Politics aside, if Romney had spent more time during his campaigns saying things like, "[Under Armour] have graciously sent me their apparel items, which I will avail myself of," I would've liked him a lot more.

But the charity fight points to a subtly obvious truth about running for president: if you lose, nothing you do afterward will quite compare to being the leader of the free world. The last few major presidential candidates have all compensated for their failure by remaining serious and productive public servants: John McCain is still a Senator, and likely will be until after we're all dead; John Kerry is the Secretary of State; Al Gore made himself into the world's most famous climate-change advocate ; Michael Dukakis became an academic and a grassroots campaigner. Beyond that, though, there are plenty of others who, like Romney, put together post-campaign careers that were a stark contrast, or else an interesting commentary, on their presidential aspirations.

In 1996, Bill Clinton won in a landslide over Bob Dole, a former Republican Senator from Kansas. Dole was 73 years old at the time, making him the oldest first-time presidential nominee in history. After losing the election, he solidified his status as one of the chief elder statesman of American politics by... filming a Viagra commercial. Watching it now, the commercial is remarkably dignified, especially in light of what would come after — you know, people in bathtubs holding hands in the sunset. At the time, "dignity" was not what it brought to mind for the American people, though. "Bob Dole's penis" is what it brought to mind.

Fightland: Mitt Romney Is Going to Fight Evander Holyfield

Democrat George McGovern ran unsuccessfully against Richard Nixon in 1972. In 1988, he bought a hotel in Stratford, Connecticut. In 1991, it went bankrupt. Former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, an amateur radio enthusiast who lost the 1964 election to President Lyndon Johnson, became increasingly interested in UFOs as he got older, and went on the record multiple times saying he believed that the US government was hiding evidence and information about UFOs from the American public. Democrat Adlai Stevenson may have failed to win the presidency multiple times, but Peter Sellers made him chief executive for posterity by basing Dr. Strangelove's President Merkin Muffley on Stevenson.

Going back farther, the activities of failed presidential contenders get weirder. It is unlikely that any major candidate will ever top Aaron Burr, who served as vice president after Thomas Jefferson won the election in 1800. (Because of the way presidential elections used to work, Burr wasn't a candidate in the same way that politicians now run for office.) During his final year as vice president, Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton during a duel, which seems even more insane now than it did in American History class.

After shooting Hamilton, Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey but never tried. Amazingly, he managed to top himself by heading west after he left office and getting himself embroiled in what would come to be known as the Burr Conspiracy. Although it's unclear what actually happened, but President Thomas Jefferson accused him of treason, claiming his former vice president was plotting to lead a group of farmers and other armed men in forming a new independent country.

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DeWitt Clinton may have failed in obtaining the presidency in 1812, but he did go on serve as the Freemason Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New York and as the first, second, and third Grand Master of the Grand Encampment of the Knights Templar in the United States. John C. Frémont lost to James Buchanan in 1856 and then again in 1864, as a more radically abolitionist alternative to Abraham Lincoln. In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Frémont governor of the Arizona Territory, but he was eventually because he basically never went to Arizona. He died broke, in Staten Island. Following his attempts at winning the White House in 1896 and 1900, William Jennings Bryan became possessed of the evils of both alcohol and evolution, and fought against both, including as the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes trial, where he was embarrassed by Clarence Darrow.

If you were to consider anyone who ever ran for president, this piece would be a million words long: I mean, Michele Bachmann was a candidate, and I believe since her run she's returned to whatever Midwestern bunker she emerged from. But just among the major candidates for president, there's been some serious strangeness in trying to find that post-campaign career. So Romney should feel comforted. Better a boxing match than a gunfight.

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