The world of politics is a messy one, especially when it comes to the biggest job of all: the President of the United States. If you’re lucky enough to get a real chance to run for this prestigious office, you then have to duck and dive all of the dirty tactics throughout the campaign trail.
History reserves a special place for those who manage to become President, but what about the ones who got scuppered at the final hurdle, or just missed out by a twist of fate? Join us as we take a look at some of the men and women who almost got America’s toughest job.
When it comes to achieving our dreams, our biggest enemy can be ourselves. Daniel Webster was the Secretary of State twice in the 1800s and was hailed as one of the most important figures in American history. In 1840, Webster was offered the Vice Presidency on the Whig ticket, but declined, despite always wanting to be president.
He wanted to do it on his own merit but lost out to William Henry Harrison who offered him the Secretary of State position instead. Had he accepted the position, he would’ve ended up President as Harrison died thirty days after his inauguration.
Samuel J. Tilden
If you thought drama was more of a modern day thing in politics, think again. Our forefathers knew how to stir the pot just as good as anyone. In 1876 the incumbent Republican President, Ulysses S. Grant wanted a third term, but he was denied.
Instead, the party put forward Rutherford B. Hayes, who went against Samuel J. Tilden. Like Hilary Clinton, Tilden won the majority of the popular vote, but lost out to the Electoral College. However, a lot of the electoral votes were disputed, particularly in Florida. When some ballots were rejected, the votes were awarded to Hayes, beating Tilden 184 to 183. It’s the closest race in history.
Al Gore had already served as Bill Clinton’s vice president for eight years when he decided to go for the position himself, running against George W. Bush. Bush himself had presidential blood, being the son of the 41st President George H. W. Bush. Thanks to Clinton’s sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky, Gore opted to campaign without him in case it tarred his image.
When it came to election day, the vote was so close in Florida that state law required a recount. A lengthy series of legal battles ensued over a month-long period before Bush was declared the winner by .009% – just 537 votes. Many still debate the authenticity of the win.
In 1912, it looked like things were going pretty well. Educated and gentle Virginian Woodrow Wilson led the Democratic return to the White House and saw the country through the first World War, even helping to negotiate the famed Treaty of Versailles. In 1919, he suffered a very severe stroke that rendered him completely unable to carry on with his presidential duties.
Amazingly, Wilson’s wife Edith and his secretary Joseph Tumulty kept it a secret from the public for reasons unknown. If he had died during his time in office, the presidency would’ve fallen to VP Thomas Marshall. Some speculate that if Marshall had been given the position he would’ve negotiated the US into the League of Nations, which could have potentially stopped World War II.
In 1973 and 1974, it looked like President Nixon was going to be impeached thanks to the Watergate Scandal. Vice President Spiro Agnew was also forced to resign after he was charged with corruption and bribery. With Nixon on the outs and no VP to take over, the presidency would’ve fallen to Carl Albert, the Speaker of the House.
In theory, Albert could’ve put himself in the White House if he wished, as he was in charge of the body that could impeach Nixon – but he didn’t. Nixon held out long enough for Gerald Ford to become VP and became the first president to quit.
Nelson Rockefeller was a big name in the ’70s, as the Governor of New York. When Ford cinched the big spot, he appointed Rockefeller to VP, but this wasn’t the businessman’s first rodeo. He’d come close to being in the White House before. He ran for the Republican nomination three times in the early ’60s and was also on the shortlist for becoming Nixon’s VP, along with Ford and George Bush.
Had he been chosen, he would’ve landed the role. Ford was targeted by assassins twice in three weeks. If either attempt had been successful, then Rockefeller would’ve become the 39th President of the United States.
Henry Agard Wallace
In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was seeking a fourth term in office, after already shocking the world by going for a third – something no one else had done before. While Roosevelt went for it, his health was failing. The Democrats knew this and were worried about VP Henry Agard Wallace cinching the position.
Wallace was thought to be too liberal, and he practiced some New Age beliefs that were deemed inappropriate. They successfully had him replaced with Harry S. Truman. Just four months into Roosevelt’s fourth term, the President died, making Harry S. Truman next in line, not Henry Agard Wallace.
In 1948, Thomas Dewey was a shoo-in to become President. Truman was losing popularity among voters and nearly everyone thought Dewey was going to win, whether they voted for him or not. Truman went at the campaign as hard as he could, but the public – and the media – weren’t convinced.
When the results started coming in from the election, the Chicago Daily Tribune went ahead and printed “Dewey Defeats Truman” on their front page. Unfortunately for Dewey and the paper, as the night went on Truman was the clear winner thanks to swing voters. Dewey carried on serving as the Governor of New York until 1954.
In the roaring ’20s, Warren Gamaliel Harding had just scooped the election, on the back of his “return to normalcy” campaign after the Wilson years. Harding initially wanted Senator Irvine Lenroot to run as his VP, but he was over-ruled. Instead, the position went to Governor Calvin Coolidge.
Three years after gaining the most prominent job in the country, Harding died of a respiratory infection and Coolidge became known as one of the country’s most stoic presidents. Some historians speculate that Lenroot would’ve been a more progressive president than Coolidge and could’ve prevented the Depression.
Willie P. Mangum
Willie P. Mangum was the Senate president pro tempore in 1844, making him the second-in-line to the White House after the Vice President. After John Tyler declared himself President after the death of Harrison in 1841, he came close to being knocked off of the podium completely.
President Tyler was stopped by a dignitary on his way up onto a ship to witness a naval gun display. The gun in the display exploded, killing the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy instead – if Tyler was there, it would’ve killed him too. If it had, Mangum would’ve been promoted to President.
John Nance Garner
Garner very nearly became President in 1933. The 20th Amendment was ratified on January 23rd, stating that the Vice President-elect would assume the presidency if the President-Elect died before being sworn into office. Less than a month after the document went into action, an assassination attempt was made on Roosevelt.
While the shots Giuseppe Zangara fired missed the President-Elect, it killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. If Zangara had been successful, Garner would’ve taken the top spot. Garner served as Vice President from 1933 to 1941, eventually being replaced by Henry Agard Wallace and never coming close to the presidency again.
Lafayette S. Foster
Brace yourselves, this a good one. Foster was the Senate President Pro Tempore in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. What some people don’t realize is that the plot to kill Lincoln also included plans to target VP Andrew Johnson.
John Wilkes Booth convinced George Atzerodt to kill Johnson at his hotel. The killer was primed and ready to do the deed, even staying in the room above the VP, but decided he wanted to go out drinking instead. Had Johnson been murdered that night, Foster would’ve become acting President until the next election.
Theodore Roosevelt is known as one of the greatest Presidents to have ever lived – but it wasn’t just his political prowess that got him to the top. There was a lot of death, too. Garret Hobart was the Vice President of the William McKinley Administration. At the time, Hobart was an extremely well-liked politician, but he had a heart condition that made him weak. He passed away two years into the term.
Theodore Roosevelt was busy being the Governor of New York, buckling down on corruption when he was made Vice President. McKinley and Roosevelt sailed through the next election, and when McKinley was killed six months later, Roosevelt cemented his place in history as the 26th President.
We briefly touched on the corrupt Spiro Agnew earlier, but had he been able to say no to under-the-table payouts, he would’ve most certainly been the next president after Nixon. While Nixon was busy getting grilled over Watergate, VP Agnew was taking heat on his own mistakes.
Agnew had been taking bribes in all of his offices, totaling more than $100,000. That’s the equivalent of over $800,000 today. If the VP was able to have kept it on the straight and narrow, he wouldn’t have been forced to resign. When Nixon quit, he would’ve become president. He spent the rest of his life away from the public eye but did write a memoir defending his actions.
In 1868, all that stood between Benjamin Wade and the presidency was one singular vote. Wade was President Pro Tempore when President Andrew Johnson was being impeached. He was next in line to get the job as Johnson had no Vice President. In theory, it should’ve all gone smoothly for him.
Although he would’ve only had the role for five months up until the next election, it would’ve been a dream come true. However, when the Senate voted on it, only 1/3 wanted him in the White House. If he had received one vote more, the majority would’ve ruled and he would have gone down in history as President Wade. Despite the blow, he remained an active politician.
We couldn’t possibly leave out Hillary Clinton, the first woman to ever come close to being president. In one of the most controversial elections in history, Clinton went head-to-head with businessman-turned-politician Donald Trump in 2016. There was an enormous amount of mud-slinging that went Clinton’s way but the former First Lady ran a good campaign. So good in fact, that she won the popular vote.
Unfortunately for Clinton, it wasn’t good enough as she lost the Electoral College, making Donald Trump the 45th President of the United States of America. Hilary believed the election was heavily influenced by the Russian government.
Like a lot of things in life, politics can be bitterly confusing. There are all sorts of laws and votes and steps a politician has to take to even get nominated as a candidate. Aaron Burr was Thomas Jefferson’s running mate in the 1800 election, but they ended up tied with each other in the Electoral College election.
Burr then decided to run for President against Jefferson but lost on the 36th ballot. If he had stayed put, then he would’ve had a chance at the big one. Burr went on to shoot his political rival Alexander Hamilton in a duel. While he was never tried, the scrap ended his political career.
Winfield Scott Hancock
The 1880 election is seldom talked about, as generally, it was quite unremarkable – for everyone except Winfield Scott Hancock. He ran against James Garfield and got so close to the White House he could almost taste it.
General Hancock lost out to Garfield by just 0.09%. Both candidates had won 19 states each, but the General, who was a Democrat and a Pennsylvanian, couldn’t sway the voters in one northern state. It cost him 56 votes and the presidency. Hancock went on to be the president of the National Rifle Association and continue his military services. He was known as “Hancock the Superb.”
Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evan Hughes ran against Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Hughes, a Republican, had resigned from the Supreme Court to be able to run in the election, giving up his role as Supreme Court Justice. He was supported by former President Theodore Roosevelt and had many important figures behind him.
However, he made a frightful error in judgment that cost him the votes of California. Hughes didn’t show up to an appointment with the Governor of California and Roosevelt’s former running mate Hiram Johnson, and so lost his endorsement. Come election night, the votes hinged on California and Wilson won the state and the presidency.
Thomas W. Ferry
Thomas White Ferry bore a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, and he could’ve had the same job role too. He was a Senator, and while he didn’t actively run for president, it could’ve happened thanks to some tricky laws of the time. In 1876, the nation was gripped by the Tilden-Hayes election.
Congress appointed a 15-person committee to settle the disputed race, eventually ruling in favor of Hayes just two days before the inauguration. Had the dispute not been settled in time, then Ferry (who was the Senate President Pro Tempore at the time) would’ve been tasked with holding down the fort until the next election. Just goes to show how the law can change everything, doesn’t it?