This is the third in my series called “Biggest Losers,” profiling the most interesting unsuccessful candidates for President of the United States. This journey began with Horace Greeley (1872) and continued with George McGovern (1972). Now it’s time to meet one of the most obscure figures ever to have a shot at the Oval Office: a fellow named Alton B. Parker, who was quite capable, affable and intelligent, but who had the cosmic misfortune to be squared off against one of the greatest Presidents in American history: Teddy Roosevelt.
Though he was a big loser as a Presidential candidate, Alton Parker was generally a winner at a lot of other things: law, particularly. Born into a well-to-do family in upstate New York, a visit to a courtroom when he was 12 fired young Alton’s imagination and he decided to become a lawyer. He passed the bar in 1873 and became a successful attorney. He also dabbled in politics and early on was a pillar of the Democratic Party in New York. In 1884, he became the campaign manager for David B. Hill, the politician who followed Grover Cleveland as Governor of New York when the latter moved to the White House. If you’re a respected lawyer, it’s convenient to have a good friend as Governor, because he might appoint you to a high court position. This is what happened; Alton Parker joined the New York Supreme Court. Despite its name that isn’t the highest court in New York; that would be the Court of Appeals, to which Parker was elected in 1897.
Say what you want about his capabilities as a candidate, but at least Alton Parker seemed like a very nice, affable man. He looks like your grandfather, if you lived in 1904.
By 1904, the national Democratic Party was hurting. Twice they’d put their money on fiery orator William Jennings Bryan, and twice in a row, 1896 and 1900, Bryan was soundly drubbed by Republican William McKinley. Bryan was a populist, and his big issue was getting off the gold standard, which he saw as benefiting Wall Street fat cats like the very same ones who had bankrolled McKinley’s campaigns. Then in September 1901 McKinley had the misfortune to shake hands with a deranged anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, who seized the chance to empty his revolver into McKinley’s rather prominent belly. It wasn’t really Czolgosz who killed him, but more like McKinley’s doctors. In any event, Theodore Roosevelt, the swashbuckling would-be adventurer who came to prominence during the Spanish-American War, was now in the White House, and it was clear that in 1904 he would be asking voters to elect him in his own right.
Teddy Roosevelt was extremely popular, and for this reason few Democrats believed that anyone had a chance to beat him. Parker did not campaign actively for the nomination, but when Democrats met in St. Louis for their convention in July 1904–the convention was sandwiched between the World’s Fair and the summer Olympics, both of which also occurred in St. Louis–a few delegates threw out Parker’s name for consideration. The convention was far less about who should run against Teddy than it was about who wasn’t running, and who Democratic bigwigs didn’t want to run. In the former category, Grover Cleveland decided he didn’t want a third try, and in the latter, the St. Louis delegates were adamant that they not go down to defeat yet again with William Jennings Bryan. That left newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who had more enemies than friends in the St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall. A titanic struggle behind the scenes occurred on behalf of relatively unenthusiastic candidates, for a nomination to a ticket that everybody was sure would lose. When the dust cleared Parker, who had uttered few political statements that could alienate anybody, emerged victorious. Everybody sighed, packed up their bags and went home.
Parker was a disappointment to the Democrats from the word go. As it turned out he believed in the gold standard, thus angering progressives who followed Bryan; in fact at the convention Parker demanded the freedom to speak his mind on the issue even though the party was generally against him. The VP nomination was given to 80-year-old former Senator Henry Davis of West Virginia, mainly because he was rich and Democrats hoped he would contribute some of his personal wealth to the campaign. Alas, he didn’t end up contributing very much, making his nomination especially worthless.
A Democratic campaign button from 1904. The best Parker could do was claim that Roosevelt represented moneyed interests–which, in fact, he did.
Another problem was that Parker just wasn’t very different, at least in political positions, than Roosevelt. They agreed on the gold issue, and also (at least technically) on imperialism; despite his bravado in charging up San Juan Hill, Teddy Roosevelt, like Parker, wanted independence for the Philippines eventually. They agreed on many labor and economic issues and on major foreign policy issues. If the Democrats were hoping to offer a sharp contrast with Teddy, they failed.
Parker was also an inept campaigner. Seizing on a tactic that had won McKinley the White House twice, he decided to conduct a “front porch” campaign, which was basically to sit back and let voters and well-wishes come to him, where he would entertain them with speeches from his front porch. The problem was that Parker’s front porch was located in the remote town of Esopus, New York, far up the Hudson River. Nobody in their right mind was going to journey all the way up there to hear him talk about issues on which he was essentially the same as Roosevelt. His one big speech, right after securing the nomination, was a disaster. He tried to ding Roosevelt on foreign policy matters but came out sounding limp and dull. After this he wisely shut up. Perhaps his heart just wasn’t in it.
A month before the election, bereft of any major issues on which he could attack Teddy, Parker tried to make an issue out of the huge amounts of money Roosevelt’s campaign manager, George Cortelyou, was raising for the campaign from fat-cat donors. Parker even coined a term, “Cortelyouism,” to denounce this practice. It’s pretty desperate when a Presidential nominee runs not against his opponent, but his opponent’s campaign manager. Parker tried to come alive at the very end of the campaign with some whistle-stops in New York and New Jersey, but shooting his mouth off about Teddy being undignified earned a sharp personal rebuke from the White House and turned voters against him. It was pretty much over.
How do you beat a guy who ended up on Mt. Rushmore? Parker was obviously not the man to do it.
At ballot time, quite predictably, Teddy wiped the floor with Judge Parker, burying him with 56% of the popular vote to Parker’s 37%, and 336 electoral votes to 140. Socialist Eugene Debs won almost 3% of the vote, the first of his increasing showings in Presidential elections. Parker sent a telegram to the White House congratulating Roosevelt and then hastened to put the disaster behind him. The election of 1904 was the third and very much the largest of the Democrats’ four successive electoral defeats between 1896 and 1912. Within a few years Alton Parker was quietly forgotten.
Having resigned his court appointment to run for President, Parker returned to practicing law, where he again became successful. He also continued to dabble in politics and gave the keynote address at the 1912 Democratic Convention. He outlived Teddy Roosevelt by seven years. In 1926 Parker had a heart attack while riding through Central Park in his car. He was 73.
Parker lost the Presidency pretty decisively, but at least he seemed to be good-natured about it. He was a very poor Presidential candidate, but an excellent lawyer, judge and politician behind the scenes. In 1904 Teddy Roosevelt was probably unbeatable, which meant Parker’s outing was a “take one for the team” sort of tokenism. Under these circumstances you have to admire him. I mean, how do you defeat a man who wound up on Mt. Rushmore?