This is entry number eight in my “Biggest Losers” series, which profiles the most spectacularly unsuccessful candidates for U.S. President in American history, and let me tell you, tonight’s guy may be one of the least likable losers of all. Amongst the detritus of failed Presidential candidates whose butchered political carcasses litter this blog–Greeley (1872), squashed; McGovern (1972), mashed; Parker (1904), diced; Landon (1936), filleted; Dole (1996), blended; Mondale (1984), puréed; and Dukakis (1988), sauteéd–there are usually some very nice things to say about the candidates, who more often than not are honorable men who served their country well and for one reason or another ended up on the electoral short end. But I’m having a hard time finding a positive narrative in John William Davis, a grim-faced arch-conservative Wall Street lawyer who during his career defended segregation and lynching, opposed women’s rights and allegedly tried to overthrow the government later in his career. That’s not to say that Davis was all bad–there are a few good things to say about him–but none that will make you think twice about the epic punishment he received at the ballot box from President Calvin Coolidge, who turned Davis into a grease spot without hardly opening his mouth.
The story of the 1924 election begins not in 1924, nor even in the 1920s, but back in the previous decade when Woodrow Wilson was President. Wilson’s professorial ways and his curious habit of seeing World War I as an idealistic crusade to remake the world–when most people saw it as it was, a bloody and senseless holocaust to preserve the hegemony of greedy nations–pretty much soured the American people on foreign adventurism, even before an untimely stroke turned Wilson’s brain into guacamole and his wife into (arguably) the first female President of the United States. Americans couldn’t wait for the 1920 election to embrace “normalcy,” and they heartily elected the normalest guy on the ballot, Warren G. Harding. The party bosses chose as his running mate former Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, a colorless but strangely endearing cold fish who barely said two words to anyone and favored government non-intervention whenever possible. Harding bought the farm in August 1923, possibly because of a bum ticker or maybe some bad crab meat, leaving behind a love child, salacious letters and a creepy stalker of a mistress. Coolidge had barely a year to mount a case for election in his own right, but with the economy roaring that wouldn’t be hard. From the get-go he was virtually assured of winning.
The KKK, although controversial, was a huge political force in the 1920s. Many politicians especially in the South and West openly courted them, hoping to attract racist voters.
The Democrats had little to offer the country during the midst of the Republican boom. They made things much worse for themselves by embracing none other than the Ku Klux Klan, the racist terrorist organization that seemed largely dead after Reconstruction but got a huge shot in the arm in 1915 from D.W. Griffith’s hate crime of a film, The Birth of a Nation. By 1924 the Klan was highly influential in Democratic politics in many states. As the Democrats convened in New York in early July, most Klan delegates favored William Gibbs McAdoo, former Secretary of the Treasury and conveniently Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law. The non-racist (or at least less racist) party regulars wanted New York Governor Al Smith to take the spot. Problem for the Klanners: Smith was Catholic. Cue the most epic convention nomination battle in the history of the United States.
The 1924 Democratic Convention was an unholy mess. Nicknamed the “Klanbake” by some participants, the wrangling over which potential candidate hated which people more stretched on for two sweltering weeks in the old Madison Square Garden in New York in the height of the summer. A high (?) point of the festivities was when hooded Klansmen rallied in New Jersey and burned effigies of Al Smith to send a not-so-subtle message to their allies on the convention floor. This sort of thing doesn’t really bode well for your party in a Presidential election year.
This picture was not from the 1924 convention, but shows generally what political conventions looked like in the old Madison Square Garden. Imagine being cooped up in here for two weeks in midsummer with no AC.
So where was Davis during all of this? Who was he anyway? Davis had earned his bones as a successful Wall Street lawyer, solicitor general for the U.S. (essentially, America’s official trial lawyer), briefly Congressman and Ambassador to the UK. He was pretty conservative. Women voting? Nope. Anti-lynching legislation? Nope. Child labor laws? Hell no. Poll taxes, an attempt to discourage African-Americans from voting? Sure. About the only thing Davis wasn’t conservative on was liquor. He seemed to oppose Prohibition, though wouldn’t say it openly because that would put him at odds with the party. Active in New York state politics, Davis’s name was entered largely as a place-holder in the balloting process. As the ballots went on and on, Davis never scored above third. The real duel was between Smith and McAdoo.
In fact, even after the disastrous convention began desperately looking for a dark horse, Davis probably still wouldn’t have been nominated unless Indiana Senator Samuel Ralston–another racist who was a favorite of the Klan, but who didn’t oppose Prohibition–dropped out at the last minute. Davis didn’t even want the nomination. He said he’d accept it out of duty but nothing else. Eager to get out of that sweltering hall, the Democrats finally nominated him on the 103rd ballot. Nobody was impressed.
To his credit, Davis did ultimately denounce the Klan–which is morally admirable but in 1924 was politically disastrous, as it alienated whatever thin base of support he may otherwise have had. Neither candidate did much campaigning. Davis’s heart wasn’t in it, and the Democrats’ hearts weren’t in him. Coolidge locked himself in the White House and bolted the door, leaving the campaign to surrogates. In Coolidge’s defense, he was in mourning. In July 1924, in fact right before the Democratic convention, his vivacious 16-year-old son Calvin Jr. caught blood poisoning from a blister on his foot that he got while playing tennis on the White House lawn. Calvin’s death sent the President into a lifelong funk from which he never recovered. After July 1924 he didn’t really want to be President either, but it was now too late. Thus the 1924 election presents the anomaly of a tepid contest between two men who may have secretly wanted the other one to win, or at least would’ve been relieved.
President Calvin Coolidge was deeply mourning the death of his teenage son at the time of the 1924 Presidential election.
There’s really no story to the 1924 other than the Democratic convention. Progressive Republican Senator Robert LaFollette bolted his party to claim the Progressive nomination, but his snooze of a campaign didn’t affect the outcome much. Coolidge raked in 54% of the popular vote, with Davis and LaFollette fighting over the scraps, 28% and 16% respectively. The electoral college map looks like a map of the Civil War: Davis carried every state of the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma. Coolidge never broke a sweat. Game over.
Davis himself went on to a storied career as a lawyer after the election. In addition to arguing various cases in front of the Supreme Court, he was implicated–whether fairly, no one is sure–in a bizarre 1933 scheme by conservative businessmen to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt in a coup d’etat. His final turn on the national stage was again before the Supreme Court, where he argued in favor of school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education case. He ran true to form, at least. Davis died in 1955, a year after Brown was decided. While an able lawyer, a good party hack and perhaps a nice man personally, it’s kind of hard to find someone who was so consistently on the wrong side of history on so many big-ticket issues in American politics. Perhaps in that sense, Davis was destined to be among the biggest losers.