All the world may be a stage, but typically the actors of history don’t know they are living it. That is hardly the case today. This year’s election has the eyes of the globe focused on America, even more than usual. And in the final week before Election Day, it’s worth looking back at the presidential races that changed the nation and the world, knowing that history tends to repeat itself. You might have seen us talk about it on MSNBC, Fox or Good Morning America already. If not, here’s your own sneak peek into OZY’s latest TV show, The Campaigns That Made History, for which I interviewed dozens of candidates, campaign managers and political experts to learn what the past can tell us about the 2020 election. It airs tonight on HISTORY at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT — join me on Twitter live to let me know what you think.
Carlos Watson, Co-Founder and CEO
how we got here
1. The Foreshadowing of Reagan
He was the OG anti-establishment candidate. When Ronald Reagan, a former football player and charismatic actor, challenged President Gerald Ford in 1976, he recognized the power of TV. And he wasn’t afraid of abandoning boring political-speak. “Balancing the budget,” as he quipped to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, “is like protecting your virtue: You have to learn how to say ‘no.’” The California governor came tantalizingly close to defeating the sitting president. And while Reagan lost, Ford urged him to address the Republican National Convention anyway, assuming he would embarrass himself without a teleprompter. That was a mistake: Reagan delivered a stirring speech, putting him on the path to the presidency four years later.
It was Jeb, the younger son of George H.W. Bush, whom many saw as the heir apparent. But it was George W. Bush who overcame a mistake-marred past — including drug use, failed businesses and an unsuccessful congressional campaign — to rise to the presidency. He was helped by meeting Karl Rove, who saw in Dubya the empathy and congeniality that would define him as a politician. His past nearly derailed his run for the presidency in 2000 when reports of a DUI rattled the campaign in the final weeks. “I can’t remember how many beers,” Bush chuckled when asked about the incident. “It was 24 years ago.” The election became defined by the contested recount in Florida, which was decided a month later by the Supreme Court — in a case that could foreshadow a messy conclusion to 2020.
If you’re like us, you’ve gotten used to working from the comfort of home wrapped in cozy blankets and may dread the idea of putting on “real” clothes. With Outerknown’s Blanket Shirt, your problem is solved. It’s rugged and sustainable, and we promise it’s the coziest shirt ever made. Don’t let its stylishness fool you: The Blanket Shirt can also stand up to the elements and function as an extra layer on chilly nights.
He had “the peculiar charisma of somebody who really didn’t care,” as one expert put it. Barry Goldwater penned The Conscience of a Conservative, which inspired a new generation of young conservatives to take over the Republican Party and redefine it as the party of individual freedom and responsibility, free enterprise, limited government and strong military defense. The Arizona senator’s grassroots-powered 1964 presidential campaign was defined by the memorable lines: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” While Goldwater was smoked in the general election by President Lyndon B. Johnson, his movement hastened the ideological sorting — and polarization — in today’s parties.
With snappy one-liners and a Texas drawl, the third-party candidate roared onto the scene in ’92, telling the American people that he was running “because I love you” and drawing on his entrepreneurial savvy to confront both mainstream politics and Wall Street. “I come from an environment where, if you see a snake, you kill it,” he said. “If you see a snake, the first thing you do is go hire a consultant on snakes. Then you get a committee on snakes, and then you discuss it for a couple of years.” Perot briefly led in the polls before crashing, and his bid remains the most successful third-party run in modern American political history, as he won nearly 19 percent of the popular vote. The billionaire businessman who made his money in tech was often accused of trying to buy the election — an echo of the critiques of Michael Bloomberg’s short-lived Democratic primary run this year. Still, Perot got a much better result on a smaller investment, dropping $60 million to Bloomberg’s $1 billion.
Facing a constant barrage of racist and sexist comments from fellow legislators, Shirley Chisholm nonetheless became the first Black woman in Congress. She continued to make history when she became the first woman and African American candidate for a major party to run for president, with the tagline: “Unbought & Unbossed.” Her disorganized campaign — at times accepting contributions in cash — hampered her ability to gain any traction, though she did receive a ceiling-cracking nominating vote at the 1972 Democratic Convention. And Chisholm was invoked in the 2020 convention speech by vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, the first Black woman on a major party ticket.
Ever checked the ingredients in your dog’s food? It might scare you. Thankfully, our friends at Spot & Tango have sworn off mysterious ingredients and powdered meats for good. Their personalized UnKibble will provide your dog with the exact nutrients they need to live their best life. With free shipping and vet-developed recipes, could it get any better? Oh yeah, their meal plans start at only $6.99 per week. Check out Spot & Tango’s UnKibble now, and use code OZY30 for 30% off!
The campaign manager for George McGovern’s blowout loss to President Richard Nixon in 1972, Hart became a U.S. senator in Colorado and set his sights on the presidency himself. He appeared unstoppable early in the 1988 campaign — until rumors of extramarital affairs and life as a “womanizer” began to swirl. One Saturday night, a Miami Herald reporter spotted Hart emerging from his D.C. town house with Donna Rice, a beauty pageant winner and aspiring actress. A flood of news coverage ensued and led to Hart pulling out of the race with a fiery, defiant speech, saying that politics will in the future become a spectator sport that reduces “the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted.” It was the moment when the tabloid press and the political press converged in a way that has been a hallmark of journalism in the digital age.
A former Goldwater supporter who switched sides during the civil rights movement and became a progressive Democratic governor in Vermont, Howard Dean was the Democratic front-runner for a time in 2004. His insurgent campaign was built on opposition to the Iraq War and the novel idea of online grassroots organizing that Barack Obama would later take to new heights. But Dean’s passion would work against him when he finished third in the Iowa caucuses — and let out a “Raaah!” scream designed to fire up supporters for the states to come but instead underscored Dean’s apparent inability to act presidential, an issue that was fixated on by the political press and satirized by late-night comedians.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Arizona senator and Vietnam War hero in 2008 to succeed an unpopular George W. Bush presidency, marked by war and the brewing Great Recession. Searching for a way to energize the race, McCain chose Sarah Palin, the little-known governor of Alaska, as his VP pick. “She was folksy, she was funny, she was acerbic, she was tough,” as Katie Couric says of Palin’s introduction as the running mate. “In that moment in time, in that frozen moment, we believed this was working,” says McCain adviser Steve Schmidt. “What we just didn’t know was how glaringly unprepared she was.” In unscripted moments, Palin unraveled, most notably during a disastrous interview with Couric, and Tina Fey’s skewering on Saturday Night Live proved indelible. Experts agree that McCain probably would have lost anyway, but there’s no question Palin cost him — and the veepstakes has been a more cautious affair ever since.
In “one speech,” Barack Obama changed “the complexion of the party,” longtime Democratic strategist Minyon Moore would later say of Obama’s rousing 2004 Democratic Convention speech on breaking down America’s divides that vaulted a soon-to-be senator from Illinois into the presidential conversation. His soaring rhetoric and expert use of social media to organize helped pave the way, but what made Obama’s 2008 campaign remarkable was how it rebounded from setbacks time and again. Case in point? His humbling loss to Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary led to his most famous slogan. As he said in his primary-night speech: “We’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t. Generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.” These days, America’s first Black president can be found defending his administration’s record and deploying his rhetorical arsenal on behalf of the man he chose that year as his running mate: Joe Biden.
The New York real estate mogul had long flirted with politics — and even ran for president briefly in 2000 under the banner of the Reform Party. That bid, backed by Minnesota Gov. Jesse “the Body” Ventura, was a glimpse of what was to come in many ways, with Trump utilizing national TV platforms and grabbing headlines by bashing Republican contender Pat Buchanan as a bigot or floating Oprah Winfrey as a running mate. The man was the same, but the ideology and approach were wildly different in his 2016 bid. “You’ve had crazy races in the history of America, but nothing, nothing compares to this,” talk show host Larry King says on The Campaigns That Made History. Election night proved it, when pundits were visibly shocked as the results came in, showing that Trump had won in a squeaker — defying the polls in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Now, with a week to go until his reelection campaign comes to a close, the question is: Can he do it again?
Have we whet your appetite? Tune in to HISTORY tonight at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT to watch The Campaigns That Made History — and don’t forget to join the conversation live on Twitter. What moment from history shapes how you think about this election? Let me know.