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Published: Sunday, 8/20/2000

Michigan history short on presidential timber

DETROIT - Small wonder that when President Clinton symbolically passed the leadership of his party to his vice-president and chosen successor last week, he did it in Michigan. Over the past two decades, the state has not only always voted for the winner - it has come closer than any other state to mirroring the national vote.

This year, as is usually the case, the state is a hotly contested battleground and, like Ohio, will see a great deal of all the candidates from now until November.

Yet natives in the know long ago knew that neither ticket would contain a Michigander. History has taught us the painful lesson that if Ohio is the "mother of presidents," Michigan always has been destined to be a barren womb.

Nobody born in the state has ever been elected president. Nobody living in the state who ran for the presidency ever has made it. Even candidates with strong Wolverine State connections tend to suffer the Michigan jinx. Michigan ought to have done better. It has three times the population of Bill Clinton's Arkansas, nearly twice that of Al Gore's Tennessee, and a lot more people than Massachusetts.

But when it comes to presidential timber, we evidently have rotten wood.

What about Gerald Ford? Well, true. We did supply the nation with one authentic president, the longtime congressman from Grand Rapids. Unfortunately, he was also the only occupant of the White House who was never elected either to it or the vice-presidency. Mr. Ford became the first man in history to be appointed vice-president. That was in 1973 when the disgraced Spiro Agnew, caught taking bribes, resigned.

Richard Nixon, sensing correctly that he was in deep trouble over Watergate, knew Congress would balk at his first choice, Treasury Secretary John Connally, and settled for the genial Mr. Ford, who was swiftly confirmed.

Less than a year later, Mr. Nixon too had to resign. Mr. Ford, often prominently wearing his University of Michigan belt buckle, took command. But when he ran for president on his own two years later, he lost, though his home state did loyally support him, the last time its electoral votes ever went to a loser.

What really hurt was that he wasn't even a native Michigander. He was born in Omaha, and ended up in Grand Rapids after his mother fled an abusive first husband. (His name wasn't even legally Gerald Ford until he was an adult, but that's another story.)

There was one Michigan native who did run for president - twice - though he usually isn't associated with the state. Thomas E. Dewey was a boy from Owosso who went to the University of Michigan but found life in Ann Arbor, uh, boring.

So he went to New York, became a prominent district attorney and then governor, and, after losing in 1944, was seen as absolutely certain to win the presidential election of 1948. The Chicago Tribune even set its headline in type in advance.

Well, he did win Michigan.

Speaking of Michiganders, few know that the original one was once the Democratic nominee for president. Lewis Cass, the state's political godfather, moved to Michigan territory from upstate New York in the early 19th century, helped shepherd it through to statehood, and later became one of its first U.S. senators.

There were those who said that when he got excited during a debate he flapped his arms like a goose - and a smart-aleck political opponent, a first-term congressman named Abraham Lincoln, called him "the great Michigander," among other things.

Right after that the Democrats, at the time the majority party, nominated the gander for president, a race he should have won. But he was up against the old military hero Zachary Taylor, and a splinter candidate (sound familiar?) cost him New York. Cass swept Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, but lost a close race in the electoral college.

That's pretty much been it for Michigan; House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt did go to law school at the U of M, which was probably enough to doom his 1988 candidacy. Bob Dole spent three years on his back at an army hospital in Battle Creek after World War II. losing a kidney during a time he'd probably rather not remember. To add insult to injury, he lost Michigan by a wide margin four years ago.

George Romney, governor 1963-69, was briefly the front-runner for the Republican nomination in 1968, until he announced that he'd been "brainwashed" by the generals on Vietnam, something that turned out to be a bonanza for political cartoonists and laughed his candidacy out of existence. Much later, as Mr. Romney liked to point out late in life, it turned out that pretty much everyone had been brainwashed on Vietnam,.

But who said life is fair? By way of a final insult, the team Bob Dole appointed to help him choose a vice-presidential candidate four years ago finally brought him three potential choices, the first of whom was one John Engler, governor of Michigan.

"Get serious," Mr. Dole reportedly said. He chose Jack Kemp instead. We got the message.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.



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