As this election cycle draws to a close, a hearty congratulations to all the political king-makers out there. To all the women and men who cajoled, flattered, manipulated and lied to their candidate to get them to run for office and then did whatever it took to keep them motivated and focused throughout the campaign — you’re almost there!
Remember, without you, the Steve Bannons of the world, some of America’s most influential politicians might never have been elected. King-making is not all crab feasts and pig-pickins — wait, that’s exactly what it is, but you get my point. When the poll numbers are flat, you are there. When there are more chairs in the Elk’s Hall than people; you are the one with the cool head.
The next time someone forgets your name, or worse, the candidate’s name — remember: You’ve got it relatively good. For some king-makers, the road is literally a constant uphill climb. Consider the case of Franklin Roosevelt and his king-maker, Louis Howe.
Heaven help you if you were poor or unemployed in 1930s America. Remember those flickering black-and-white celluloid images of desperate, shrunken men weaving sheepishly in and out of the shadows as they waited anxiously for a free bowl of soup? The official unemployment rate in the U.S. at the time was around 25 percent, but the unofficial rate — that which captured those who had simply given up any hope of finding work — was perhaps twice that. If the ‘20s was the decade of excess and unbounded optimism in America, the ‘30s was the decade of despair.
This all began to change when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. One of his first acts was to establish the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), a government program designed to put young men to work restoring an American landscape stripped bare and bled white by a decade of self-delusion and mindless consumption. The CCC rekindled the enthusiasm of America’s young men and channeled their newfound energy into infrastructure and environmental projects across the nation. They built bridges, put out fires and carved out of the American wilderness scores of national parks and trails. Overnight, men went from sleeping rough and picking through rubbish bins to waking up in warm beds to the smell of freshly baked bread and coffee.
Historians are fond of saying that this or that president might never have obtained the office had it not been for the unique contribution of this or that person. They cite Alexander Hamilton’s help in manipulating the vote tallies in George Washington’s first election and mention Clark Clifford’s drafting of the plan that led to Truman’s improbable 1948 victory. For Franklin Roosevelt, Louis Howe was such a person.
After Roosevelt was stricken with polio, everyone, including Roosevelt himself, thought he would never again be a viable candidate for the presidency. Today, FDR is remembered as a supremely optimistic man, but he had never experienced anything as emotionally debilitating as polio. It almost broke him. During the early months of his illness, the man whose blazing smile would lead a nation through the Great Depression was so consumed by his own hopelessness that he had to move away from his family in order to manage his recovery. Howe, perhaps more than any other figure, helped convince Roosevelt that his dreams need not be quashed by polio.
Without his influence and assistance, the achievements that FDR is best remembered for might never have occurred. Howe was responsible for the line “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” and Howe came up with the idea for the CCC.
In the pantheon of America’s greatest presidents, Washington is credited with founding the nation, Lincoln is praised for preserving it, and FDR is revered for coming to its rescue when destructive forces assailed it from within and without.
In many ways, Louis Howe was as responsible for that legacy as FDR himself. Without Howe’s contribution, Americans may very well have had a President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but he would not have been the larger-than-life FDR we remember today. That FDR was largely the creation of Louis Howe.
President Donald Trump was supposed to be Steve Bannon’s FDR, but since his firing, Mr. Bannon has receded from the American stage after suffering the fate that afflicts many a king-maker: Once the king is made, he no longer has a need for his maker. But that does not mean Bannon has disappeared completely. With the next election cycle on the horizon, he is out there somewhere waiting patiently for his hour to come at last, like some rough beast slouching towards the skyline to be born."
K. Ward Cummings (email: firstname.lastname@example.org,) is the author of “Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers.”