Taking the early presidential plunge

With Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio now in active competition for their parties' 2016 presidential nominations, it's guaranteed that voters will be subjected to one of the longest preludes to the actual election yet recorded.

They followed even earlier declarations of candidacy by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, with others soon to come. It's in sharp contrast to the official kickoff 55 years ago when Sen. John F. Kennedy did not announce his bid until the opening of the election year itself.


Half a century ago, that sensible starting point was possible because hundreds of millions of dollars were not required to run then as they are today. Nor was the gauntlet of state caucuses and primaries to be contested anywhere as long as it is now.

Kennedy made his announcement in the historic Senate Caucus Room where he had gained some modest national attention as a member of a Senate labor rackets investigating committee, grilling the likes of Teamsters bosses Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa.


JFK's then-bratty kid brother Bobby, as a committee counsel, snapped insistently at Hoffa's heels and whispered sharp questions in brother Jack's ear. It was what passed in those days as top television entertainment.

Eight years later, Robert Kennedy made his own declaration of candidacy in the same Caucus Room. He didn't do so until March of 1968 because he waited for sitting President Lyndon Johnson to be shown vulnerable in a near-loss in that year's New Hampshire primary to little-known Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

Even then, the race to the party nominating conventions was more a sprint through a handful of state contests rather than the marathon it is today, with more than two dozen delegate-selections events required of the current Oval Office hopefuls.

So far this year, Messrs. Cruz, Paul and Rubio all kicked off their campaigns at large and glitzy rallies to capture free television coverage, gauged to better introduce them as relative newcomers to national audiences.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton, among the world's best-known women as a former first lady and secretary of state, launched a calculated low-octane start-up with a brief video and a 16-hour road trip to distant Iowa, site of next year's first caucus.

Rather than simply hopping on a plane for a flight of no more than three hours from the East Coast, she "endured" the schlep in a sleek luxury van with Secret Service at the wheel and home-comfort accouterments. That way she was able to make truck stops along the way to demonstrate her determination to chat up the "everyday Americans" with whom she is pledged to consort, but two whom she allegedly gave short shrift in her first, failed presidential run of 2008.

By whatever route she and the other contenders in both parties choose, today's campaigning for the presidency continues to be a personal as well as national ordeal that will take a toll on the endurance, the imagination and the attention spans of all concerned.

That includes the American public, which for all the millions spent by all the candidates, their small doors and super PACs, seems increasingly turned off by the whole process. Voter turnouts in the caucuses and primaries worked exhaustively by the contenders seldom exceed a third of eligible voters, or half of eligibles in the general election.


Both major parties have taken minor steps this time around to shorten the delegate-selection process in the various states, and to reduce the number of debates that tax candidate time and voter indulgence. But the business of seeking the major-party presidential nominations remains a tough slog that in the end leaves many Americans looking longingly for the finish line.

As long as so much money is available, particularly from a relative handful of wealthy fat cats and special interests, and ambitious politicians and their well-paid hired guns stand ready to spend it, the marathon is likely to endure — starting ever earlier each four years. And the rest of us will have to grin and bear it, or not.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is