So South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg is running for president. For those of you out there who love the campaign trail, this is fantastic news.
My mind takes me back to February 1996 ... and there stood U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Lugar was giving a talk to Drake University students on the topic, I recall, of Africa. Lugar did this with a sedate, academic flourish and after a few minutes, I wandered out. There was a commotion down the hallway.
I came upon the Drake student newspaper office — the Times-Delphic — and I could hear shouting. I peered inside, and a couple of students cowered nearby. There was Lugar's campaign manager, Mark Lubbers, and communications guy, Terry Holt, both profanely bellowing into their cellphones. "I want you to $#%#@*& get those fliers out," Lubbers ranted. I couldn't tell what Holt was stirred up about, and if I could, it couldn't be printed here. But it was an utter contrast between the statesmanly Hoosier senator, and the gritty campaign team trying to find a political foothold in the Hawkeye State.
Buttigieg joins a small fraternity of Hoosiers who have looked into the mirror and envisioned a President of the United States. There were the Harrisons — William Henry and Benjamin — who actually won the White House in 1840 and 1888. Neither one of them had to mount the kind of campaigns we see today. Ben Harrison spent most of his time at his Delaware Street mansion in Indianapolis while marching bands and torchlight parades pranced before him nightly.
I include Abraham Lincoln in the Hoosier presidential pantheon because he grew up here. Hoosier Republicans gave him early support at the 1860 Chicago convention, helping forge one of the great nomination upsets in history. Between 1900 and 1920, Socialist Eugene Debs of Terre Haute ran five times, the last from a prison cell, charged with sedition for urging young men to evade the World War I draft.
There was Republican Wendell Willkie from Elwood who headquartered his 1940 presidential campaign in Rushville. He secured the nomination on the seventh ballot, with U.S. Rep. Charlie Halleck bellowing before the Philadelphia convention an indelible battle cry: "Weeee waaaaant Willllllkie!" He lost in a landslide to President Franklin Roosevelt.
In the television age, U.S. Sen. Vance Hartke ran briefly for the Democratic nomination in 1972. Four years later, U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh was considered a frontrunner with a campaign theme of "Yes he can," but he finished a distant third to an obscure Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
After Lugar came a very brief campaign by former Vice President Dan Quayle in 1999, but he withdrew in short order after Texas Gov. George W. Bush quickly consolidated the nomination. In 2006, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh ran, but he pulled out just weeks later after Hillary Clinton and another upstart, Sen. Barack Obama, sucked away campaign funding, key staffers and the political oxygen for success in the 2008 race.
Lugar's presidential aspirations were always a bit snakebit. He was a leading candidate to be Ronald Reagan's running mate at the 1980 GOP convention in Detroit. But The Gipper settled on George H.W. Bush, commencing that modern family dynasty.
When Lugar kicked off his campaign on April 19, 1995, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing had just been bombed, obscuring his rollout. One of Lugar's campaign themes was ominous: That we would likely lose an American city to a catastrophic terror attack. It was prescient, as tens of thousands of people worked at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, both attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.
I followed the Lugar campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire in the summer of 1995, and again during the caucuses and primary. There were debates and torchlight parades. I watched aides place Lugar in a sterile room with a phone, where he would ignominiously "dial for dollars.” I found myself on the steps of Reagan’s old radio station, WHO in Des Moines, standing behind rival Republican Steve Forbes and a plethora of 50 TV cameras.
Late at night, the whole media pack would descend on a Des Moines hotel bar. You could scan the smoky horizon, and there were Sam Donaldson and Wolf Blitzer and Stu and Charlie and Mary Matalin. It was great, boozy fun.
Key Lugar lesson for Mayor Pete: The senator was asked often how he could win. Lugar would always answer, "You have to become famous." I rendezvoused with the Lugar campaign in Muscatine, Iowa one day, and Lugar was uncharacteristically fuming. The most prominent Hawkeye journalist kept reporting he had "no chance." And he didn't, getting just 4 percent for a seventh place finish in Iowa, and 5 percent for a fourth place finish in New Hampshire. As Birch Bayh learned two decades earlier, when that happens, you go back to being a senator.
For activist Hoosier Democrats, Mayor Pete offers a portal into the presidential derby. Volunteering means no or little pay, a lot of pizza, stale coffee, doughnuts and a lifetime of contacts, memories and, if lightning strikes, a place in history.