Time Capsule: California’s Alan Cranston Tosses Hat in Ring in ’84

Getting a brief jump on his rivals, Sen. Alan Cranston of California launched a long-shot bid for the White House thirty years ago this week in the marble-columned Senate Caucus Room — the same place that George McGovern had announced his antiwar candidacy more than a dozen years earlier.

Cranston was the first of nine Democratic candidates to formally enter the race, a field that eventually included former Vice President Walter Mondale, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, Ohio Sen. John Glenn, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the colorful Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, former senator and 1972 presidential nominee George S. McGovern of South Dakota, ex-Florida Gov. Reubin Askew and self-styled economist and political gadfly Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., who was then waging his third of eight consecutive bids for the presidency.

Proclaiming himself as the “peace candidate” while hitching his fortunes to the growing nuclear freeze movement, the three-term Democratic senator said that ending the nuclear arms race would be his top priority.  The threat of “nuclear war,” he declared, was “the dominant problem of our age.”

Tying the escalating arms race to the nation’s economic woes, the 68-year-old Cranston told his cheering supporters that he would spell out his “vision of full employment and prosperity for America” later in the campaign.  “But I am convinced that in the long run, we cannot revive our economy — or save our society — until we end the incredibly dangerous, shamefully expensive arms race,” the essence of Reagan’s presidency.

The balding Cranston — a man who clearly looked his age and sort of resembled a modern-day “Ichabod Crane” and whose campaign style was “reminiscent of Sleepy Hollow,” as a TIME magazine reporter once described him — freely admitted that he was lacking in the charisma category, but more than made up for that deficiency in terms of campaign organization and his ability to raise money, both of which had proven to be essential ingredients enabling him to become one of the most popular vote-getters in California history.

A prodigious fundraiser, Cranston took immense pride in the fact that he had been the only Democrat in California history to win four consecutive terms in the U.S. Senate, a record later shared with Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein — and only recently eclipsed by the latter when she was easily reelected to the U.S. Senate for a fifth time on Nov. 6, 2012. 

Though he was in pretty good physical shape — his regular, early-morning wind sprints through hotel hallways became legendary on the campaign trail — the gaunt-looking candidate, the oldest of the nine Democratic contenders, often appeared emaciated, especially on television.  His desperate attempts to create a more youthful look with hair dyes and tanning lotions — suggestions made by his handlers — had given his head an almost surreal orange cast.  He looked terrible.

A Newsweek reporter only half-kiddingly said that he looked like a cadaver.

Throughout it all, however, the California lawmaker maintained his sense of humor.  “I had a full head of hair until Ronald Reagan was elected,” he joked repeatedly in speeches and television commercials.

Despite a surprisingly strong showing in the Wisconsin straw poll where he stunned former Vice President Walter Mondale, who lived in neighboring Minnesota and was far and away the party’s frontrunner at that stage in the campaign, Cranston’s unlikely candidacy — burdened by an enormous and unsustainable debt — never caught on and he dropped out of the race after posting poor showings in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.

“I know the difference between reality and dreams,” he said in gracefully exiting the race.  “I know when to dream and how to count votes.”

Excerpts from Darcy G. Richardson’s forthcoming book, McGovern: The Last Hurrah, an in-depth look at George McGovern’s largely forgotten bid for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination.

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