Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton. It is difficult to remember a presidential battle between candidates who are more disliked than the present two major party nominees. Numerous citizens have no doubt privately wished the worst on both candidates. But what were to happen if the unthinkable happened?
“No presidential candidate of a major party has ever died or withdrawn before a presidential election,” wrote historian John Buescher, “and no President-elect has ever died or withdrawn after winning the general election.”
But there have been some notorious, and heart-breaking examples of death on the campaign trail, or just afterwards…
Robert F. Kennedy – His rise to power was swift and storied. Robert Kennedy served as campaign manager for his older brother John F. Kennedy in his 1960 run for president. Of course, JFK won, and Robert Kennedy served as attorney general in his administration and was his closest advisor. In 1964, he was elected senator of New York. In March 1968, Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy for president, in the same room where his brother John had done so eight years earlier. “I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course,” he said, “and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I’m obliged to do all I can.”
Kennedy entered a tight race. Already in the running were incumbent President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Kennedy ran on a platform of racial and economic justice, non-aggression in foreign policy, decentralization of power, and social change. He appealed especially to poor, African American, Hispanic and Catholic voters. When Johnson surprisingly dropped out, the race got even more intense. Vice President Hubert Humphrey then entered, with the support of the party’s establishment. But on June 4, 1968, Kennedy scored a major coup, by winning the California primary. Shortly after midnight on June 5th he addressed his supporters in the ballroom of The Ambassador Hotel, in Los Angeles, then headed for the press room. Someone mentioned a shortcut was through the hotel kitchen, and Kennedy followed their advice, despite being told by his bodyguard, former FBI agent Bill Barry, to avoid the kitchen.
In the crowded kitchen passageway Robert Kennedy shook hands with busboy Juan Romero. At the same moment, a 24-year-old Palestinian named Sirhan Bishara Sirhan opened fire with a .22-caliber revolver, mortally wounding the senator. Two former sports stars and the journalist and literary editor George Plimpton are credited with wrestling Sirhan to the ground. Meanwhile, Romero cradled the wounded senator’s head and placed a rosary in his hand. “Is everybody okay?” Kennedy asked him. “Yes, everybody’s OK,” the busboy replied. Kennedy then turned away and said, apparently to no one in particular, “Everything’s going to be okay.” Medical attendants arrived and lifted him onto a stretcher. “Don’t lift me,” he said, then lost consciousness. They were his last words.
William Henry Harrison – Harrison survived the campaign trail and a battle against the incumbent President Martin Van Buren, but ended up serving the shortest presidency in history. He was in office for only 30 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes before succumbing to what at the time was thought to be pneumonia. Harrison took the oath of office on March 4, 1841. It was a cold wet day, but the former warrior, famous for leading American forces against Native Americans in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, apparently wanted to prove his stuff. He wore neither an overcoat nor hat, and delivered the longest inaugural address in American history, an 8,445 word speech that took him nearly two hours to deliver. Afterward Harrison rode through the streets in an inaugural parade, and that evening attended three inaugural balls.
At the time, anyone who wanted a meeting with the President could simply come to the White House and wait in line. And come they did, at all hours of the day and night. “I am so much harassed by the multitude that call upon me,” an overwhelmed Harrison declared “that I can give no proper attention to any business of my own.” Apparently, this also included his health, because on March 26 Harrison became ill with a cold. The illness swiftly worsened, rapidly turning to pneumonia and pleurisy. “He sought to rest in the White House,” reads Harrison’s Wikipedia entry, “but could not find a quiet room because of the steady crowd of office seekers.”
His doctors tried all the cures of the time; castor oil, leeches, opium and Virginia snakeweed, but these treatments only seemed to make Harrison worse. Eventually, he became delirious. Nine days after becoming ill, and less than one month after taking office, he died. His doctor diagnosed the cause of death as “pneumonia of the lower lobe of the right lung,” but a 2014 medical analyses concluded that he actually died of enteric fever, otherwise known as typhoid, a condition likely spurred on by the fact that the White House lay within close proximity to a dumping ground for sewage and human waste.
Horace Greeley – The candidate who lost everything and literally died of a broken heart, in 1872. Greeley was founder and editor of the New-York Tribune and briefly served as a congressman from New York. He urged the settlement of the American West, and is credited with possibly helping to found the name, the Republican Party. After the assassination of Lincoln, Greeley broke with President Ulysses Grant, whom he saw as corrupt. In late 1871 he was selected as the best-suited to go against Grant in the general election of 1872, and the following year he was endorsed by both the Democrat party and the newly formed Liberal Republicans. But Grant destroyed Greeley in the general election, securing 286 electors, to Greeley’s 66. He won just six states, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas. And his fall from great heights continued, there was a movement to unseat him at the Tribune. “He found himself unable to sleep,” reads Greeley’s Wikipedia page, and on the recommendation of the family physician was sent to an asylum in Pleasantville, New York. He died here, on November 29, 1872, just weeks after the election.
Mike Fellows – This may be the least well-known death on the campaign trail, but perhaps that makes mentioning it all that more important. Mike Fellows was running as a libertarian for the U.S. House in Montana. On Monday evening, September 19, he dropped by a sparsely-attended community hall meeting in Seeley Lake, Montana. “Fellows wore a dark suit jacket over a light blue collared shirt, an American flag tie wrapped loosely around his neck,” read an article with Montana Public Radio. “He moved about slowly and with help from a metal walker. He hadn’t been feeling well lately and had had to skip a debate in Billings August 29th because of his health.”
The event that night featured about two dozen attendees, pizza and soda. To the disappointment of the event’s organizers, not all of the candidates showed up—the event was competing with a gubernatorial debate, Monday night football and a community barbeque. But Fellows showed up, and he had a lot to say. “The Democrats and Republicans in Congress…if they finally came together and agreed on these issues we’d finally get things done,” said Fellows, from behind a collapsible plastic table set up for the candidates. “Libertarians support this notion of responsibility. If you don’t infringe on your neighbor, why do we need more regulations?”
Not long after the event Fellows was killed in a car accident on Montana Highway 200. He was 59 years old. According to longtime Montana state government and politics reporter Chuck Johnson, since 1988 four Montana political candidates have died on the campaign trail.
“Our political candidates put their lives on the line,” Johnson tweeted the following day, “driving and flying across this vast state in all kinds of weather to meet with us.”
It is a statement that stands true not just for the state of Montana and its’ candidates, but all of America, and all of those who choose to run for office.