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Larry Pressler: Proverbial ‘lightning’ might strike the 2020 presidential election

Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to a gathering of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals at Mohegan Sun Pocono in Plains Twp., Pa. on Monday, April 15, 2019. (Christopher Dolan/Times-Trib
Presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to a gathering of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals at Mohegan Sun Pocono in Plains Twp., Pa. on Monday, April 15, 2019.

Washington, D.C. is quieter this week as Congress is closed for the two-week Easter break. Lawmakers have gone home and even the sea of lobbyists in this town have become quiet.

The talk or buzz has shifted to the 2020 presidential race. The news media is focusing on the 20-plus citizens running for president. Most of them do not yet have national recognition or a high chance of winning. Why do so many run? And more importantly, how can a conscientious voter get to know 20-plus presidential candidates? The challengers to President Trump will get a lot of publicity as the national media is in an irrational, anti-Trump fever.

Whoever opposes Trump on anything will get a huge amount of priceless publicity. I think the biggest tragedy of the Trump era is that we have lost objectivity and balanced reporting by some of our most reliable, old news sources. President Trump deserves and indeed causes some of his bad press. But our national media will not grant him even a sentence of credit for some of the many good things he has accomplished.

So many candidates run because they believe “lightning” might strike and they would win, as outsiders President Carter and President Trump demonstrated. Some run because they genuinely believe they might become president. However, others run to get increased recognition, to espouse some issues, and to become a more effective senator or public servant. Running will usually enhance a career and is an opportunity to express one’s self on national issues.

I could use myself as an example of why so many run. In 1980, I was an announced candidate for the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Having been the first Vietnam veteran elected to the U.S. Senate, I was asked by several Vietnam veteran groups to run for president to help raise the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, Agent Orange and several other unique Vietnam veterans issues. At that time, veterans were not popular — we had a negative profile. My fellow Vietnam veterans hoped that my running might improve veterans of getting at least equal treatment of World War II veterans in educational and housing benefits.

I had to drop out of the race after six months because of lack of funding, but my campaign is credited with being a start to the 180-degree turnaround of the public’s impression of Vietnam veterans. So I am deeply proud that my candidacy did serve a most worthwhile cause.

And the “lightning” that the current candidates are hoping for did a strike, but too late. Just a few weeks after I dropped out of the presidential race, the ABSCAM bribery matter surfaced which showed me on live tape emphatically turning down a bribe.

I was never a target of the sting operation, but one of my fundraisers helping me raise money to pay off my presidential campaign debt mistakenly took me to an alleged Arab political action committee where I was offered $50,000 to introduce legislation to bring certain people into the U.S. I emphatically turned the bribe down and said on tape, “I would never do anything in exchange for a campaign contribution.”

It turns out that the Arab political action committee were FBI agents and about 15 congressmen and senators took bribes from them, and several went to jail. When all the tapes became public, the national media — and Walter Cronkite in particular — made me a national hero for a few days. I responded by saying, “If turning down a bribe is heroic what have we come to?”

It is all forgotten now, but the publicity of turning down that bribe on tape made me a national figure for a few days and one poll in New Hampshire showed me running just behind Ronald Reagan were I to re-enter the race of 12 candidates. But by that time I was exhausted and still had a campaign debt, so I never re-entered.

Alan Dershowitz at the Harvard Law School used me as an example of ethical behavior in all his classes and I received amazing editorial praise from the world. To this day people come up to me and say “I saw you turn down that bribe so emphatically on TV” I am glad I ran. In losing I helped my my fellow Vietnam veterans. And as Sen. Barry Goldwater wrote me later, “your integrity was a priceless example to our nation.”

How is all this relevant to the 20 present candidates? It shows how losing a presidential race can sometimes enhance one’s reputation and a cause such as veterans recognition. And that is why we must endure listening to 20-plus candidates. It is part of our vibrant democracy. The biggest job will be for citizens to listen carefully and to choose wisely. If I had to predict I would say it will narrow down to two — Trump and Sanders. And Trump wins.

But proverbial "lightning" might strike and we will have a totally different surprise outcome. That is why so many candidates are running.