The visitor looked to his left as he stepped onto Fifth Avenue but forgot that in America traffic flows the opposite direction than in his native England. He never saw the car coming.
“I do not understand why,” Winston Churchill later said of being hit by a car that night in New York City in December 1931, “I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.”
After a visit to nearby LenoxHill Hospital to clean up a nasty scalp wound and two cracked ribs, Churchill ended up being fine. What would the next 20 years of 20th century history have looked like if that car had been going just a little bit faster?
As we wait for the results of the 2020 election — with at least a little and, potentially, quite a lot of time to kill — it is worth pondering the randomness of history. A slight turn here or there, a little more of this or a little less of that, and we live in a very different world.
There is no more vivid recent example of the phenomenon than the two tragic figures of Democratic politics over the past generation: Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Both had limitations as politicians, and by their own reckonings made errors in their campaigns. But let’s never forget that both also won the popular vote. Were it not for arguably illegitimate and inarguably freakish circumstances they would have both won the presidency, too. Instead the White House ambitions that they had spent their professional lives advancing were broken like an eggshell and squashed like a gooseberry.
It has been a star-crossed start to the 21st century, which will beone-quarter over by the time whoever is elected today finishes his term. When it comes to Gore and Clinton, no one can say where paths not taken would have led. But both figures invite tantalizing, even agonizing, flights of counter-factual speculation. The lull before this evening’s storm is a fitting moment to ponder might-have-beens.
Bill Clinton as his presidency came to an end was inches away from a deal that would have normalized relations with North Korea in exchange for that regime ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. George W. Bush, after a 5-4 Supreme Court decision resolved the 2000 campaign in his favor, ended that diplomacy. Today, North Korea has dozens of nuclear bombs and remains one of the world’s most dangerous nations. After 9/11, Gore was opposed to a preventive war with Iraq, and would have avoided what turned into a yearslong strategic debacle there. That’s what a switch in Florida of a few hundred votes out of nearly 6 million cast would have meant.
Hillary Clinton, like her husband, surely would have faced an implacable conservative opposition. But is there any doubt her administration would have responded differently to the most virulent pandemic to strike the United States in a century, with 231,000 deaths so far, than Trump has done? That’s what a switch of 80,000 votes — of 130 million cast nationally — if targeted in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would have meant.
Gore, with rueful humor, after the 2000 election tookto joking, “You win some, you lose some — and then there’s that little known third category.” But if one more pebble had been placed on his side of the scale in 2000 it would have serious implications for the history of progressive politics.
Bill Clinton, now widely perceived as a talented but compromised political performer whose ’90s-era policies are obsolete, would in an alternate universe be the principal founder of a “Third Way” political movement whose ideas and personalities would span two generations.
Gore and Hillary Clinton are arresting figures on which to rest what-if speculation in part because of the nature of their characters. Both are complex personalities, sometimes difficult for subordinates to work for and journalists to cover. Yet both are widely regarded as vastly more engaging, sincere and compelling figures in private or not-for-attribution settings than they ever projected to the broader public, among whom they labored with an image of artifice and calculation.
I always wondered whether there was a larger lesson in watching this triad of political leaders. To be around Bill Clinton in an off-the-record setting is to listen to a figure who is sometimes a bit more earthy and profane, more cutting in his personal and political judgments than he would allow himself to be in public. Beyond these mild stylistic differences however, there is little variance between the public Bill Clinton and the private incarnation. The essential moderation of his political ideas and his worldview was not a put-on.
In the case of both Hillary Clinton and Gore, one always sensed a more dramatic and poignant tension, a constant inner conversation about how much of their selves it was safe to reveal. They both were more searching, more moralistic, more combative, in some ways more radical, figures in their private characters than would have been prudent for ostensible moderates to promote in their public personas. This was one reason that they both — though hardly over-fond of one another — played indispensable roles in the political ecology around Bill Clinton. They helped sharpen a politician who could be prone to blurriness, to equivocation and delay, to splitting too many differences.
Arguably more complex characters make less effective politicians. Perhaps neither Gore nor Hillary Clinton would have been politicians at all were it not for family connections, as he followed his father and she followed her husband. As it happens, the 2020 election features two candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who do not hint that there is a wide gulf between their public and private selves. In Trump’s case, the suspicion is that he has obliterated the distinction entirely.
Michael Kinsley, the columnist, has written about the paradox of political journalism. Before elections the conceit of much reporting is that the whole contest turns on small but momentous calculations made by operative-warriors. Should the campaign spend another $100,000 on ads in the “Jeopardy!” time slot to capture college-educated voters in the Erie, Pennsylvania market? Should the candidate schedule one last rally in Kalamazoo or Wauwatosa? But after the election the coverage instantly pivots — the result is an inevitable consequence of sweeping currents of history, filled with portent for the future.
Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton raise another possibility. Perhaps the prism through which to view elections is psychology. They both would have won the presidency if they had been able to come more fully out of themselves, to escape old patterns that made them defensive or led them to project a version of themselves that was smaller than reality rather than larger.
Of course, even those limitations were not enough to deny them the presidency. In Gore’s case, it took confusing and antiquated ballots (remember how an overwhelmingly Jewish district near West Palm Beach somehow cast thousands of votes for the right-wing Israel critic Pat Buchanan?) and an order by the Supreme Court to halt a recount to do so. In Hillary Clinton’s case it took a robust Russian propaganda effort and a bumbling and ethically dubious intervention by former FBI Director James Comey.
That’s worth keeping in mind on Election Day. History isn’t always animated by clear purpose. Sometimes it lurches this way or that by haphazard chance.