Sometimes Winners Become Losers Or Losers Become Winners

By John J. Duncan Jr.


“If you are as happy, my dear sir, on entering this house as I am in leaving it and returning home, you are the happiest man in this country.” So said President James Buchanan to President Abraham Lincoln as they got back to the White House after Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

Lincoln led a very hard life: poverty, a very difficult wife, loss of two sons, depression, business and professional problems, and lack of a strong faith that could have helped him in his troubles.

Probably his happiest times were when he won the presidential election and in the early days of his presidency.

President Buchanan may have been very happy when he was first elected, but the statement quoted above shows that he was far happier when he was leaving the White House to go home.

It is amazing how often in life something that a person thinks is the best thing that ever happened to them turns out to be the worst.

Lincoln is certainly one of our most admired presidents, but his presidency led him to a horribly painful, early death in his mid-fifties.

Vince Foster and Webster Hubbell were former law partners of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and many reports described them as Bill’s two best friends.

I am sure both Foster and Hubbell were on top of the world when their best friend was elected as president. They probably thought their futures were secure.

President Clinton appointed Foster as White House Counsel, the main lawyer for the President and his staff. Hubbell was appointed associate attorney general, the second highest position in the Justice Department.

Foster ended up committing suicide or being killed in a small park on the George Washington Parkway. There is still a little controversy about his death. Hubbell ended up being sentenced to federal prison.

The opposite is also true. Sometimes people have something bad or hurtful happen to them which turns out to be one of the best things that ever happened to them.

Bill Clinton lost a race for the U.S. House in 1974 after what he described as the “best campaign” he ever ran. George W. Bush lost a race for the U.S. House in 1978.

Both elections were close, and I am sure the results were very disappointing to both. It must be very tough to campaign full-time for 15-16 hours a day for many months and then lose.

But it is very unlikely that either or both would have ever been elected as president if they had won those U.S. House races.

James Garfield was the only man elected as president directly after serving in the House. He had also been a Civil War general and was elected by the Ohio Legislature to the U.S. Senate but never served there because he was elected president – a presidency that lasted just 6½ months.

Many of our most famous political leaders lost at least one election at some point in their careers. There are too many to name, but a few examples, in addition to the three mentioned above, would include Howard Baker, Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill and many, many others.

Fortunately, I never lost an election, but I have sometimes wondered if I might have gone on to higher office if I had been toughened up by a loss at some point. However, I was always very grateful for my job in Congress.

I thought about all this a few weeks ago when I saw an interview with comedian and actor Kevin James. He said when he got a call in 1996 asking him to audition for a lead role on Saturday Night Live, he was thrilled.

He said he not only didn’t get a laugh during his audition, he never heard anyone even make a sound. “It was the worst audition I’ve ever had in my entire life,” he said, but that flop ended up being the “best thing that ever happened” to him.

In the mid-1980s, I was a criminal court judge in Knox County. I had received very high ratings from the Bar Association, and my name was submitted for a federal judgeship.

That judgeship carried a lifetime appointment and the best retirement in the world. However, my law partner, Zane Daniel, was good friends with both Jake and C.H. Butcher. That connection led to me being a director of two Butcher banks.

Fortunately, I had resigned before their collapse, and I had not done anything wrong. But the timing was such that the Justice Department was doing a lengthy investigation of me along with many others.

I knew I had done nothing wrong, and the investigation proved that I hadn’t, but it was not a pleasant thing. However, as I look back, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

If I had become a federal judge, as I really wanted at the time, I would never have been elected to Congress, and would not have had the blessed, fascinating career that I had. And while I loved my almost 7½ years as a state trial judge, I had the opportunity and privilege to help many thousands as congressman from Tennessee’s Second District.