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What endorsements can tell us

Mar 4, 2012 - By Mark Shields

The endorsement of a political candidate by another politician generally draws a well-deserved yawn from voters.

But over the past half-century of savoring and covering American politics, I have learned that an endorsement can tell us something quite important about the individual endorsing as well as about the individual being endorsed.

Permit me to tell you about Mississippi Republican Trent Lott, who in 1988 was the House Minority Whip while trying to win a close race for the U.S. Senate. That same year, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was the heavy favorite to win the GOP nomination to succeed the term-limited President Ronald Reagan.

One of Bush's underdog challengers in the primaries was Rep. Jack Kemp of New York. Ordinarily, discretion and self-interest would dictate that an ambitious Senate aspirant (Lott) would either prudently endorse the vice president or remain neutral. Instead, Trent Lott boldly tossed caution to the wind by endorsing his House colleague.

The next year, long after George H.W. Bush had won and had become the 41st president, I had a chat with Lott and told him how I admired his putting personal loyalty ahead of political advantage in endorsing Kemp and inviting the wrath of the vaunted Bush political juggernaut.

Sen. Lott answered me bluntly: "Today in Washington, there are two people who remember that I endorsed Jack Kemp -- you and President Bush!"

That same year, Rep. Dick Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat, tried to become the first U.S. House member since James A. Garfield in 1880 to win his party's presidential nomination. Gephardt did, in fact win the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. As a result, he became president of Des Moines for a week. But what really impressed me about the Missorian's campaign was the number and diversity of his House colleagues who went to Iowa on his behalf and who stayed to work by running a county campaign headquarters for their friend.

I can remember Reps. Sandy Levin of Michigan, Marvin Leath and Martin Frost of Texas, Mike Synar of Oklahoma, Dan Glickman of Kansas, Butler Derrick of South Carolina, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Ed Jenkins of Georgia and Bob Wise of West Virginia. There were others.

But the willingness of all of them to sleep in unpretentious quarters, eat in marginal hash-houses, and put in the long hours a campaign demands spoke volumes about Gephardt and the rare loyalty he inspired. Yes, he lost the nomination fight, but to me, Dick Gephardt was a big 1988 winner.

Which brings us to 2012 and endorsements. Republican Newt Gingrich served 10 terms in the House, where he became speaker after being architect and engineer of the first GOP takeover in 40 years and the famous

"Contract With America."

During his 20 House years, Gingrich served with 489 House Republicans. According to his campaign, a grand total of 10 colleagues have come forward to endorse Gingrich.

For Rick Santorum, the news is just as bleak. During two House terms, he served with 222 Republican members, none of whom has seen fit to endorse him. In two terms in the U.S. Senate, Santorum served with 89 different GOP senators. Not one has endorsed Santorum.

Mitt Romney, as of this writing, has been endorsed by 63 current House members and 14 current senators, which may or may not tell us something about him or them. He never served in either the House or the Senate.

What's that old refrain about "those who know him best"?

Editor's note: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields is a former Marine and political consultant who now appears regularly on "Newshour" on PBS.

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