5 October Surprises From Past Presidential Elections

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An October surprise is any bit of news that breaks right before an election that has the capability to help determine the outcome of the race. Since voters are often swayed by these revelations, the right October surprise can swing a losing campaign right into White House. Here are a few notable examples.

1968: LBJ calls off the bombs.

The 1968 race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey looked like it would be an electoral rout. Nixon successfully ferreted away Southern Democrats who weren't too keen on Humphrey's support of civil rights, and liberal Democrats were disgusted with Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson's handling of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, third-party candidate George Wallace eroded some of the historical Democratic base that Humphrey would normally have won. Late in the campaign, Humphrey appeared to be doomed.

Right before the election, though, incumbent Democrat LBJ pulled a trick of his own. On October 31, 1968, he announced an immediate halt to all bombing in North Vietnam. This peaceful move, coupled with Senator Eugene McCarthy's late-October endorsement of Humphrey, unified the Democratic base and pulled Humphrey even with Nixon in the polls. Although Nixon obviously won the election and had a handy 301-to-191 majority of the electoral votes, he won the popular vote by just over 500,000, a much closer margin than anyone expected prior to LBJ's bombing cessation.

1972: Peace is at hand. Again.

Nixon's reelection campaign in 1972 is infamous for giving birth to the Watergate break-in and ensuing scandal, but it's easy to see why Nixon would have been a bit nervous about his electoral chances. After all, voters elected him on a platform of ending the Vietnam War, which was still raging on. Although Nixon was probably going to beat challenger George McGovern anyway, an October surprise certainly didn't hurt his chances. Just like four years earlier, this one involved Vietnam. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger appeared at the White House on October 26 and announced to reporters that "peace is at hand" in Vietnam. It was quite an announcement, and apparently not one that Nixon scripted. On White House tapes, he can be heard telling Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, "I wouldn't have said that."

The announcement gave Nixon's already stout lead another bump, though, and he ended up winning a landslide victory with almost 61% of the popular vote. You may recall that peace wasn't quite at hand; the war continued for another two and a half years.

1980: The Iran hostages remain in captivity.

Prior to the 1980 election the yearlong saga of the Iran hostage crisis held the nation's attention. If incumbent Jimmy Carter could somehow get the hostages freed before voters headed to the polls, he'd gain a serious leg up on challenger Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately for Carter, it didn't happen. In fact, the Iranian government decided right before the election that the hostages wouldn't be freed until the voting was over, and Reagan won the White House.

This bad news, coupled with the fact that the hostages were finally freed on the day of Reagan's inauguration the following January, leads some people to believe that the Reagan camp made some sort of backdoor deal with the Iranian government in order to secure the election. In return for hanging onto the hostages to prevent an October surprise in Carter's favor, the Iranian government would receive weapons from the Reagan administration. Although two congressional investigations found these claims to be groundless, conspiracy theorists insist Reagan cut the deal.

1992: Iran-Contra scandal makes a comeback.

Although it may be difficult to remember now, the 1992 race was a fairly heated one. Incumbent George H.W. Bush faced two challengers, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot, and both seemed capable of winning the election. (Perot may now be little more than a footnote in our minds, but at points in 1992 he actually led all candidates in national polls.) Four days before the election, though, the surprise showed up. Caspar Weinberger, who had been Reagan's Secretary of Defense, was indicted for lying to the independent counsel that had investigated the Iran-Contra scandal. Since Bush had served with Weinberger and had so far managed to avoid much of the Iran-Contra taint, this development seemed to be a blow to his reelection chances. Obviously, it didn't help, and Clinton won the election handily. Bush gave Weinberger a lame-duck pardon the next month.

2000: George W. Bush takes a tipple.

Any race as tightly contested as the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush is bound to have an October surprise. In fact, though, this election's stunner didn't break until November. Less than a week before voters headed to the polls, a Fox News report surfaced that Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence in Maine in 1976 following a night of boozing with former world tennis champion John Newcombe. Instead of trying to fight the accusation, Bush confirmed the story and told reporters, "I'm not proud of that. I made some mistakes. I occasionally drank too much, and I did that night. I learned my lesson." And, well, you know the rest.

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court—thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age, no doubt infuriating the conservative presidents that appointed them.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Meanwhile, the oldest justice now on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is currently 85 and kicking. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

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Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

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