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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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The Contenders

I’ve understood for years now that my idea of must-see TV does not often track with what the Nielsen ratings say is popular with most American viewers.

My affinity for C-SPAN is Exhibit A, and I will admit I have a problem. Who else besides this columnist rushed back from a 5 p.m. Saturday evening church service last month and, over the loud objections of my spouse and our three sons, immediately turned the TV on, knowing that C-SPAN had promised its viewers they’d have the live results of the Iowa Republican presidential straw poll at 6:15 p.m. C-SPAN, I can report, kept its solemn pledge.

The network also understands their target audience isn’t spending Friday night at a bar or a nightclub. In fact, if given 90 straight minutes where they can watch a live television program without interruption, I daresay the typical C-SPAN viewer would ask that the broadcast begin on Friday at 8 p.m. That’s the weekday night when parents are freed from duties as the family’s homework consultants.

Their programmers must have sensed this, too, because C-SPAN premiered on Friday, Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. the first of 14 live programs in a series called The Contenders: They Lost the Election But Changed Political History. It is chronicling the stories behind the 14 men who fell short in their presidential bids yet who, in their day, were as well-known and accomplished as the candidates who eventually made it to the White House. Now, there’s no need to be upset over having missed last Friday’s debut. It dealt with U.S. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Whig Party nominee who came close to winning the popular vote in the 1844 presidential election against James Polk.

New York history buffs will, however, want to mark on their calendars the dates C-SPAN is devoting live air time to, examining the careers of the three New York governors who aspired to the presidency in the 20th century.

Charles Evans Hughes (Friday, Oct. 7, 8 p.m.), New York’s governor between 1907 and 1910, was a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1916. That’s the same year the Republican Party nominated him to be its presidential nominee against President Woodrow Wilson, a former governor of New Jersey. The election was a close one, and Hughes lost, but he went on to become U.S. Secretary of State and returned to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1930 as Chief Justice.

Al Smith (Friday, Oct. 14, 8 p.m.), New York’s governor between 1918-1920, and then again from 1922-1928, was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 1928 against Herbert Hoover. Governor Smith, a one-time state Assembly Speaker and the first Roman Catholic to run for president under a major political party’s banner, lost to Hoover in a landslide. The program will originate from Smith’s old stomping grounds, the state Assembly Chamber in Albany.

Governor Thomas Dewey (Friday, Oct. 28, 8 p.m.) is perhaps best known for having his surname appear in one of the most infamous newspaper headlines in U.S. history: ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.’ Alas, that was not an accurate depiction of the presidential election results in 1948.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: