RGIII, Who? Hillary, You Listening?


So Hillary Clinton shows up in Iowa this past weekend and plays coy with a Democratic audience over whether she’s running for President. To hear the polls tell it, she’s the one to beat for the nomination. Or is she?

History is filled with guaranteed frontrunners who don’t quite pan out. In politics and in business, the so-called “go-to” guy – or gal – doesn’t always end up going, let alone winning. He or she either doesn’t get the job, or fails miserably trying for the job, leaving it to a lesser-known runner-up to finish the job.

It happens in sports, too. Just this past weekend, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III suffered an ankle injury, threatening to keep him out the rest of the season – ring a bell? Lo and behold, his replacement, backup quarterback Kirk Cousins went on to throw two touchdown passes in the Redskins’ 41-10 walloping of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Cousins’ performance might have surprised some, but not those who saw him in preseason, completing 35 of 54 passes for 370 yards and four touchdowns. None of this means Cousins will make Redskins fans forget RGIII, but for now, he’s certainly easing their angst. He’s also turning their expectations upside down – for now, in a good way.

That’s what happens when what we think might happen changes, when the person we “thought” would make it happen either stumbles or just leaves the scene. Politics is rife with such stories. Remember it was Hillary Clinton herself who was the runaway favorite to win the Democratic nomination back in 2008, only to be upended by Barack Obama. Remember as well, her pitch that a surging Obama might be able to wrest the party’s nod, but wouldn’t have nearly her reach or broad appeal in a general election. Clinton surrogates even went so far as to say Obama would all but hand the White House to Republicans.

Of course, that would later prove not to be the case. Just like those Democrats who similarly challenged a supposedly unbeatable George Bush, Senior, in 1992 didn’t seem to have much of a chance either. In fact, the few relative no-names who did emerge, including an obscure Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton, were disparaged as the “Seven Dwarfs,” challenging a mighty giant of an incumbent. We later would learn that incumbent wasn’t so mighty… and that Arkansas guy? Let’s just say not such a dwarf.

Corporations often experience much the same “backup blues.” Apple, post Steve Jobs, following his first forced departure, seemed like a never-ending revolving door of Jobs wannabes. None seemed up to the task. From Pepsi veteran John Sculley to Silicon Valley favorite Gilbert Amelio, the guys in charge of leading the new Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) couldn’t seem to resurrect the old Apple fire. So little surprise after Jobs’ return and then subsequent illness and departure (and eventual death), little appreciated replacement CEO Tim Cook seemed doomed to follow in their forgettable footsteps.

To hear his critics tell it, Cook might be corporate, but he was hopelessly out of Jobs creative element, no matter how much a then-ailing Jobs insisted this particular guy was up to the task. What a difference a few years makes. Now Apple’s stock is on fire, and its new products, including the revamped iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus (not to mention those upcoming Apple iWatches), has even Apple critics saying the company’s marketing mojo is back. Cook changed that. For how long is anyone’s guess, but who could have guessed Apple would barely miss a beat when his not-quite-appreciated number two took the helm?

Dana Mead must have known the same feeling at Tenneco. He too lived under the shadow of the chief executive who hired him, Michael Walsh. Seven years younger than Mead, Walsh was as much a media as a corporate sensation. Walsh’s take-charge, America-first credo that helped take Tenneco into more foreign markets and higher-profit businesses than any other U.S. conglomerate at the time darn near made him a household name. Then, suddenly Walsh was diagnosed with the brain cancer that would later quickly kill him, and Mead was just as quickly thrust into the position of having to carry on Walsh’s Patton-like mantra to, “Plan deliberately and execute violently.”

The fact of the matter was Mead might have been deliberate, but his more low-key approach could never be described as remotely violent – effective, maybe, and for Tenneco’s far-flung operations, very profitable as well. Still, analysts had their doubts, and relayed their disappointment in this far-more reserved successor. Mead’s emergence remains one of corporate America’s more surprising success stories – that of a number two eclipsing the expectations of his far better known superior and predecessor.

Teddy Roosevelt faced much the same scrutiny and doubts when he suddenly emerged as this country’s new, young President after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. Although it might seem hard to comprehend today, the media at the time had no idea what to make of the new President or whether he had anything approaching McKinley’s gravitas, or for that matter, simple experience. Remember that it was under McKinley that the country triumphed in the Spanish-American War and helped put down the famous Boxer Rebellion, a nationalist uprising against this country’s growing intervention in China.

Yet, ask any American today who’s name they remember more and chances are McKinley’s might get a quizzical look, and “Teddy’s,” more an iconic nod. Such is history’s often surprising fate – those who shouldn’t even be in the limelight invariably create their own limelight – almost making you forget the supposedly bright stars that dominated the public galaxy just prior. That’s not to say we are a nation that holds a warm spot in its collective heart for number twos – think fast, who was the “second” man to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong? By the way, it was Buzz Aldrin.

But sometimes backups can more than make up in performance what they might initially lack in popularity, or even public recognition. It depends how they handle the task thrown at them. That doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton needs to immediately fret any of the supposed political Putians now reportedly set to challenge her for the 2016 Democratic Presidential nomination. But Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren or outgoing Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley could surprise – just remember what another dismissed presidential wannabe named Barack Obama did to upend the political establishment.

It’s similarly too early to say Washington Redskins fans can relax in the face of their celebrated quarterback once again getting sidelined; much depends on whether his backup keeps piling the points up. It’s clear Kirk Cousins has it in him; for how long, we’ll just have to see.

But if history proves anything – in sports, as in life – there are no guarantees that those who dominate the headlines today will necessarily dominate them tomorrow. Just look at those who didn’t back then, but suddenly do now. Whether it’s Barack Obama or Tim Cook, or maybe this relatively unknown backup quarterback in Washington, things happen. Or more to the point – life happens. As they say, stay tuned, because as no less than Forrest Gump put it, like a box of chocolates, “you never know what you’re gonna get.”