Terms Of No Endearment

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Grover Cleveland is unique among Chief Executives in winning one election, losing the next, and then regaining the prize on a third try in 1892. The curse, however, operated even in a nonconsecutive second term. A stock market crash in May of 1893 set off the worst depression of the century. Heavy unemployment, major strikes, agricultural distress, and political revolt (not to mention a secret operation for cancer of the mouth) were the burden of Cleveland’s days. His essentially conservative responses to these crises alienated his fellow Democrats in the South and West and left him repudiated by the party in 1896.

The next Democrat to be elected President was Woodrow Wilson, whose second term was a dizzy up-and-down ride. His re-election was by a very small margin in the electoral college, decided at the last moment by victory in California. Five months later, however, he was the globally acclaimed war leader of the 1917-18 crusade to make the world safe for democracy. Then, in 1919, the peacemakers of Versailles gutted his plans for a “peace without victory,” leaving him only the League of Nations as the remnant of his vision. However, the U.S. Senate balked at the final treaty with the League, and during Wilson’s losing battle for ratification a stroke paralyzed him. He was the tragic shell of a leader in his final days.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unduplicated four election victories obscure the negative realities of his second term. After winning by a landslide—forty-six states to two—in 1936, he ran into a string of stunning setbacks. His plan to “pack” the Supreme Court in his favor by appointing extra justices was roundly beaten in 1937, and a recession sent unemployment figures back toward 1933 levels, while on Capitol Hill opponents slashed New Deal programs and budgets. The Republicans made big gains in the fall elections. Except for the outbreak of war in 1939, there would have been no question of a third term, let alone a fourth. In a bizarre way, Hitler’s timetable of conquest led to the continuation in office of his most dangerous enemy.

Considering the facts, it’s a bit surprising that Presidents ever choose to seek re-election.

As we come to look at the last forty years, nostalgia for the prosperous fifties obscures the rocky and controversial road that Eisenhower traveled in his second term. In 1957 a very reluctant Ike had to send troops to Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation decision. He likewise had to contend with the Soviets’ launching of Sputnik and their temporary lead in the space race, especially when America’s first satellite launch was a public flop. In 1958 there was a major recession, resulting in the election of a Democratic Congress. In 1959 Castro came to power in Cuba. In 1960 plans for a peacemaking summit conference in Paris and an Eisenhower visit to the Soviet Union collapsed when our “secret” U-2 spy plane was shot down over the U.S.S.R. and the President was embarrassed by having to recant an official denial.

Comment is superfluous on the second terms of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. When you say “Watergate” and “Iran-contra,” you have said enough.

Is there any grand design visible in all this? I can’t easily find a one-size-fits-all explanation for the phenomenon (or anything else in history for that matter). Personally I would say that FDR, Nixon, and Reagan overreached themselves, that Wilson suffered the inevitable popular reaction to the crusading spirit of 1917–18, that Madison, Cleveland, and Eisenhower were simply unlucky in the timing of events, and that in the cases of Jefferson and Grant, policies and practices established in the first term caught up with them in the second. But this, in a sense, is true of all of them, and so is the rather loose statement that electorates are notoriously fickle.

Whatever the case, considering the facts, it’s a bit surprising that incumbent first-term Presidents choose, as most of them do, to seek re-election. The reason usually given is their urge to “finish the job” that their administrations have begun. I presume that in addition, the habit of ambition is hard to break. Jefferson once (before his own White House tenure) called the Presidency “splendid misery.” But most holders of the office seem willing, as he was, to risk another four years of misery in return for the splendor.