The second terms of the latest three presidents have not been successful. Bill Clinton was impeached after his infamous lie to Americans, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
George W. Bush was blamed for the postwar violence in Iraq.
What are other common denominators of this collective tenure of our recent presidents?
After popular first terms and reelection, they seemed to have lost public confidence and the ability to continue an agenda.
Maybe the hubris of getting reelected convinces our commanders-in-chief that they are mostly beyond reproach. Overreach ensues. Then the goddess Nemesis descends in destructive fashion to remind them that they are mere mortals.
In addition, the more talented cabinet and staff appointees often bail out near the end of the first term. At best, they burn out from continuous 16-hour work days. At worst, they flee to leverage their former high-profile jobs through revolving-door influence-peddling, finding new work in media, lobbying, consulting, and on Wall Street.
Boredom, on the part of both the president and the public, takes its toll. Clinton was an effective speaker — at first. Near the end of his eight years, the public’s eyes rolled when he predictably misled, exaggerated, or became petulant.
Bush was witty and sincere in repartee and impromptu speaking but often stumbled over the teleprompter. By the end of his eight years, his critics were publishing books of Bush malapropisms.
It is hard now to believe that Obama’s banal “hope and change” ever set a nation on fire. Certainly by 2013, we have come to snore when Obama for the nth time laces his teleprompted rhetoric with “make no mistake about it” or “let me be perfectly clear.”
One-term presidencies — or a constitutional change to a single six-year presidential term — make better sense. A single presidential tenure might curtail an incumbent’s customary exaggerations about supposed past achievements and the phony promises about great things to come that are apparently necessary for reelection. Much of wasteful federal spending and general bad policy derives from the reelection efforts of an incumbent desperate to appease or buy off the electorate.
In contrast, our culture’s heroes — in literature, film, and the military — get things done precisely because they do not care all that much what happens to them as a result of their courageous decisions. In that regard, Calvin Coolidge’s decision to seek just one elected term is a far better model than Richard Nixon’s two.
Age may also be a factor. We are a youth-obsessed Camelot culture that puts far too much stock in good-looking candidates who act hip, jog, or seem robust. Clinton was only 46 when he entered office, Obama just 47, and Jimmy Carter 52.
In a time of increased longevity, perhaps we should reconsider the advantages that six decades of experience might offer. Harry Truman (60), Dwight Eisenhower (62), and Ronald Reagan (69) seemed far steadier presidents. Their skepticism and perspective may have resulted from long careers of seeing almost everything — in addition to regular afternoon naps.
The youthful 40-something John F. Kennedy was impulsive in the same fashion as the reckless and similarly inexperienced Carter, Clinton, and Obama. The second time around, presidents in their mid-60s probably would not be so eager to paw comely interns or in naïve fashion boast that they could “fundamentally transform America.”
Can we also take a breather from the Ivy League?
When Obama finishes his term, we will have had 28 consecutive years of presidents with either an undergraduate or graduate degree from Harvard or Yale. We should have learned from chronic deficits, massive debt, and Obamacare that the Ivy League’s best and brightest are not always either. Truman’s higher education came from the school of hard knocks. Ike graduated from West Point and helped win World War II.
Reagan slogged it out for years in the cutthroat worlds of Hollywood and television — after graduating from tiny Eureka College.
Finally, can our next president have done something for a while other than nonstop politicking? The press caricatured Ike’s garbled speeches and Reagan’s B-movie reruns. But at least they did not go uninterruptedly from one political office to the next until being elected president.
Youthful charisma, the Ivy League, career politicians, and two presidential terms may be fine in theory, but next time around can we take a needed break from what have become our presidents-as-usual?
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.