Monday 16 September 2019

From FDR to JFK through to Trump: the epoch-defining American presidents

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Robert Schmuhl traces the evolution of the modern president and how, since the 1970s, each incumbent of the White House has often been the antithesis of his predecessor

An office of enormous peril: John F Kennedy
An office of enormous peril: John F Kennedy
George W Bush
Voter anger: Obama, like Clinton, Bush and Trump, campaigned as Washington outsiders
Donald Trump
Bill Clinton
The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump by Robert Schmuhl

With eight inches of snow from the previous night creating havoc in Washington and a wind chill temperature prompting worry of hypothermia, the just sworn-in president spoke about a torch.

Near the beginning of his inaugural address, John F Kennedy said: "Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans..."

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Kennedy uttered the word "generation" (or its plural form) four times that January afternoon in 1961. There's a collective promise of youth in this recognition of time, and what's intriguing is that the slogan of Kennedy's first campaign for the US House of Representatives in 1946 was "The New Generation Offers a Leader." He must have liked the phrase and what it evoked.

As the youngest elected president viewed the situation, history had reached a hinge point. Through his rhetoric, Kennedy was making a definite break from presidents who preceded him, especially his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, who was born in 1890 and was leaving the White House at age 70. Kennedy, then 43, had entered the world in 1917, the personification of not only a "new generation" of American leaders but also the representative of a new century.

Voter anger: Obama, like Clinton, Bush and Trump, campaigned as Washington outsiders
Voter anger: Obama, like Clinton, Bush and Trump, campaigned as Washington outsiders

When you look at the sweep of US history and the relationship of the presidency to the years involved, it can be similar to trying to solve a puzzle of variously shaped and sized pieces. For the previous seven terms before Kennedy - 28 years - there were only three presidents - Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Eisenhower - each of whom was born during the last two decades of the 19th century. By contrast, for the seven terms following Kennedy's assassination, America had six presidents - each born in the 20th century and, on average, within six years of 1917. Viewing the presidential puzzle from this perspective, the prime question that arises is: What did the "new generation" do with "the torch" as it passed from JFK to his successors?

During the 32-year period (from 1961 to 1993), seven presidents served - with six having either tragic or forced endings in their exercise of executive power. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. Lyndon Johnson, with approval ratings languishing in the 30s much of 1968, decided not to run for re-election that year to avoid being defeated.

Richard Nixon, who was elected twice (in 1968 and 1972), had to deal with the Watergate scandal and the prospect of impeachment and removal from office before resigning in 1974.

Gerald Ford, an unelected and accidental president, tried to stay in office, but lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976 after narrowly defeating Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination that year.

Carter, the beneficiary of the anti-Watergate and anti-Nixon mood during 1976, endured the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980, before being defeated for re-election in 1980.

Reagan, the only two-term president between the 1950s and 1990s, was seriously injured in a 1981 assassination attempt and wounded politically by the Iran-Contra imbroglio during his second term, considered even more substantial as a scandal than Watergate by some observers.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

George HW Bush, the first incumbent vice president since Martin Van Buren in 1836 to win a White House campaign, was denied a second term in 1992 by Bill Clinton. Kennedy's "torch" more closely resembled a poisoned chalice for presidents during the three decades after Eisenhower. Remarkably, however, the three presidents who followed Bush senior - Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama - were each elected twice for four-year terms. Both Clinton and George W Bush were born in 1946, and Obama in 1961. They represent, if you will, the generation after Kennedy's.

Since FDR won his unprecedented four elections (in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944), 11 incumbent presidents have campaigned to continue as White House residents. Eight won, while three lost - each one of that unhappy trio coming from Kennedy's "new generation". The broadcaster and author Tom Brokaw identified the people who grew up during the Depression, fought in World War II, and then returned to the US to create an economic powerhouse in a superlative phrase he used as the title for a bestselling book: The Greatest Generation, asserting at one point, "It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced."

'Greatest generation'

That might well be the case; however, "the greatest generation" - people born between 1901 and 1924 - had difficulties in one particular realm. The presidency, which after World War II amassed enormous power domestically and internationally, also proved during this period to be an office of enormous peril - to one's own life or to one's political existence.

Interestingly, America had endured a similar era of presidential trauma, turbulence and turnover in the final decades of the 19th century. Again, as happened with Kennedy's "new generation," assassination triggered a cycle challenging occupants of America's highest office. Abraham Lincoln was elected twice - in 1860 and 1864 - but then murdered in April of 1865.

During the 36 years between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, from 1865 to 1901, eight men occupied the White House, six of them Republicans. Two of them were assassinated (James Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901). One, Andrew Johnson, suffered impeachment in 1868. Two secured victories in the Electoral College but did not prevail in the popular vote: Rutherford B Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and Grover Cleveland became the only non-continuous two-term president in US history, winning in 1884, losing in 1888, and coming back to win in 1892. From Lincoln's death to Theodore Roosevelt's ascent, Ulysses S Grant was the sole traditional two-term president - just as Reagan proved to be in the cluster of Kennedy-generation chief executives.

The adage that "history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes" is often attributed to Mark Twain. To a certain extent, we see something resembling a free-verse rhyme scheme in a comparison between US political history in the late 19th and the late 20th centuries. It's almost as though the fatal shootings of Lincoln and Kennedy started chain reactions of presidential problems, resulting in a downward spiral of the office that took years to halt and reverse one way or the other.

For the Kennedy "generation", what reasons stand out for all the travails and tribulations between 1961 and 1993? Were the presidents - three Democrats and four Republicans - seriously flawed as people, contributing to their own difficulties, or were they casualties of turbulent and tumultuous times?

Clearly, in some cases, external forces proved decisive; in others, personal weaknesses were at fault. In certain instances, moreover, it was a combination of the two factors conspiring together, making effective governance nearly impossible. Nixon, for example, was a shrewd political survivor, who ran on national tickets (either for vice president or president) five times over a 20-year period, from 1952 to 1972, a feat Franklin Roosevelt matched but over a longer span of time. He's also the only political figure other than Thomas Jefferson to serve as vice president before winning two elections to the White House.

However, besides being intellectually gifted and creative in appealing to voters, Nixon also obsessed about losing power, identifying opponents as "enemies" and sanctioning questionable, if not illegal, measures to suppress what he perceived as threats to his power. On his watch, he had to contend with the Vietnam War and Watergate - and he couldn't survive those debilitating experiences and overcome his innate weaknesses. He was forced to resign in 1974 - as impeachment and removal from office loomed.

By its nature and position, the White House is always at the centre of whatever storm is buffeting the nation and world at a particular time. International danger. Racial injustice. Economic malaise. Gender inequity. Sexual repression. The years spanning Kennedy to Bush senior encompassed revolution, war, and most everything in between - forcing those presidents to cope with problems they were dealt and never could have predicted.

With Kennedy, another presidential trend that's part of the Oval Office puzzle began that remains both strong and distinctive. The youthful senator and Democrat replaced the much older Republican, starting a swing to electing what might be termed "the opposite" figure in the presidency. This pattern has become even more pronounced since the 1970s.

Carter, a Washington outsider, was the antithesis of Ford, a long-time Congressional figure, in background and approach. With his forthright conservatism and big-picture perspective, Reagan was far different from Carter's cerebral, sweat-each-detail orientation. Verbally agile and an unabashed policy wonk, Clinton wouldn't have been mistaken for either the elder George Bush he defeated or the younger George Bush, who succeeded him. Obama was unlike George W Bush in the way he handled White House business - and the same observation is undeniably accurate comparing Obama to Donald Trump.

Switching channels

It's almost as though the US voting public becomes tired of one particular type of leader and, electorally, tries out another figure with an entirely different way of dealing with issues and of communicating. To a certain extent, it's similar to watching television. Collectively, the citizenry decides to switch channels.

Change, in other words, has developed into a constant of the institutional continuity within the presidency during the past several decades, and with that change comes an appetite for fresh, new faces and a rejection of familiar figures in the American political arena. In the presidency, the less direct experience one has seems to be an advantage. Amazingly, indeed troublingly, the Oval Office has become the nation's most visible workplace for on-the-job training.

Clinton, younger Bush, Obama and Trump all won on their first try for the Oval Office. All four of them ran for president by emphasising they were Washington outsiders - as did Reagan and Carter before them.

These outsiders appeal to the anti-Washington anger and distrust now animating nearly three-quarters of the US electorate. Many of these voters go to cast their ballots with an optimistic yet rather naïve hope that a patriotic soul can slay the forces of evil arrayed against good in what millions of citizens see as the infested and polluted "swamp" that is the nation's capital.

Jefferson Smith, the character played by James Stewart in the 1939 classic film Mr Smith Goes to Washington, personifies the well-meaning and civic-minded amateur attempting to do what's right despite the machinations of corrupt, conniving political professionals. The conspicuous and noisy antipathy to Washington that exists today produces a deep, inner longing for a modern variation of Jeff Smith, as unrealistic and romantic as that notion might be.

Two-term presidents

The presidents of "the greatest generation" couldn't seem to avoid institution-shaking problems and predicaments that affected them personally and politically. By contrast, the winners of the White House from the baby boomer generation - those born between 1946 and 1964 - seem to have greater longevity in office or more acutely developed survival skills. From 1993 until 2017, the US has had three consecutive two-term presidents: Clinton, younger Bush and Obama, a phenomenon that's occurred only one other time. At the beginning of the 19th century, three friends from the same political party who worked together and hailed from the same state - Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe - each served eight years in the White House from 1801 until 1825.

Despite the coincidence of a repetition of three straight two-term presidents, it would be difficult to find three more dissimilar figures than Clinton, Bush and Obama. More than geography and political experience differentiated the centrist Clinton, the conservative Bush and the more liberal Obama. Interestingly, each served as president amid party-switching elections on the Congressional level: in 1994, 2006, and 2010. Yet not once during the triumvirate of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe did the House or Senate shift from the party of the incumbent president. It was a totally different time.

Donald Trump was born in 1946, the same birthday year as Clinton and junior Bush and the only time in US history when a single year produced three presidents. Starting with Clinton's victory in 1992, the presidential pendulum has swung between the Democratic Party to the Republican Party four times. Amid such change, three straight two-termers have won re-election and served the full eight years, raising questions concerning why - and whether Trump might be the fourth consecutive White House occupant to complete the allowable time to serve as set by the US constitution.

Has the presidency become so powerful in recent years that an incumbent's advantage becomes overwhelming and, in effect, too much to overcome, especially in terms of fundraising? Were the citizens who went to the polls across the country in 1996, 2004, and 2012 reluctant to register a vote of "no confidence" in the nation's leader, especially at a time of turmoil at home and abroad?

Were Clinton, Bush and Obama beneficiaries of generally weak opponents? What will be the fate of that archetypal anti-Washington politician Trump in this context and environment? Will voters "fire" the current president next year - as he did so often to contestants on his long-running television reality show The Apprentice?

The 2020 election and the four-year term that follows will produce more pieces of the White House puzzle. Ultimately, Americans and people abroad will see where - and how - these new pieces fit together in the larger historical pattern of what's called, with definite reason, the "glorious burden" of the US presidency.


Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. This article is adapted from his new book, 'The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump', which is published by Notre Dame Press

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