President John F. Kennedy was assassinated fifty-four years today. It is sad to reflect that he has now been dead longer than he was ever alive. Although his reputation has undeniably been tarnished by revelations about his private life in the years since, he remains, broadly speaking, a much admired figure renowned for his eloquence and charm but also for his cool head at a time of extreme international tension, particularly during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is perhaps for this reason that American Republicans, displeased with their poor score sheet in producing decent US presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, the Bush boys, Trump – you see my point?”) have adopted a new tactic: adopting JFK as one of their own. If Kennedy were alive today, they argue, he would not be a Democrat as he was in reality, but a Republican. One author has even produced a book “Kennedy, Conservative” based on this theory.
Some may argue it is a bit silly to try and assume what someone no longer able to speak up for himself would now be thinking. Some might argue the US political system is more fluid than some others, party-wise anyway. After all, Nixon oversaw Detente. The first Bush’s presidency coincided with the end of the Cold War. This does not make them liberals.
Others might feel that suggesting JFK would now be a member of the party headed by Donald Trump is rather dishonouring Kennedy’s memory. They would be right.
But here are a number of other reasons why claiming JFK for the Republican cause is fundamentally absurd:
JFK on communism
Kennedy was definitely anti-communist, sometimes to his detriment, launching the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion and beginning the slow escalation of the war in Vietnam. In his anticommunism he is no different from every other post-war Democratic president. Consider: Truman started the war in Korea and established post-war containment policy. Johnson oversaw the disastrous full escalation of the war in Vietnam. Carter presided over an unprecedented military build-up (which Reagan continued).
JFK and the NRA
JFK was indeed, a member of the National Rifle Association. It was not then, the eccentric assortment of powerful but militant right wingers that it is today.
JFK and taxes
Kennedy did reduce taxes to help stimulate economic growth. In this, he is only as conservative as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (“the tax cuts in the stimulus package, for example, were arguably the largest in history” writes author Robert Schlesinger). JFK’s belief in tax cuts was routed in the context of the times and his Keynesian values too: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” He also reduced the top rate of tax to 65%, far higher than it is today.
JFK and the rich
It is sometimes claimed the Kennedy family’s immense wealth makes him an unlikely Democrat. Of course, if this was true now, it was then. And it wasn’t true then. Many rich people have been Democrats e.g. Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Soros. It’s irrelevant.
JFK and race
Unlike most Republicans of the time, JFK was firmly in favour of desegregation and pushed hard for civil rights. He would doubtless have been as delighted by Obama’s election in 2008 as his brother Ted was. He would be disgusted by Trump’s cheap, racist anti-Mexican jibes.
JFK and abortion
Kennedy is often referred to as “anti-abortion” by those who want to claim him for the Right. In fact, he never made any pubic pronouncements on the subject.
JFK and social programmes
JFK’s short administration paved the way for the “Great Society” and social programmes such as Medicare.
JFK and walls
Kennedy spoke eloquently against the division and unhappiness, socially divisive walls can create.
Like most right minded people, he would be disgusted by what the Trump administration is doing today. He was a Democrat then and most would assuredly be so today.
There are many ways to lose the presidency whether you’re fighting a primary or battling for the ultimate prize itself in the November general election. These are just some of them…
Cry (Ed Muskie, 1972)
Public crying has played well for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama more recently but when Muskie appeared to weep over allegations about his wife’s drinking, he soon lost his status as the Democratic frontrunner. Ultimately, the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by the Nixon camp, Muskie denied crying, saying reporters had mistaken snow melting on his face for tears.
Lose your temper (Bob Dole, 1988)
Dole snarled that his opponent George HW Bush should “quit lying about my record” after losing a Republican primary. Dole looked like a sore loser and his campaign never recovered. He later won the nomination in 1996, losing comfortably to President Bill Clinton.
Scream (Howard Dean, 2004)
Although he was probably on his way out anyway, Dean’s hysterical “I had a scream” speech which ended with a Kermit the frog-style note of hysteria ended his prospects of getting the Democratic nomination. John Kerry got it instead and subsequently lost to George W. Bush in November.
Fail to answer a simple question (Gary Hart, 1984)
Democrat Hart (of later sex scandal fame) proved unable to explain why he had changed his surname from Gary Hartpence. Worse, he floundered desperately when asked the most basic question: why do you want to be president?
Be inadvertently racist (H Ross Perot, 1992)
The Texan billionaire independent offended a largely black audience by referring to them repeatedly as “you people” throughout a campaign speech.
Terrify everyone (Barry Goldwater, 1964)
The Republican nominee’s open extremism and apparent enthusiasm for nuclear weapons led him to lose by a record margin. “In your heart, you know he’s right” his campaign claimed. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” countered his opponents.
Have an affair (Gary Hart, 1988)
Recovering from his 1984 failure, Hart was the clear favourite to succeed Reagan until allegations of infidelity with model Donna Hart emerged. Hart initially denied meeting her until photos emerged of her sitting on his lap. Hart then withdrew from the campaign, then re-entered it later, totally sabotaging his own career in the process.
Skeletons in the closet (George HW Bush 1992, George W Bush 2000)
A last minute recovery for President Bush against Bill Clinton stalled after allegations over his role in the Iran-Contra affair re-emerged. Later, his son was harmed by a last minute revelation over a 1979 drink driving incident during the closing stages of the very close 2000 campaign.
“Steal” a speech (Joe Biden, 1988)
Obama’s future vice president withdrew after striking similarities were spotted between a campaign speech he delivered and one which had been made by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).
Ignore attacks (Michael Dukakis, 1988)
When the Bush campaign cast doubt on the Democratic nominee’s mental health, Dukakis refused to sink to their level. Unfortunately, by the time he did release his records (which revealed a clean bill of health), the damage to his campaign had already been done.
Insult your rivals (Bush, 1992)
“My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos,” President Bush said of Clinton and Gore late in 1992. The “bozos” bit went down very badly with voters. Clinton’s lead grew by around five percent just before election day.
Be too honest (Walter Mondale, 1984, Michael Dukakis, 1988)
Both these Democratic nominees admitted taxes would have to increase substantially to tackle Reagan’s huge escalating deficit. Bush in 1988 was much less frank “read my lips – no new taxes” but won. Taxes went up dramatically soon afterwards.
Insult women (Mitt Romney, 2012)
The Republican nominee referred to “binders full of women” he could choose from for his cabinet. This played badly.
Rely too heavily on your war record (John Kerry, 2004)
This backfired when several campaign groups began casting doubt over the Democratic nominee’s Vietnam War heroism which had been contrasted with Bush’s decision to join the state National Guard (a classic draft dodging tactic) and Vice President Cheney’s decision to duck out of the war altogether.
Run against your own party’s incumbent (Eugene McCarthy, 1968, Ronald Reagan, 1976, Ted Kennedy, 1980, Pat Buchanan, 1992)
This has never worked, although McCarthy undoubtedly made history by prompting President Johnson’s withdraw from the 1968 contest. Reagan also undoubtedly enhanced his credentials for a future run by challenging President Ford. Four years later, Reagan ran again and won.
Pick the wrong running-mate (George McGovern, 1972, John McCain, 2008)
The McGovern campaign was thrown into chaos when running-mate Thomas Eagleton had to be replaced. John McCain’s campaign was similarly undermined when Sarah Palin’s intellectual shortcomings became too obvious to ignore. Oddly, however, Bush’s disastrous choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 seemed to do him little real harm.
Screw up the TV debate
Notably Richard Nixon in 1960.
Insult 47% of the electorate (Mitt Romney, 2012)
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Mitt Romney, remarks at private fundraiser. Ironically, he ended up losing having received 47% of the vote.
Get paranoid (H. Ross Perot, 1992)
The independent candidate accused the Bush camp of trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding by labelling her a lesbian.
Make huge factual errors in public (Gerald Ford, 1976)
“There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” President Ford made this absurd claim in the 1976 TV debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he went on to lose narrowly to Jimmy Carter.
“Win” (Al Gore, 2000)
Few election results look more dubious than the 2000 one. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush not Al Gore the winner.
Could the next US presidential election end up being fought between the wife of one former president and the brother of another? Very possibly, is the only answer.
To start with, Hillary Clinton is currently the overwhelming favourite to be the Democratic nominee and is probably the general favourite to win overall. We have been here before, of course, but this time there seems no obvious signs of a charismatic Obama-type sweeping in to deny her the nomination as occurred in 2008. Indeed, her previous opposition to Obama probably stands her in good stead in the light of his recent unpopularity.
Clinton’s main hindrances are likely to be her age (she is 67, and would be the second oldest elected president ever if she won in 2016), concerns over her health and the rich array of baggage she has inevitably accumulated during her twenty years as First Lady, New York senator and Secretary of State.
Refreshingly, even though no woman has ever been nominated as a presidential candidate by either of the main parties, nobody seems very bothered that she’s a woman any more. It is as if the world has got used to the idea. Yet a lot still rides on her shoulders. For if Hillary failed (or even didn’t stand – she is yet to formally announce her candidacy), when would a woman get another chance as good as this?
The prospects of Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, son of former president George HW and younger of President George W. look less good. Bush has always had a more competent air than his brother, but is far to the left of many in his party. What’s more, while Hillary can point to a largely successful Clinton presidency, the first Bush presidency ended after one term and the second was a near total disaster. Jeb will be lucky to get the nomination. Though if he does, Republicans will be praying he can perform a reversal of the 1992 result when Clinton outfoxed Bush. A third president would be a first for any family.
There are a number of cases of political dynasties taking the highest office in the US, mostly in the 19th century. But despite our hereditary monarchy, Britain rarely does the same when it comes to elected politicians. There have been a long line of Churchills either Winstons or Randolphs in the Commons, but only one has ever achieved glory. There have also been a number of Benns and Hoggs in Parliament over the decades, but none in Downing Street.
Elsewhere, one wonders if a more clearly defined fixed four-year presidential system might have prevented the disharmony caused by the two Miliband brothers competing for the Labour leadership in 2010 or the potential issues arising from the fact that both Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper are both seen as potential future contenders for the party leadership.
In July 1988, the Republican presidential nominee George HW Bush (then generally known as plain old George Bush or more formally Vice President Bush) announced his choice of running-mate for the forthcoming presidential election. His choice, James Danforth (Dan) Quayle would generally be viewed as a disaster. The next four years would witness one of the most gaffe-prone vice presidencies of all time.
Quayle, a 41-year-old senator from Indiana certainly looked the part. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, by then 77, and his potential successor Bush already in his mid-sixties, Quayle certainly helped give the Republican Party a more youthful image. He was also much younger than his opponent Michael Dukakis’s 67-year-old running mate Lloyd Bentsen.
But doubts were immediately raised about Senator Quayle’s experience. Most observers had expected Bush to pick his defeated primary opponent, Senator Bob Dole as his running mate. Quayle’s speaking style was stilted and unconvincing. It also soon emerged that twenty years before, he had used his family’s powerful business connections to ensure enrolment in the Indiana National Guard. The National Guard was usually seen as a sure way of avoiding the draft. It was in short an easy way to dodge involvement in the Vietnam War.
Quayle was not the last public figure to face such allegations. Four years later, the Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton would be accused of draft dodging too, taking some of the heat off Quayle who was by then vice president. But Clinton had at least opposed the war, unlike Quayle and Quayle’s opponent Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s running mate, had actually served in Vietnam. Worse was to come: Bush’s own son faced the same charge when he ran for president himself in 2000 and 2004 and even managed to go AWOL during his time on the Texan National Guard. His running mate Dick Cheney also avoided serving claiming simply that he had had “other priorities.” But Quayle had left the political arena by then.
Donald Kaul reflected the general furore: “Faced with a smorgasbord of vice presidential candidates – all conservative, some politically useful and some who might even wear the label ”distinguished” without embarrassment – Bush picked a callow, braying arch conservative from a state Bush was going to carry anyway. Quayle may not be on the lunatic fringe, but he can see it from where he’s standing. Of such decisions are concession speeches made…Quayle is a chicken hawk, a flag-waving jingoist who never met a war he didn’t like, but sought refuge in the National Guard when the opportunity to actually fight in one presented itself”.
The endless gaffes continued. A selection are included below.
Quayle was also humiliated in the 1988 vice presidential debates with Senator Lloyd Bentsen. By that stage in the contest, Vice President Bush was easily beating his opponent, Democrat Governor Michael Dukakis. But questions remained over Quayle’s experience. Nearly half of the United States’ post-war vice presidents had at that point, ended up being president (four out of nine. Bush would make it five out of ten, although no former vice presidents have become president since 1989). Bentsen was a veteran politician, who in the Sixties had beaten George HW Bush in an election for the Senate himself.
Quayle attempted to defuse the issue, by unwisely comparing himself to President Kennedy, who had been assassinated in 1963:
Quayle: It is not just age; it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.)
Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause.)
Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.
It was the most stunning TV debate defeat ever.
Satire had a field day. An urban myth developed that Quayle had initially clumsily first raised his left hand when asked to take the oath of office, before hastily correcting himself and raising his right (this was untrue) A record entitled “The Wit and Wisdom of Dan Quayle” was released, just as one entitled “The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan” had been released before. In both cases, both sides were of the record were completely blank. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip meanwhile portrayed the new Veep as being distracted by the “spinny” chair in his new office. Saturday Night Live actually portrayed Quayle as a child in several sketches.
Why didn’t Bush drop Quayle? Did he as a former vice president himself secretly fear the power of the vice president and so like Nixon picking Gerald Ford in 1973 hope to protect himself from any risk of future impeachment by putting a supposed idiot in the Number 2 spot? Did he secretly see in Quayle, a young southern draft dodger, someone who reminded him of his own son? Most likely, he thought to drop Quayle would seem to concede error and might prove more damaging. In 1972, democrat nominee George McGovern’s campaign never recovered after his decision to drop his running mate Thomas Eagleton after questions were raised about him.
And in fact, Quayle’s selection seems to have had little electoral impact. The Bush-Quayle ticket won a comfortable forty state victory, over Dukakis and Bentsen in 1988. Quayle seemed to have had little impact in 1992 either. Voters, as usual, seem to have been voting for the main candidate not the running mate.
Quayle continued to make real gaffes too, none, it must be said of real global importance, notably launching a scathing attack on the fictional US TV character Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen) for giving birth out of wedlock. President Bush, in fairness, had fallen into a similar trap declaring Americans should be “more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons”. On the show, Bart hit back: “We are like The Waltons…we’re all praying for an end to the Great Depression too!”
By now, it was 1992 and an unpopular Bush was facing possible defeat as he ran for re-election. There was talk of dropping Quayle. Bush had suffered a mild heart attack in 1991, reminding voters that Quayle was only a heartbeat away from the presidency. A secret service chief was fired after joking that if Bush were assassinated, his operatives should immediately shoot Quayle to prevent him becoming president.
1992 actually saw one of Quayle’s most memorable gaffes incorrectly changing the spelling of the word “potato” on a visit to a school after a pupil had written it on the board correctly (“You’re close, but you left a little something off,” he said “The “e” on the end”).
But generally Quayle performed better than expected during election year. He lost the TV debate to Al Gore, though not as spectacularly as in 1988. But when Bush lost to Clinton in November, Quayle wasn’t blamed. In 2000, he even launched an exploratory bid for the Republican presidential nomination himself. In the end, another Bush, George W, got it.
The vice presidency is an unfulfilling job for most. Unlike Nixon’s first Number Two, Spiro Agnew, who ultimately resigned when it emerged he had evaded paying his taxes when he was Governor of Maryland, Quayle avoided scandal. But a stream of gaffes and unconvincing public performances ensured that he never gained the confidence of the American public.
Like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin since, he was a rich source of gaffes. Here are some of his ‘finest’ moments…
The best of Dan Quayle…
The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history….No, not our nation’s, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century, but in this century’s history.
People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history.
(Interview referring to Rasputin).
We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.
Hawaii has always been a very pivotal role in the Pacific. It is in the Pacific. It is a part of the United States. That is an island that is right here.
When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful, how true that is.
(Speech to the United Negro College Fund . The Fund’s slogan was “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”)
The other day [the President] said, I know you’ve had some rough times, and I want to do something that will show the nation what faith that I have in you, in your maturity and sense of responsibility. Would you like a puppy?
I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy. But that could change.
Mars is essentially in the same orbit.… Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.
On the 1992 LA Riots:
I have been asked who caused the riots and the killing in LA, my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.
On TV show Murphy Brown:
Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomises today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”
This is what I say about the scorn of the media elite: I wear their scorn as a badge of honour.
I believe that I’ve made good judgments in the past, and I think I’ve made good judgments in the future.
We don’t want to go back to tomorrow, we want to move forward.
We understand the importance of having the bondage between the parent and the child.
The future will be better tomorrow.
I made a misstatement and I stand by all my misstatements.
Two presidents. One Democrat, one Republican. Both turn ninety this year. Neither man ever directly ran against the other. But how do Jimmy “Peanut farmer” Carter or George “Read my lips” Bush square up in a direct face off?
Carter: The younger of the two, James Earle (“Jimmy”) Carter was the 39th president between 1977 and 1981. He has been a former president for thirty three years, longer than any one else in US history.
Bush: George Herbert Walker Bush was the 41st president from 1989 until 1993. Only the second man to be both president and father to a US president (the other was John Adams) he was always referred to as simply “George Bush” before 2000 but is now usually referred to as George HW Bush to distinguish him from his son George W Bush (43, 2001-2009).
Carter: Famously a Georgia peanut farmer, Carter also has a first class degree in nuclear physics and served in the navy in World War II.
Bush: Scion of a super rich Texas oil family, Bush was the youngest ever US pilot in World War II. His father was a Republican senator.
RISE TO POWER
Carter: Carter served as a Senator and as Governor of Georgia.
Bush: Bush took a different route becoming a congressman and twice standing unsuccessfully for the Senate in the Sixties, only really coming to the fore as Ambassador to the UN and head of the CIA under Nixon and Ford. He was sacked by the new president, Carter in 1976 but sought the presidency himself in 1980. He was beaten for the nomination by Ronald Reagan who picked him as his running mate. Bush served two terms as Vice President between 1981 and 1989.
Carter: Carter triumphed over California Governor Jerry Brown and his eventual running mate Walter Mondale.
Bush: As Veep, Bush was always the favourite for the 1988 Republican nomination beating eccentric evangelist Pat Robertson (Rupert Murdoch’s preferred candidate) and Senator Bob Dole who came to be seen as a sore loser after he angrily called on Bush to “quit lying about my record”.
Carter: In 1976, Jimmy Carter narrowly beat President Gerald Ford. Weakened by Watergate, recession, the Nixon pardon and a gaffe in which he denied Eastern Europe was dominated by the USSR in the TV debate, Ford was only the third president to be beaten in a November election in the 20th century (after President William Taft lost to challenger Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and incumbent Herbert Hoover who lost to FDR in 1932).
Bush: Initially perceived as a “wimp” from a privileged background, Bush trailed his opponent Governor Michael Dukakis during the summer of 1988. Fighting a dirty campaign and lambasting Dukakis as a “tax and spend liberal,” Bush reversed the situation, helped by Dukakis’s refusal to respond to Bush’s attacks, Dukakis’s unpopular opposition to the death penalty, Bush’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge and Dukakis’s short physical stature. Bush ultimately won a forty state landslide and ultimately beat “Duke” by around an 8% margin in the share of the vote.
Carter: Walter Mondale served as Carter’s Vice President. He performed less well as Reagan’s presidential opponent in 1984 winning only one out of the fifty states contested (Minnesota).
Bush: Bush’s choice Dan Quayle was a gaffe-prone disaster who quickly became a national joke. Quayle was exposed as a Vietnam draft dodger (using his family connections to secure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard), misspelled the word “potatoes” in public, botched a tribute to the Holocaust (claiming it was a sad chapter “in our nation’s history”) and attacked TV sitcom Murphy Brown after the main character had a child out of wedlock. Nevertheless, Bush retained him as running mate even in 1992.
Carter: Although he was never hugely popular, carter achieved a major breakthrough in the quest for Middle East peace with the signing of the Camp David Agreement in 1978. The SALT 2 Treaty was also a huge success in Détente though it was never ratified by the US Senate.
Bush: Bush achieved successes in the Middle East too but his biggest success was the 1991 “Desert Storm” victory over Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Bush became the most popular president in thirty years. Some on the Right later regretted not extending the war into Iraq itself as Bush’s son would later do with disastrous consequences.
DECLINE AND FALL
Carter: Never popular, Carter failed to get to grips with the economy, eventually attempted a disastrous move to the Right and a Reagan-like defence build up after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His presidency was ultimately poisoned by the Iranian hostage crisis after 1979. The hostages were released on the day Carter left office in January 1981.
Bush: Bush witnessed a spectacular collapse in popularity between 1991 and 1992, due to the recession, his apparent preoccupation with foreign affairs and his introduction of the second biggest tax increase in US history after his “no new taxes” pledge in 1988. In reality, with Reagan having left him a spiralling national debt, Bush was foolish to have ever made the pledge in the first place.
Carter: In 1980, the president faced a serious internal challenge from senior Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy (brother of the assassinated Jack and Bobby). Memories of Kennedy’s role in the 1969 Chappaquiddick Incident wrecked his chances though.
Bush: in 1992, Bush was distracted by a major primary challenge from ex-Nixon speechwriter Senator Pat Buchanan, a pugnacious right winger.
Carter: Carter was beaten soundly by Republican Ronald Reagan in November 1980. In the run-up to the election, the contest appeared much closer than it ultimately proved.
Bush: Bush faced an independent challenge from Texan billionaire H. Ross Perot, but it was ultimately Democrat Governor Bill Clinton who beat Bush, overcoming rumours of infidelity and draft dodging to become one of the most accomplished campaigners in US history.
Carter: Although not a hugely successful president, Carter has been a hugely successful ex-president winning the Nobel Peace Prize, writing an acclaimed novel and appearing in Ben Affleck’s film Argo.
Bush: Bush‘s legacy has perhaps been tarnished by the poor record of his son as president.
John Heilemann And Mark Halperin: Double Down: The Explosive Inside Account Of The 2012 Election.
Published by: WH Allen.
They had a tough act to follow. Following on from the triumph of their book, Race Of A Lifetime, which chronicled the highs and lows of the 2008 presidential contest, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann must have confronted the task of repeating the trick with an account of the 2012 election with some trepidation.
2008 was, after all, an unusually eventful campaign, literally the “race of a lifetime”. That election featured an incredibly bitter Democratic primary battle between a former First Lady and a dynamic black hopeful, a calamitous sideshow (the disastrous campaign of Senator John Edwards), a grumpy an aged Republican nominee (John McCain), the rise and fall of Sarah Palin and ultimately an unprecedented outcome: the election of the first black president, a result that would have seemed unthinkable only a year before. How could 2012 compete with such drama?
Happily, it very nearly did and this is a worthy follow up to the earlier book (even if as a Brit, I’ve still no idea at all what the term “double down” means, despite it being used several times in the book).
For one thing, the 2012 contest was never a foregone conclusion. Having done well with a disastrous inheritance from his appalling predecessor (Bush), the economy remained sluggish in 2012, leaving the president unusually vulnerable particularly after his poor performance in the first presidential TV debate.
Despite this, the Republicans remained in a state of crisis throughout the year. An unlovely bunch of grotesques such as the eccentric billionaire Donald Trump threatened but ultimately declined to throw their hats into the ring. Others did, including the horrendous Newt Gingrich and arch homophobe Senator Rick Santorum (one Democrat wag claimed “Santorum” is Latin for “asshole”).
The party ultimately opted for the immaculately coffered but incredibly gaffe-prone Governor Mitt Romney: a decent man in many ways but one almost incapable of speaking without either offending someone (including Boris Johnson and the London Olympic Committee) or reminding everyone just how rich he was. Random cock-ups such as Clint Eastwood ranting at an empty chair at the party convention did not help. But Romney’s lowest moment was his notorious “47% gaffe” when he was recorded saying:
”There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”
Romney, nevertheless, came surprisingly close to victory before Hurricane Sandy and Republican Chris Christie’s enthusiasm for the Democrat president sealed his fate. Ironically. Romney scored 47% of the vote.
A hugely compulsive read even when you know the outcome already.
How much of an asset is experience of warfare to a future political career? Does a spell in the army, navy or air force, particularly during a world war always lead to popularity? Is it any use whatsoever in helping leaders make decisions once in power?
Winston Churchill’s long record of military heroism probably made him the ideal person to lead Britain through the darkest days of the Second War. But in the Thirties, when Churchill was in the political wilderness and appeasement was in vogue, Churchill’s background probably counted against him. Coupled with his warnings about Nazi rearmament, Churchill’s reputation fuelled fears that he was a warmonger. His role in the disastrous Gallipoli landings in 1915 complicated matters still further. Churchill had resigned as Lord of the Admiralty and immediately volunteered for the Western Front. He was the first of four Great War veterans to lead Britain.
If ever a man had cause to hate war, it was Churchill’s successor Sir Anthony Eden. He had not only fought in the First World War but lost two brothers in the conflict as well as a son in World War II. But Eden recognised the dangers of appeasement (before World War II) and resigned as Foreign Secretary over Neville Chamberlain’s friendliness towards Mussolini in the late Thirties. It could have been the end of a promising career for Eden. However, with the outbreak of war, like Churchill, his arguments seemed vindicated. He returned, eventually succeeding Churchill in 1955.
Sadly as Prime Minister, Eden’s instincts served him less well. Perhaps viewing the Egyptian leader Nasser as a new Il Duce, Eden led Britain into a disastrously ill conceived attempt to retake the Suez Canal in 1956. The end result was a calamitous humiliating withdrawal and Eden’s downfall.
Both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan served in the First World War too as did the US Presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. The impact of the Great War on their leadership isn’t obvious. But for Ike, his major role as Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in the Second World War was to prove crucial to his election.
General Eisenhower had never been elected to any office before 1952 and his huge fame and popularity as a General at a time of Cold War in Europe and hot war in Korea was almost the sole basis for his 1952 presidential campaign. He won handsomely then and in 1956, both times beating the less charismatic Adlai Stevenson comfortably.
But Ike was only the first of seven World War II veterans to make it to the White House between 1953 and 1993. Some were more heroic than others. John F. Kennedy had rescued the crew of his Japanese PT 109 swift boat after the Japanese rammed it in the Pacific. Kennedy had swum dragging a colleague to safety while holding a lifeboat in his teeth. Ronald Reagan, in contrast, spent most of the war making propaganda films. But every leader for forty years was a WWII war veteran. The last one was George HW Bush. Like Senator Bob Dole who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1996, aged seventy three, Bush had been a pilot.
Oddly, although many notable British politicians served in World War II (for example, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, John Profumo, Colditz escapee Airey Neave, William Whitelaw, Enoch Powell and many others) only two: Edward Heath and James Callaghan became Prime Minister. Neither seems to have gained much politically from their war experience. Callaghan relished anything to do with the navy. Heath spoke in later life over his unease over the execution of a Polish officer in 1945. But Callaghan never won a General Election and Heath only won one and lost three. Harold Wilson, in contrast, spent the war in the civil service but won four out of five General Elections.
Perhaps the issue was less relevant in the Britain of the Seventies or than in the US where the president is also Commander in Chief. But even there, the war was rarely a big issue other than in the case of Eisenhower or perhaps in helping Kennedy beat his Democrat rival Hubert Humphrey (who had not served in the war) in 1960. President Ford’s running mate Bob Dole (again) also committed a damaging gaffe in the 1976 Vice Presidential TV debates claiming that every 20th century war had been a “Democratic war” started by a Democratic president.
Margaret Thatcher was largely excused from any expectation of military service simply because she was a woman. Yet many women did do voluntary work during the war, joining the Wrens and such like. The young Margaret Roberts chose to focus on her career and Oxford instead. Thatcher was fortunate to escape serious scrutiny on this. Her Labour opponent in 1983, Michael Foot was less lucky. He had been unable to fight in the Second World War due to asthma (which bizarrely seems to have been cured buy a car accident in the Sixties) but in the jingoistic atmosphere after the Falklands War, both Foot’s championing of CND and even his choice of coat at the Cenotaph for the Remembrance Sunday service led his patriotism, entirely unfairly to be questioned.
Foot was born in 1913. His successor as Labour leader Neil Kinnock was actually born during the Second World War in 1942. In Britain, national service had ended with the Fifties. Only a few notable politicians have had military experience since the Eighties.
In the United States, the focus shifted from World War Two to the far more controversial legacy of Vietnam. In 1988, George HW Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, already under scrutiny over his inexperience and competence, was found to have used his family’s connections to ensure enrolment on the Indiana National Guard twenty years before. The National Guard were traditionally seen as an easy escape route to avoid the draft. Quayle survived but his embarrassment contrasted him unfavourably with Colonel Oliver North, a leading figure in the Iran-Contra Scandal but a decorated Vietnam vet.
Four years later, the Democratic candidate Governor Bill Clinton saw his campaign descend into controversy when it was revealed he too had evaded the draft. But Clinton survived, perhaps helped by the fact, that unlike Quayle or George W. Bush later on, he had actually opposed the war. Bush’s joining of the Texas National Guard to avoid service was exacerbated in 2004, by the revelation that he had gone AWOL while even doing that at one point. Many assumed this to be drink related.
Bush’s opponent Democrat Senator John Kerry was well placed as regards Vietnam, having not only served there heroically but become a vocal opponent of the war on his return. Vietnam suddenly became a big issue again at the time of the Iraq war. But despite his strong position, Kerry overplayed the Vietnam card. Although the Republicans erred in attempting to fake a Seventies picture of a young Kerry supposedly standing next to fiercely anti-war activist Jane Fonda, and were not helped by Vice President Dick Cheney admitting he had avoided service too, claiming he had “other priorities”, Kerry’s overemphasis on his war record ultimately totally backfired.
In 2008, Barack Obama beat Vietnam vet and former Prisoner of War John McCain for the presidency. The 2012 election between Obama and Romney was the first since 1944 in which neither of the two main candidates had served in a world war or Vietnam.
Do war vets make better presidents? It seems doubtful. Neither Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt served in the forces (FDR was already a politician during the First World War. He contracted polio in the Twenties). Were they thus automatically worse presidents than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter who did?
Eisenhower and Kennedy may have benefitted popularity-wise from their years of service. But did anyone else?
Every election between 1992 and 2008 was fought between a war veteran and a non-combatant:
1992: President George W Bush (WWII) Vs Governor Bill Clinton: Clinton won.
1996: Senator Bob Dole (WWII) Vs President Bill Clinton: Clinton won.
2000: Vice President Al Gore (Vietnam) Vs Governor George W. Bush. Bush won.
2004: Senator John Kerry (Vietnam) Vs President George W. Bush. Bush won.
2008: Senator John McCain (Vietnam) Vs Senator Barack Obama. Obama won.
As we can see, the non-combatant beat the veteran every time.
So far no Vietnam veterans at all have won the presidency yet this era may not be over yet.
In the UK, the only recent notable MPs with military backgrounds have been Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader between 1988 and 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith, Tory leader. It is true, Ashdown’s military background contributed to his popularity. But in the case of IDS, the least successful Opposition leader since the war, any advantage even during the Iraq War was extremely well hidden.
Ultimately, war experience may bring about good qualities and spawn great leaders, notably Churchill. But it is rarely a decisive factor in terms of popularity or leadership.
Some leaders such as Blair or Thatcher have proven natural leaders in peace and war without any military background at all. Others such as Sir Anthony Eden or Edward Heath found their military background little help in office and totally floundered in Downing Street.
Basically, if you are unsure who to vote for, basing your decision on the candidate’s military background is unlikely to help you to make the right decision.
The full magnitude of the scale of shock at the news of President Kennedy‘s assassination half a century ago cannot be fully appreciated today. Perhaps only by comparison with more recent traumas such as the September 11th attacks in 2001 or Princess Diana’s death in 1997 can we today find any suitable frame of reference.
But the impact of the shooting was huge. The effects on the Kennedy family, the US and the world in general have continued to resonate throughout ensuing fifty years…
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as his successor. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald is himself shot dead by night club owner Jack Ruby on live TV two days later. The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination.
Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, resigns as Attorney General. He and President Johnson have long hated each other. Bobby is elected Senator for New York.
Ted Kennedy, already a Senator for Massachusetts since 1962, is involved in a serious plane crash. He suffers a broken back and punctured lung. Two others on board including the pilot are killed.
President Johnson passes a wealth of legislation including the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election handsomely with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate (both Humphrey and Johnson fought Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960 and lost).
History will never know for sure whether Kennedy had he lived, would have passed as much legislation as Johnson, been re-elected in 1964 or escalated the Vietnam War to the same disastrous extent.
The Warren Commission (which includes future Republican president, Gerald Ford amongst its members) rules that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. Over time, most Americans grow to disbelieve this verdict.
Malcolm X, black civil rights leader, is assassinated.
President Johnson dramatically escalates the Vietnam conflict.
Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, dies in prison.
Another traumatic year for the US and the Kennedys.
Martin Luther King, black civil rights leader, is assassinated prompting widespread race riots.
President Johnson shocks the world by pulling out of the presidential race following serious setbacks in Vietnam and a strong primary challenge from the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator Bobby Kennedy has already entered the race by this point.
A bitter Kennedy-McCarthy primary battle ensues (McCarthy fans see Kennedy as jumping on the anti-war bandwagon). Kennedy eventually emerges triumphant at the California Primary in June. With Richard Nixon emerging as the new Republican candidate, the stage seems set for another Kennedy vs. Nixon contest as in 1960. But moments after his California victory speech, Bobby is himself shot and killed on live TV. The assassin is Sirhan Sirhan, a young man who objects to the Senator’s support for Israel (a position shared by most US politicians). Sirhan remains in jail today. Kennedy leaves behind a pregnant wife, eleven children and a Democratic Party in disarray.
At a deadlocked convention, some Democrats move to draft 36-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy as the candidate but the last Kennedy son is at this point fearful of assassination himself. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is eventually chosen as nominee but loses narrowly to JFK’s defeated 1960 opponent, Republican Richard Nixon in the November general election.
Jacqueline Kennedy horrifies many by marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
The Apollo 11 mission fulfils JFK’s 1961 pledge to land an American on the moon and return him to Earth by the end of the decade.
That very same weekend Senator Ted Kennedy – already seen as the most likely Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 – appears to crash his car at Chappaquiddick, leading to the death of a young girl Mary Jo Kopechne. The scandal and Kennedy’s unsatisfactory explanation for his behaviour (he claimed to have “repeatedly dove” to rescue her), the suspicion that he was having an affair with her or that he may have been drink driving, casts a shadow over the rest of his career. His judgement is certainly questionable, calling his lawyer immediately after the crash before calling the emergency services. He is not jailed and is re-elected to the Senate many times. But he will never become president.
Father Joseph P. Kennedy dies aged 81 (he has been unable to speak since as stroke during his son’s presidency. He has seen two of his sons assassinated, another killed in the war, a daughter lobotomised and another killed in a plane crash.
George Wallace, pro-segregation Governor of Alabama and an old rival of the Kennedys, is shot and badly wounded by student Arthur Bremner. Bremner’s disturbed diary inspires the film Taxi Driver which itself inspires John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan in a bid to “impress” actress Jodie Foster in 1981.
Ted Kennedy threatens to run for president when last minute polls suggest he could win the nomination. But he chooses not to. Senator George McGovern gets the Democratic Party nomination instead.
Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy’s husband, is picked as Senator George McGovern’s running mate after his first choice, Thomas Eagleton is forced out by revelations about his medical history.
McGovern and Shriver are defeated heavily by President Nixon who wins 49 out of 50 states.
Lyndon Johnson dies (had he ran in 1968 and ran again, his presidency would have ended just two days earlier). Unusually, as Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower all died within the last decade, there are no former US presidents alive for a period between January 1973 and August 1974.
The tenth anniversary of the JFK assassination. The US is mired in Vietnam and Watergate.
Alan J. Pakula’s film The Parallax View starring Warren Beatty focuses on assassination conspiracy theories.
President Nixon resigns over the Watergate Scandal. Gerald Ford succeeds him.
President Ford narrowly escapes two assassination attempts within the space of a fortnight. Both the assailants are women. “Squeaky” Fromme (a member of the Manson “family”) draws a gun on Ford when he attempts to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fires a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death over thirty years’ later.
Aristotle Onassis dies. Although only in her forties, Jackie Onassis does not remarry again.
The film Taxi Driver featuring a fictional assassination attempt on a presidential candidate is released. As mentioned, this inspires John Hinckley Junior to shoot President Reagan in 1981.
Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly beats President Gerald Ford for the White House.
Maria Shriver, Sargent and Eunice’s daughter meets Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is already an aspiring film actor and Republican supporter.
The William Richert film Winter Kills centres on a fictional Kennedy-esque family cursed by assassinations.
Senator Ted Kennedy mounts his one and only bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He mounts an effective challenge and delivers a memorable speech to the Democratic Convention but is beaten by President Carter who goes on to lose to Ronald Reagan in November. Kennedy is harmed by the ghosts of Chappaquiddick. In retrospect, he also seems foolish to have run in a year where he would have to unseat a sitting incumbent Democratic president (the only election in which this was the case between 1968 and 1996).
Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot dead in New York.
President Reagan is shot and wounded by John Hinckley Junior. Hinckley is ruled not guilty as he is insane. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady is badly wounded in the shooting. Secretary of State Al Haig declares on TV in the hours after the shooting that after Reagan and Vice President Bush, he is in control. This is constitutionally incorrect (he was third in line after both the Vice President and the Speaker of the House) and the “I’m in charge” gaffe reassures no one on an alarming day. Reagan makes a full recovery and eventually dies in 2004, long after the end of his presidency.
This seems to break the supposed “curse” which has seen every president elected in a year ending in zero since 1840 die in office (1840: Harrison, 1860: Lincoln, 1880: Garfield, 1900, McKinley, 1920: Harding, 1940: FDR, 1960: JFK).
Martin Sheen stars as JFK in the acclaimed TV series, Kennedy.
David Kennedy, Bobby’s fourth son, dies of a drug overdose, aged 28.
Mara Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger, by now a huge film star. He is Republican Governor of California from 2003 until 2011. She remains a Democrat. Their marriage ends in 2011.
Kennedy-esque Democratic contender, Gary Hart is forced out of the presidential race after a sex scandal.
Future Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore evoke Kennedy strongly in their presidential bids as does the eventual nominee Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis.
Senator Dan Quayle unwisely compares himself to JFK in the vice presidential debate:
Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
Bentsen wins the debate although Bush and Quayle win the election.
William Kennedy Smith, Senator Edward Kennedy’s nephew is acquitted after a high profile rape trial. Although he is acquitted, the family’s image is further tarnished by the scandal.
Oliver Stone’s hugely controversial film JFK is released. It centres less on the President himself but on conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
Democrat Governor Bill Clinton is elected to the presidency. His campaign makes great play of various superficial similarities between the candidate and JFK. Clinton’s “New Covenant” echoes Kennedy’s “New Frontier” (though proves less resonant). Clinton is also similarly youthful (46), has a slight physical resemblance to JFK and actually met the assassinated president when the 35th president visited his high school when Clinton was 16.
Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water is published. It is clearly inspired by the Chappaquiddick Incident.
John Connally, the former Governor of Texas wounded in the 1963 assassination dies, aged 76. In the years since, he has defected to the Republicans and ran for president himself in 1980, being beaten for the party nomination by Ronald Reagan.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the former President, dies aged 64.
Special effects technology enables JFK to appear as a character in the film, Forrest Gump.
Patrick Kennedy, a son of Ted Kennedy, is elected to the House of Representatives.
Rose Kennedy dies aged 104. She is the mother of Jack, Bobby and Ted.
The novel Idlewild by British writer Mark Lawson imagines President Kennedy surviving into old age. Idlewild in New York was renamed JFK Airport following the 1963 assassination.
Michael Kennedy, another of Bobby’s children, dies in a skiing accident. He is 39.
The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh is published.
John F. Kennedy Junior, the only son of the assassinated president, dies in a plane crash, alongside his wife and sister-in-law. He is 39.
Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis is released. Kevin Costner stars as he did in JFK (although does not play JFK in either case). Bruce Greenwood is JFK and Steven Culp, RFK (The 13 days referred to in the title are October 14th-28th 1962).
Another JFK , Senator John (Forbes) Kerry wins the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also from Massachusetts and is the first Roman Catholic to be nominated since John F. Kennedy himself. However, he ultimately lacks the Kennedy magic and is beaten in the November election by President George W. Bush. The Bush political dynasty has thus far produced two US presidents.
The Manchurian Candidate centring on political assassinations is remade, starring Denzel Washington.
The film Bobby, directed by Emilio Estevez and based around the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination is released. Estevez is the son of Martin Sheen who played JFK in 1983.
Barack Obama is the first African American to be elected US president. Some see this as a fitting tribute to the career of Senator Ted Kennedy, who has by now been diagnosed with a fatal brain condition. Obama is also the first president born during Kennedy’s presidency and the first serving US senator to win the presidency since JFK himself in 1960.
Ted Kennedy dies, age 77. Although his career was marred by the Chappaquiddick Incident in 1969, he enjoyed a long and successful career as “the lion of the Senate”. He is the third longest continuously serving Senator in US history.
Four out of five of Joe and Rose’s remaining daughters die during this decade (Rose, Kathleen, Eunice and Patricia).
TV series The Kennedys starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie. It is less well received than the series, The Kennedys, thirty years before.
Jean Ann Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland is the only remaining daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. She is 90.
So that’s it. Obama has been re-elected and sworn in for a second term. He can’t run for a third time even if he wants to. So now he can just put his feet up? Right?
Wrong! In fact, every president since the two term limit has been imposed who has been re-elected has experienced a “difficult” second term. Obama should heed their example. And consider: would any of them have run for a third term had they been able to anyway?
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Rep).
Elected: 1952. Re-elected: 1956.
Americans liked “Ike” so much that they gave him two landslides both times beating the same opponent: Adlai Stevenson. But Eisenhower’s second term was undermined by Cold War concerns that the USSR was gaining the upper hand over the US. Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and Eisenhower was harmed by his role in the 1960 U2 spy plane incident after he denied that a US plane piloted by one Gary Powers which had been shot down had been spying. It had.
To some extent, the perception that the USSR was ahead of the US was a nonsense, however. The supposed Soviet “missile gap” over the US much discussed in the 1960 elections didn’t exist. There was a gap but in fact it was the US who had a lead. Republican candidate Vice President Nixon well knew this but was unable to reveal it for security reasons.
That said, thanks to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space just after Eisenhower left office, there’s no denying the USSR led the space race at this time.
Third term?: Ike was already the oldest US president ever for the time by 1960 (he was 70) so would probably not have run again even if he had been able to.
Richard M. Nixon (Rep).
Elected: 1968. Re-elected: 1972.
January 1973 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s career. He had re-opened relations with China, brought a form of “peace with honour” to Vietnam (or at least ended US involvement) and had just secured a 49 state victory over Democrat George McGovern.
But, in fact, the seeds of Nixon’s destruction had already been sewn. The Watergate investigation was already quietly underway and became spectacularly public with the resignation of four key Nixon aides in May. Nixon famously promised that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”. But had he sought to cover up the legal investigation into the break-in at Democrat HQ at the Watergate Hotel n 1972? If not, why didn’t he hand over the White House tapes on the matter?
In the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 and was succeeded by his second Vice President Gerald Ford. Other than dying in office, (which at least might have enhanced his reputation) his second term could hardly have gone worse.
Third term?: It’s easy to imagine that without Watergate, Nixon who was then only in his early sixties, would have relished a third term had it been possible. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen envisages just that with Nixon remaining in the White House well until the Eighties. But in reality as we know, Nixon didn’t even get through his second term.
Ronald Reagan (Rep).
Elected: 1980. Re-elected: 1984.
Like Nixon, Reagan had secured a 49 state victory. And his second term, in some ways, went well. Initially slow to respond to the peace overtures from the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985, Reagan eventually conceded some ground precipitating a clear thaw in the Cold War by the time he left office. In truth, this was more to Gorbachev’s credit than the US president’s.
The big trouble spot of Reagan’s second term came after the revelation of the disastrous scheme to exchange weapons for hostages in Iran and then use the proceeds to finance the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua in 1986.
The plot was illegal, unethical and in defiance of Congress. Reagan probably only survived because (unlike Nixon) he had great reserves of personal charm, oversaw an apparently booming economy and because he was close to the end of his presidency anyway. Democrats in Congress had little interest in putting Vice President Bush in the White House ahead of the 1988 election.
Third term? Despite Iran-Contra, Reagan was still popular in 1989 and is the only figure mentioned here to serve two full terms before being succeeded by someone in his own party. That said, Reagan was 77 by the time he left office and was possibly already suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease which would mar his old age. So, no.
Bill Clinton (Dem).
Elected: 1992. Re-elected: 1996.
Clinton is probably the most successful president of the last iffy years but his second term was tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which almost saw him removed from office in 1998. But while Clinton was undeniably foolish, the scandal has a trumped up feel about it. Unlike Watergate or Iran-Contra, there was no serious crime at the centre of it. Obama should be wary of any sore loser Republicans attempting a similar plot against him.
Third term?: After the humiliations of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton may well have had enough of high office by 2000. On the other hand, he remained more popular than either Al Gore or George W. Bush who actually fought the 2000 election and was still one of the youngest ex-presidents there has ever been. Despite this, with Hillary Clinton, the First Lady intent on launching her own political career (she was elected as a Senator for New York in 2000), Bill would doubtless have stood down anyway.
George W. Bush (Rep).
“Elected”: 2000. “Re”- elected: 2004.
Bush achieved a historic feat in delivering a second term that was almost as disastrous as his first overseeing a financial crisis and totally mishandling the response to Hurricane Katrina. By 2008, the President – perhaps the worst in US history – was popular with less than a fifth of American voters.
Third term?: Highly unlikely. The name of Bush was mud by the time he left office.a
So Daniel Day Lewis has nailed Abraham Lincoln. Bill Murray also apparently masters FDR in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson while Anthony Hopkins (amongst others) have recreated Richard Nixon on screen while Dennis Quaid and John Travolta have (sort of) portrayed Bill Clinton. But what about all the other presidents who have never had a decent shot at being on screen? Here are a few possible contenders:
Who was he? Only the first US president (1789-97) and victor in the American War of Independence (or as the Americans more excitingly call it, the Revolutionary War).
Who could play him? Tricky. Tom Hanks? Washington doesn’t actually look much like any contemporary actor.
Prospects? On the one hand, it’s surprising there haven’t been more films about Washington. On the other, films about the early days of the Republic (Revolution, The Patriot, The Alamo) often perform badly at the box office. And are boring.
Who was he? The 26th president (1901-1909). The youngest ever Commander in Chief whose refusal to shoot a bear on a hunting expedition inspired the creation of the teddy bear. More importantly, he fought and won a vital domestic battle against the great monopolies (trusts) of his day and pledged to “speak softly and wield a big stick” in foreign policy. Later ran as an independent presidential candidate and is distantly related to Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45).
Who could play him? John Goodman, Oliver Platt, Nathan Lane. Anyone fat basically.
Prospects? Already a major character played by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Teddy R also had a tragic upbringing and an exciting military career. He was also shot and wounded as a presidential candidate in 1912, but delivered a speech regardless. Potentially a great film.
Dwight David Eisenhower
Who was he? Ike was a leading commander in World War II and in peacetime 1953-61) a hugely popular president.
Who could play him? Anthony Hopkins. Ed Harris. Anyone bald.
Prospects? Ike’s military career was exciting but his presidency was uneventful. Unless you enjoy watching people play golf.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Who was he? Youthful charismatic inspiration to the world, Cold Warrior, first Catholic president and compulsive womaniser. Famously assassinated 1963.
Who could play him? Was played well on TV by Greg Kinnear and thirty years ago by Martin Sheen.
Prospects? JFK has been portrayed a few times in TV and film, but it’s surprising no one’s done a full scale biopic yet. War hero, family tragedy, nuclear confrontation, the battle for civil rights: it’s all there. That said, it’s quite tricky to square this with his womanising and dealings with the Mafia particularly as the Kennedy family remain such a potent force in the US. Their opposition effectively forced an end to the (admittedly dodgy) Greg Kinnear/Katie Holmes TV series The Kennedys.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
Who was he? Kennedy’s successor (1963-69) began his presidency well with a wealth of civil rights and anti-poverty legislation (“the Great Society”) but ultimately became hopelessly bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire.
Who could play him? Liam Neeson. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis again.
Prospects? Ultimately a bit of a downer story-wise and the garrulous sometimes bullying LBJ is not an instantly loveable figure.
Who was he? Simple minded Hollywood actor turned ultra-conservative 40th president (1981-89). Almost started World War III but somehow managed to oversee the end of the Cold War instead.
Who could play him? Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Josh Brolin (who played him in the short lived TV series). Richard Dreyfus could play Gorbachev, Sacha Baron Cohen Colonel Gadaffi while John Hamm could be Oliver North.
Prospects? Great. Assassination attempts, arms to Ira, bombing in Libya and Reagan’s ultimate decline into Alzheimer’s. A movie is only a matter of time,
Films that sound like they should be about presidents …but are not.
George Washington: 2000 film set in a depressed contemporary US city. Not actually about the first US president.
Garfield: About a cat. Nothing at all to do with the 20th president James A. Garfield who was assassinated in 1881.
Ted: No. Not about Teddy Roosevelt at all. Seth MacFarlane adult comedy about a teddy bear who comes to life.
The Truman Show: A man who grows up in a world entirely created for TV. His name’s Truman Burbank. Nothing to do with atomic bomb dropper Harry S. Truman (1945-53). That one was actually portrayed by Gary Sinese in the decent 1995 TV movie Truman.
JFK: Actually very little about JFK himself, aside from a short biography at the start. O liver Stone’s film is instead a dramatised account of the investigation into why the 35th president was assassinated. And by whom.
Dead Presidents: Hughes Brothers’ crime drama. “Dead presidents” is US slang for banknotes (which, of course, have portraits of dead presidents on them).