On January 20, I joined the overwhelming majority of Americans in
wishing President Bush a successful second term.
I didn't vote for Mr. Bush. I thought his first term deplorable, and
I spent considerable energy trying to prevent his re-election. But he won, and his second term will be the next four years of our
nation's history. Every American -- blue voter or red - must hope our country thrives under Mr. Bush's stewardship.
Sadly, the historical odds are very much against him. In American
history, 18 men have served all or a substantial part of two
consecutive terms as president, and -- almost without exception -- their second terms were flops. I've studied and taught American history for decades, and in my reading, only two presidents -- the two Roosevelts -- enjoyed successful second terms. Other historians might propose one more. Maybe two. But undoubtedly, for most presidents, second terms proved disappointing, if not disastrous.
Washington -- having lost the services of both Hamilton and Jefferson -- governed with the advice of second-raters through four years of
rancorous partisanship, exacerbated by the complexities of a European war. As his second term ended, Washington rejected any suggestion of
After four triumphant years, crowned by the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson struggled through a dreadful second term. His efforts to
avoid involvement in the Napoleonic Wars led to economic recession and
widespread discontent. Leaving office, he compared himself with a
prisoner being released.
James Madison's second term was marked by the pointless absurdity of
the War of 1812, during which the president's Mansion -- now the White
House - was burned by British troops.
Andrew Jackson's triumphant first term was followed by a second in
which his "war" on the Bank of the United States precipitated a massive economic collapse -- the Panic of 1837 -- for which his successor was unfairly blamed.
The saga goes on and on. In modern times, we can abbreviate. Truman:
Korea and McCarthy. Ike: Sputnik and the missile gap. LBJ: Vietnam and urban riots. Nixon: Watergate. Reagan: Iran-Contra and mental confusion. Clinton: Monica.
Any student of American history will be struck by the fact that even
our most revered presidents are remembered largely -- if not
exclusively -- for the accomplishments of their first terms.
When I teach American History, I always devote special attention to
one underrated president -- James K. Polk -- who made five campaign
promises and kept 4 « of them.
First, Polk promised to annex Texas. (Splitting hairs, his
predecessor, John Tyler, actually accomplished this a few days before
Polk took office -- in order to claim the credit. But Polk's election made it politically possible.)
Second, Polk pledged to annex the Southwest Territory - including
California - and did.
Third, Polk divided the Oregon Country with Britain. (That's the half-kept promise.) Polk had campaigned for the whole thing -- "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" -- but compromised to win British neutrality in the Mexican-American War. Which is why Vancouver isn't America's loveliest city.
Fourth, Polk kept his pledge to reform the Treasury.
Finally, as promised, Polk did not seek re-election. He worked extremely hard, with utter focus, for one term. He achieved his goals, retired and promptly died.
We didn't even have to pay him a pension. One might say, the ideal
Why this history lesson?
This year, the General Assembly is considering a proposed amendment to the Virginia's Constitution permitting our governors to serve two
It's a bad idea.
Under a two-term rule, any new chief executive -- president or governor
-- has two basic options:
Focus on his agenda, working diligently to achieve his goals in a
single term; or focus on winning re-election, leaving his "legacy" of
achievement for the second term.
If presidential history is any guide, the latter option is doomed to
disappointment. But many politicians -- perhaps through hubris --
assume they can beat the odds.
As a fresh face, a new chief executive enjoys a special kind of
popularity - a "honeymoon" - which he will never enjoy again. No
makeover can bestow that freshness on a re-elected leader.
Moreover, electoral victory seems to infuse new chief executives with
a burst of vigor which few can sustain through eight long years in a
highly stressful office.
The bottom line is this: President or governor, if you want to
achieve a legacy, it's the first term that counts.
In contemplating the proposed amendment to our Constitution,
Virginians should carefully consider the lessons of history.
But for those who dismiss historical precedent, we're fortunate to
have a test case before us.
Having spent his first term campaigning to win a second, President Bush will devote the next few years to achieving a legacy in his
second term. If he defies the historical odds, Mr. Bush could refute
the historical argument herein presented.
If the president stumbles, his failures -- and the reasons for them -- will add new weight to the argument against granting Virginia's
governors a second, consecutive term.
Frederick T. (Rick) Gray Jr. is a native of Chesterfield County. A teacher, actor and political activist, he served as secretary of the commonwealth of Virginia from 1978-1981.
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