John Quincy Adams (image circa 1840), not a happy-looking man. Obama, don't be like him !!!
Links to this entire series:
(a) For part I (the first eight one-termers, John Adams to William Howard Taft), see below; (b) For part II (Herbert Hoover), click here; (c) For part III (Jimmy Carter), click here; (d) For part IV (George H.W. Bush), click here; and (e) For part V (lessons for Barack Obama in 2012), click here.
Of the 44 US presidents starting with George Washington, only eight have the sad distinction of being elected, serving four years, then being kicked out by voters. Two others failed to be re-nominated and one more wisely chose not to re-apply.
These eleven are a Pantheon of Losers, the disappointing one-termers, whose administrations should be a must-read object lesson for Barack Obama to study and avoid like small-pox if he hopes to win a second term in 2012.
Don't get me wrong. Some of these were fine people who did lots of swell, admirable things. Some rank high in presidential polls, praised for wonderful honesty and rock-solid integrity, though mostly just "E for effort" on achieving their high-minded goals. For these eleven, the voters spoke clearly. "You're fired."
The three most recent (Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush) hold the closest lessons for Barack Obama, and I'll talk about them in the next few days.
For now, here's my quick take on the first eight, the ones who served before 1913. Yes, America was different back then, so direct comparisons are unfair. Still, some lessons of politics speak through the ages. With that caveat, here goes:
(Sorry in advance for the cryptic tone. And of course, if you disagree with my bad-mouthing of any of these fine fellows, please comment. This is the Internet. Haggling over politics -- even very old politics -- is welcome.)
Pantheon of Losers (Part 1):
- John Adams (1797-1801):
Fine man, good lawyer, and revolutionary hero, but as president he gave us the Alien and Sedition Acts (closing newspapers, jailing dissenters, deporting immigrants), a foul temper, and a defensive demeanor. He avoided war with France but inflicted paranoia on the country. Described as irritable and nasty, he considered himself above politics. Thomas Jefferson beat him in 1800 in America's first negative campaign. Adams made fine material for a terrific David McCullough biography and a just-as-terrific HBO miniseries, but voters knew better and gave him the first-ever Presidential pink slip. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 17)
- John Quincy Adams (1825-1829):
Another fine man, eldest son of the first Adams (above). Before being president, he conceived the Monroe Doctrine. After being president, he became a pioneer abolitionist and hero of the 1841 Amistad anti-slavery case. But as president, good grief! He never escaped Andrew Jackson's labeling of his contested election (decided in the US House after Jackson won more popular and electoral votes) as a "corrupt bargain." Honest but frosty, Adams believed in "internal improvements," but his biggest legislative accomplishment was a tariff bill so draconian and slanted toward New England that Southerners called it the "tariff of Abominations," leading South Carolina to threaten nullification. Andrew Jackson beat him easily in 1828. Like his father, JQ Adams seemed to see himself as above politics. Very big mistake. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 19)
- Martin Van Buren (1837-1841):
Van Buren served as Andrew Jackson's vice president and followed him directly in office. But unfortunately, Jackson left the country's economy in shambles after his war against the United States Bank. The Panic of 1837 brought things crashing down. Van Buren took the fall. A master back-room politico (the "Little Magician'), he lacked a personal touch. Add a penchant for personal comforts and a shade-too-clever manner (he opposed admitting Texas as a slave state, but supported deporting Indians to the west), and voters had enough. (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 31)
- Franklin Pierce (1853-1857):
Handsome and heroic in the Mexican War, as president he gave us the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed slavery to expand into formerly-free territories based on votes of local white settlers. This led directly to two result. One was Blooding Kansas, with an estimated 200 people murdered in skirmishes and massacres by pro- and anti-slavery factions. (Click here for more on this.) The second was Abraham Lincoln, then a former-congressman practicing law in down-state Illinois, who was so outraged by the law that he decided to re-enter politics. Harry Truman put it this way. Noticing Pierce's swell-looking portrait hanging in the White House at one point, he said: "being president involves a little bit more than just winning a beauty contest... Pierce didn't know what was gong on, and if he did, he wouldn't of known what to do about it." (C-SPAN 2009 poll rank: 40)
- James Buchanan (1857-1861):
- Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881):
- Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893):
- William Howard Taft (1909-1913):
The lesson for Obama:
History, of course, never really repeats itself. Every situation is unique. Some of the presidents I've talked about here lost the seats to very talented and aggressive opponents (Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, for instance), or faced terribly difficult challenges (the 1860 secession crisis or the Panic of 1837). Still, it's hard not to notice a pattern among the losers. And here lies the lesson for Barack Obama in 2012.
The fact is, honesty, integrity, and high-minded ideals are very nice to have in a president, but the human touch in better. Politics is their profession, and they need to embrace it and be damned good at it. Call it distance, lack of people skills, coldness, shyness, over-intellectualism -- none of which are terribly bad character traits for most people in most lines of work -- but for presidents these come across as poison: arrogance, uncaring, or weakness. They create an impression that "he thinks he's better than us" or "he's in over his head" or "he has no common sense."
Add in a few policy failures, and voters won't stand for it. Just look at the record.
Politics is personal, and being effective in the face-to-face, person-to-person sense is essential to not just to wining and keeping office, but also accomplishing any policy agenda. Even more so on TV.
Next up -- Herbert Hoover. Stay tuned....