The Magazine

The Sixth Year Slump

Bush may be down, but don't count him out.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Few had the second term blues more than did Reagan and Truman, and in no two cases did the ultimate verdict of history differ more greatly from the assessments proclaimed at the time. In his own day, few people were wild about Harry, who had problems as soon as he took office, and whose election two years later came as a shock to everyone but himself. But his real problems began in August 1949, when the Soviet Union detonated an atomic bomb, and intensified three months later when the Chinese Nationalists, backed by the United States in their battle with the Communist rebels, decamped to Taiwan. There was nothing Truman could have done to prevent these developments, but he was blamed for them, and his poll numbers sank. The political climate turned toxic, and he was not helped the next year by bribery scandals, which he handled badly. But nothing would hurt him like the war in Korea, in which Truman felt obliged to repel North Korea's June 1950 invasion of the South, establishing the precedent that open Communist aggression would be met by armed force. The war began well but was then plagued by a series of blunders, and did not end until three years later, in a stalemate, at the cost of 37,000 American lives.

Then, "it was the GOP that dripped venom on a war commitment," writes the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger. "The Republican National Committee built its midterm campaign around 'blundering' in Korea. . . . A year later, some 66 percent of Americans wanted to withdraw from Korea, and the following year Truman's approval numbers fell to some of the lowest levels ever recorded by Gallup, staying below 30 percent and cratering to 22 percent in February 1952." Four years after Truman left office, Richard H. Rovere, the voice of the American establishment he so wittily satirized, would call the war "unjustified," for all its high purpose. "It is probable," he wrote of Truman and his advisers, that "they were not fully aware of the fact that they were leading the country into the most hated war in its history. . . . A large part of the case against the Korean war--seen from this perspective in time--was that it was so divisive and so productive of hatreds and bitterness that it might very well have been better never to have become involved."

A few decades later, Korea came to be seen as a critical turn in the Cold War, ending invasion as a weapon of Soviet strategy. And the failed haberdasher from Independence, Mo., was on his way to being bracketed with the faded film star from Eureka and Hollywood as the two presidents who did the most to win the Cold War.

In his second term, that film star also seemed the consummate fumbler, having started his presidency off in the time-honored fashion by shooting himself in both feet. He accepted the ill-advised job switch of Treasury Secretary Don Regan for the more gifted James Baker, his first term chief of staff, ending up with a chief of staff who was both crude and arrogant. A trip to honor the "boys of Pointe du Hoc" on the 40th anniversary of D-Day stood out as one of the high points of his first term; a second-term trip to a German war cemetery was a disaster, when it turned out that senior SS officers were buried there. His chief message guru was convicted of perjury. He took a bath in the 1986 midterms, losing the Senate to Demo crats. But nothing would harm him as much as the Iran-contra scandal, which reads now like an opera bouffe production, but was considered so serious when it broke just after the '86 elections that the word "impeachment" was uttered.

In their book Landslide, published in 1988, Jane Mayer, now of the New Yorker, and Doyle McManus, then and now of the Los Angeles Times, would devote 393 pages to the claim that Iran-contra had destroyed Reagan's career and his legacy, revealing him as the doddering fool and the cipher they had always known him to be. The curtain was down, they maintained, in a flurry of theatrical metaphors; the show was over, the makeup was off. "Reagan could still walk through the practiced motions of his office, but the performance would never be as convincing. It was as if the houselights had come on too early, the artifice laid bare." At the same time, his Latin American policy had unraveled: In Nicaragua, the contras' guerrilla army had begun to disintegrate, as the Sandinistas prepared for the inevitable victory. Reagan's summit in Moscow in the summer was portrayed as a failure, in which he surrendered his most cherished principles. He had lost everything, including his power to talk to the country. Clearly, the whole jig was up.