Now in the sixth year of his crisis-wracked presidency, George W. Bush is perceived as being in desperate trouble, having spent the two years since his reelection falling all over his feet. His democracy project looks stalled, his drive to reform Social Security seems to have been a huge waste of effort, his response to Katrina was more like sleep-walking, his pick of his White House counsel to fill a Supreme Court vacancy caused cardiac arrest in his base. Opinions differ as to whether he is a dead duck, or merely a lame one. Democrats claim he is going the way of one-term fiascos Carter and Hoover, who not only failed in themselves, but also ushered in long years of dominance by the opposite party. History, however, suggests something different: that sixth-year pain is nothing but normal, and has been shared in some way by all two-term presidents; that the judgments made of presidents in their sixth years of office (and in their seventh and eighth years, for that matter) have not always stood up over time.
Since 1933, eight different men have served more than one term in office, and all had some measure of grief. Franklin Roosevelt had not been sworn in after his historic 46-state blowout reelection in 1936 when he began plotting his court-packing project, a power-grab so blatant and so poorly crafted that it horrified even his friends. It was with his judgment newly in question that autumn that the country began to slip back into recession, something his nostrums did little to mollify. Unemployment, which had dropped from 25 percent to 9 percent in his first term, did a U-turn and climbed back to 19 percent, suggesting that he had been less than adept at dealing with the Depression. As a result, his party lost seven seats in the Senate in the 1938 midterm elections and 72 seats in the House. Widely believed to have run out of options, and increasingly frustrated at his inability to rouse the country to face the threat he saw rising from foreign aggression, his fortunes (and the country's) would not recover until the war itself began to emerge as an issue, calling both to rise to new heights.
Dwight Eisenhower, who would help win that war for FDR, would face similar woes as a second-term president. In October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, a shock to a country accustomed to seeing itself as the unchallenged leader in science, and one that gave credence to the charges later made by John F. Kennedy that Ike's administration had grown too complacent. At the same time, the country was hit by the worst recession since the end of the Second World War. In November, the president suffered a stroke. In May 1958, his vice president was almost killed by a mob while on a goodwill mission to Latin America. That June, his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, was revealed to be involved in a bribery scandal. That November, his party would suffer calamitous losses, ending up on the short end of almost two-to-one margins in the statehouses, the Senate, and the House. On May 1, 1960, just prior to a great power summit, an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, and after the administration had denied the existence of both the plane and the mission, Russians displayed the captured pilot on television, and the wreckage of the plane in Gorky Park.
But FDR and Ike were the lucky ones. Lyndon Johnson, a great Senate leader, widely acclaimed in 1965 for his performance in filling out the truncated term of John Kennedy, was so widely reviled by 1968 that he was forced into early retirement. Richard M. Nixon would bug his own office, and then tape himself plotting a cover-up. Bill Clinton, aware of his own lively past, would be so eager to placate his feminist allies that he would let his Justice Department push for ever-broadening definitions of sexual harassment, then the left's weapon of choice for the destruction of enemies. When caught in the trap he had carelessly fashioned, he chose to lie under oath. Clinton survived, but his gravitas quotient would never recover. In 2000, he would be a drag on his vice president, and since then his political interventions have been a mixed blessing for his party.
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.
Mayer and McManus were hardly alone. In a collection of essays called The Reagan Legacy, also published in 1988, David Ignatius of the Washington Post would call Reagan a failure, a sheep in wolf's clothing, a Rambo afraid of the dark. "During the Reagan years, America often displayed a reality of weakness," he argued. "The rhetorical assertion that 'America is back' was accompanied in practice by an actual foreign policy that was often vacillating, ill-planned, and poorly executed. . . . The military build-up of Reagan's first term was immensely costly, poorly managed, and added only marginally to America's military readiness." His speeches were unduly bellicose; his diplomacy, when he used it at all, was lacking in nuance, and made Carter look masterful. "Foreign policy during the Reagan years was largely a holding action. . . . Because he concentrated so much on image . . . Reagan leaves behind an array of unresolved substantive problems." Ground was lost most in the Cold War, vis-à-vis a revitalized Soviet Union, in which a dynamic Mikhail Gorbachev was poised to run rings around the "stodgy" American leadership. The biggest chore facing Reagan's successor would be to "find a stable relationship with the new Soviet leadership," no easy chore in view of the harm done by Reagan's malfeasance and the "skillful and potentially dangerous" nature of the resourceful and wily foe.
With this sorry record, it was really no wonder Reagan was also politically spent. "As a commanding political force, Ronald Reagan was unmade," said McManus and Mayer. "When GOP voters were asked if they would vote for Reagan again, only 40 percent said yes." Polls taken that spring showed that most voters wanted the next president to "set the nation on a new direction"--a "blunt rejection" of Reagan's agenda, and surely of Reagan himself. Yet in November 1988, Reagan's vice president beat Democrat Michael Dukakis by a seven-point margin. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, taking with it the Communist empire. In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, and the formidable Gorbachev was a frightened man in captivity. Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas lost in a free election to a center-right party, and El Salvador stabilized. When Reagan died in 2004, he would be eulogized as the liberator of Eastern Europe and Central America, and one of the most important leaders this country has seen.
There are myriad reasons second-term leaders tend to have oversized woes. There is the hubris that comes with reelection, the brain drain and fatigue that develop through long years in power, the scandals that come up as the in-party gives way to greed and temptation, the familiarity that breeds irritation, which now and then turns to contempt. The president's personal traits might have lost their appeal, and now seem annoying. His accent grates on those who don't share it. His rhetorical tricks have been used just a little too often. His ideas, which seemed promising, have not brought nirvana, and their downside is visible. The laws of unintended consequences have begun to kick in.
With all this, there also are reasons those who judge presidencies too early may falter: They don't know the whole story; they don't know the backstory; and they don't have the perspective that only time brings. If a week is a lifetime in politics, then six months or two years are an age. In mid-1988, no one could know that Reagan's last term would end on an upswing, one that would open the way for all that came after. In 1939, no one could know that Roosevelt, who seemed a spent force on his domestic agenda, would be ranked when he died, with Lincoln and Washington, as one of the great presidents of all time.
The backstory refers to the evidence that emerges years later, sometimes to surprising effect. The opinion held by some that Eisenhower and Reagan were dim bulbs used by others did not survive the release of their own private papers, which showed them as neither as warm nor as dim as their detractors assumed. Described as an "amiable dunce" by Clark Clifford (who was lucky to end his life in disgrace and not in prison), Reagan emerged as a distant man and a disciplined intellect, who over decades had refined the ideas that led him to revive the economy, put the skids under the Soviet Union, and transform the domestic political landscape in ways no one before him had dreamed.
Ike would also emerge as a leader who hid a cool and shrewd nature behind a bland affect and affable smile. "The Eisenhower of the declassified record was president," says Fred Greenstein, who has written of him as a "hidden hand" leader. "He was a keen political operator who engaged in the kinds of persuasion and bargaining many believed he left to subordinates," outsourcing controversy to aides (such as Vice President Nixon), keeping his image unsullied, and his poll numbers up. In 1958--in 1988--no one knew that Eisenhower and Reagan would emerge in their own words as shrewd and articulate. And no one could dream that Truman and Reagan, considered as being in over their heads by the glitterati of their respective eras, would be recognized years after it ended as the two men who won the Cold War.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, later on, with the end of the Soviet Union, the presidencies of Truman and Reagan would fall into place at the two ends of a policy arc stretching over four decades, reaching from the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine in a speech of March l2, 1947, to Reagan's last meeting with Gorbachev, imposing order on events that had seemed random actions, connecting events that had seemed unrelated, or even had seemed to lack sense. As these presidential reputations rose, they pulled up behind them the lifetime achievements of Eisenhower and Kennedy, who, in the years before they were president, had been early, stalwart, and farsighted backers of Truman's containment policy and of the Marshall Plan. Reagan's and Kennedy's speeches were seen as intemperate, until they became inspirational. Before the Wall fell, Truman and Kennedy were seen in some quarters as prophets of overreach, goading the country into imperial folly in Asia and elsewhere. After it fell, they were seen as farsighted; the losses in Asia as road bumps in an overall grander design.
To report in the day is to walk in the woods, and to see each tree clearly, but to have little sense of the shape of the forest. To write in retrospect from the long view of history is to look at the woods from above, where the trees and their leaves all lose definition, but the lay of the land becomes evident. With George W. Bush, we are still very much in the forest, hacking our way through the day-to-day undergrowth. Final words at this point are not wise.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of the forthcoming Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families (Wiley).