Days of Ceremony, Celebrity and History: After Re-Election, Often Comes the Fall

By McConagha, Alan | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 20, 1997 | Go to article overview

Days of Ceremony, Celebrity and History: After Re-Election, Often Comes the Fall


McConagha, Alan, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


President Clinton's second inauguration will be the last of these historic events in the 20th century, a period that has given second terms a bad name.

Since the turn of the century, the second four years of American presidencies have had a way of turning sour. Some have been outright disasters. All seem troubled by an unexpected and disproportionate amount of bad news.

"The record of second terms is pretty dismal," said scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "For a variety of reasons they run out of steam. Lame duckery takes over in the seventh and eighth year. Scandals somehow seem more prevalent."

Analyst Kevin Phillips thinks something like a jinx adheres to second terms. "Not much doubt about it," he said. "You had it with Woodrow Wilson, you had it with FDR, and since then. ... Their coalition and their original raison d'tre start to run a little thin."

President McKinley certainly set the precedent for bum news in second terms in the 20th century. Elected in 1900 to four more years, he was dead by an assassin's bullet in 1901.

After McKinley, only six more 20th century presidents were re-elected to second terms: Mr. Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Wilson won his second term in 1916. Although he campaigned on the slogan "He kept us out of the war," five months later the United States entered World War I.

At the end of the war, Mr. Wilson's peace efforts were often viewed as futile or misdirected. His unsuccessful campaign to get the country into the League of Nations led to a physical collapse from which he never recovered. He finished his presidency as an invalid.

After his second inaugural in 1937, Mr. Roosevelt's effort to "pack" the Supreme Court divided the country and virtually ended his legislative effectiveness on the eve of World War II.

Beginning in 1957, Mr. Eisenhower's second term was troubled by charges that his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had received improper gifts. There were also a number of overseas setbacks such as the U-2 incident and triumph of Fidel Castro in Cuba.

David Mason, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for governmental affairs, recalls that the off-year election during Mr. Eisenhower's second term was "disastrous." This was largely attributable to a business recession but also suggested public disenchantment with the president.

Overwhelmingly re-elected in 1972, Mr. Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974. His involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal created a constitutional crisis that drove him from the Oval Office.

His successor, Gerald Ford, subsequently felt obliged to pardon Mr. Nixon for all federal crimes he may have committed as president, a move so unpopular it undermined Mr. Ford's own hopes of retaining the presidency.

Mr. Reagan's second term from 1985 to 1989 was marred by the Iran-Contra scandal, in which profits from the hostage-inspired sale of arms to Iran were unlawfully funneled to Contras, the anti-communist opponents of Nicaragua's Sandinista regime. …

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