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Monday, July 22, 2024

Can Dubya Handle the Second-Term Blues?

George W. Bush's second White House term will get bumpier than his first, if history is any guide.

George W. Bush’s second White House term will get bumpier than his first, if history is any guide.

Call it the second-term blues.

In the last half century, every U.S. president who won a second term had a reputation-tarnishing scandal to go with it. Earlier U.S. history is replete with second-termers who faced problems ranging from political discord to insurgency to disabling illness to death.

Bush’s immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, almost lost his job for lying about an improper relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The scandal, emerging in his fifth year in the White House, gripped Washington for more than a year, leading to Clinton’s impeachment. While the U.S. Senate declined to remove him from office, his presidency was indelibly tarred.

Ronald Reagan, whose two terms stretched across the 1980s and included two overwhelming victories, faced his gravest presidential crisis when he had been in office nearly six years, when the Iran-contra scandal came to light.

The disclosure in November 1986 that the United States had sold arms to Iran — then a sworn U.S. enemy — and diverted proceeds to the Nicaraguan contra rebels despite a congressional ban shook the Reagan White House.

The scandal raised questions about Reagan’s involvement, and congressional hearings portrayed the president known as the “great communicator” as out of touch.

The official congressional investigation report rebuked Reagan: “The ultimate responsibility for the events in the Iran-contra affair must rest with the president. If he did not know what his (adviser) was doing, he should have.”


Richard Nixon’s second-term woes started even before his re-election, with a “third-rate burglary attempt” at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, a tony apartment complex in Washington.

The “burglars” were found to have ties to Nixon’s political campaign, and the term Watergate became synonymous with Nixon’s attempt to cover up “dirty tricks” by campaign operatives. Voters favored him that year by a landslide, but he was forced to resign on Aug. 9, 1974.

Even without scandal, second terms can be tough, according to Stephen Hess, who has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations and is now based at the Brookings Institution.

“A second term is like an hourglass with the sand running out,” Hess said. By a president’s second term, most simple goals have been achieved and the difficult ones remain, he said.

Dwight Eisenhower’s White House years, from 1953-1961, were seen as placid and prosperous, but his second term was marked by an escalating Cold War with the Soviet Union that included the Soviet launch of its Sputnik satellite in 1957 and the Soviet downing of a U.S. reconnaissance plane in 1960.

And he had a scandal of his own when his trusted chief of staff Sherman Adams was accused of taking gifts including a vicuna coat from a businessman with tax problems and had to resign.

Woodrow Wilson, like Bush a wartime president, used the mandate of his re-election in 1916 to push for a peace treaty for the First World War, and to set up a League of Nations. The treaty was voted down twice in the Senate, and while promoting it, Wilson exhausted himself. He suffered a stroke in 1919 and spent the last 17 months of his presidency as an invalid.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated about five weeks after being sworn in as president for the second time, having called on his listeners to “bind up the nation’s wounds” from the Civil War.

Even George Washington faced challenges in his second term. His administration was divided between rival factions headed by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and an unpopular tax on whiskey sparked a revolt in Pennsylvania. Washington sent militias from other states to Pennsylvania to keep order.