After reading Cormac O’Brien’s book, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents – What your teachers never told you about the men of the White House (Quirk Books – 2009), I thought it might be interesting to examine some of the ‘one and done’ U.S. Presidents. We ended Part 1 with the death of #11 (James Knox Polk) and will pick up the thread with the man who helped turn the concept of Manifest Destiny into the biggest expansion of the United States since the Louisiana Purchase.
As was stated in Part 1 of One and Done, James Knox Polk fanned the flames of Manifest Destiny but it was General Zachary Taylor who did the leg work. During the war with Mexico, someone asked Taylor whether he would run for president to which he replied, “Such an idea never entered my head. Nor is it likely to enter the head of any same person.” He must have been a wild and crazy guy, because less than two years after saying this, he became president #12. What he excelled in was being a military tactician, yet his outward appearance and nickname (‘Old Rough and Ready’) showed his dislike of formal military attire. A simple man, his frugality almost cost him the presidential nomination. The Whig party had sent his nomination to him via unposted mail (a common practice in those days) and because he had instructed the postal service to not deliver any unstamped mail to him, it sat unattended until it was almost too late. Taylor’s term lasted from only 1849 to July of 1850 when he ignored warnings about consuming raw fruit or water if one didn’t know where it came from (there was a major outbreak of cholera plaguing Washington that summer). Ignoring the conventional medical wisdom of the day was costly and in the end, Taylor died on July 9, 1850, his system overcome by dehydration and diarrhea,
For only the second time in the Republic’s history, a Vice-President, Millard Fillmore, stepped into office as president #13 (serving from 1850 to 1853). Largely a self educated, self made man, he worked his way from public service in his native Buffalo, NY to the nation’s highest office. He was ill prepared to fill the spot and regularly enters the list ranking the presidents somewhere in the bottom ten. He managed to enrage just about everyone by endorsing Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 which would admit California as a free state while giving in to southern demands for more stringent fugitive slave laws. He found favor with Queen Victoria who proclaimed him the handsomest man she had ever met. Not bad for the president who had secured a valuable trade agreement with Peru for bird droppings that were used as a common fertilizer in those days.
Filmore remained a humble man to the point that he turned down an honorary degree from Oxford University because, “No man should, in my opinion, accept a degree he cannot read.”
The next name on our list of ‘one and done’ presidents is Franklin Pierce (#14, served 1853-1857). His chances for re-election were greatly dimmed when his own Democratic party changed their campaign slogan to “Anybody but Pierce.” The slavery issue was largely responsible for Pierce’s demise when he supported Senator Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska act. Douglas felt the newly organized federal territories had the right to decide the slavery issue on their own. The bloody conflict that threw the Missouri Compromise under the bus (the Compromise had set the demarcation line for owning slaves at latitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes) showed Pierce to be an impotent leader. When he threatened Spain (a hollow threat of hostility if they didn’t sell Cuba to the United States), he lost what little support he had left. Known as a “hero of many a well-fought bottle,” he took the pledge years before he became president. After being elected president, Pierce fell off the wagon big time when his life’s path became a rocky road. Pierce lost a son (who was crushed in a train accident), his marriage fell apart, and he was immersed in the party atmosphere that was Washington. All these factors contributed to him bailing on sobriety. Excess consumption finally took its toll and Pierce died in 1869.
The last in this long line of one and done presidents was James Buchanan (#15, served 1857-1861). While he would be the last in this string to try and deal with the elephant in the room (slavery), he was, according to O’Brien, “As unimaginative and ineffective as his predecessors, leaving a rough-hewn, flappy-eared comedian from Illinois named Abe Lincoln to carry a fractured nation through its bloodiest trial.” When he passed the reins to Lincoln, he told him, “My dear sir, if you are as happy entering the White House as I am leaving it, you are a very happy man indeed,” The greatest asset to his presidential electability was his absence (he was serving as the ambassador to Great Britain before being nominated). When the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no right to outlaw slavery (in the Dred Scott case), Buchanan thought that the matter was solved. As the country was torn apart by this mother of all hotpoint issues, he did nothing. To the day he died, Buchanan insisted that he had done nothing wrong. History corrects this statement to the more accurate ‘he did nothing’ while believing it would be unconstitutional to try and prevent states from seceding from the Union. Can one imagine the President of the United States saying it was not in his purview to provide guidance to the states as the country crumbled around him?
We are all aware that Andrew Johnson became president when Lincoln was assassinated. It was a tough time for him to become #17 (served 1865-1869). As a Southern congressman from Tennessee opposed to secession on the eve of the Civil War, he had been in tough positions before. During the height of the succession crisis, he was dragged off his Tennessee bound train and beat by a crowd in Virginia. Apparently, they refrained from hanging him only because they felt it should be left to his constituents in Tennessee to finish the job. Johnson took to keeping a pistol under the lectern during speeches supporting Unionism. In the wake of the South’s defeat, some felt he would be sympathetic in guiding the country toward reconstruction. Johnson lost any hope of re-election when he claimed God had deliberately struck down Lincoln so he would be president. When the Senate came up one vote shy of impeaching Johnson (for firing a cabinet member that Congress said could not be fired), no one wanted to see Johnson re-elected.
Johnson was replaced with the first two term president in many years, Ulysses S. Grant. From 1877 to the present, there would be another ten one and done presidents. To keep this from running into a ‘part 3’, we will stick to the low-lights, beginning with Rutherford B. Hayes (#19, served 1877-1881). Wide spread corruption during the election led Hayes to lose the popular vote and be appointed to office by congress. His devout religious beliefs and an outright ban on alcohol in the White House did him no favours. This pious president received death threats aplenty. In light of the traumatic election drama, he promised to serve only one term. His parting shot? “I am heartily tired of this life of bondage, responsibility, and toil.”
Hayes’ good friend James Garfield (#20, served four months in 1881) was struck down by a disgruntled lunatic who was seeking an appointment as the consul general to Paris. He lingered on his deathbed eighty days as he was poked and prodded with unsanitary medical equipment. There is disagreement whether it was his wound or the treatment of it that did him in.
The man who shot Garfield wrote a letter to Chester Arthur (#21, served 1881-1885) proclaiming his act had, “Raised you from a political cypher to President of the United States.” A natty dresser and the first president to employ a valet, Arthur was dumped by his own party going into the next presidential convention. As one party official stated, “President Arthur never did today what he could put off until tomorrow.”
Benjamin Harrison (#23, served 1889-1893) is the only one and done president to serve a term that separated a two term president. His predecessor, Grover Cleveland, is the only two term executive to serve non-consecutive terms. Harrison, described by O’Brien as being, “about as exciting as lunch meat,” was so cold that he was referred to as the White House Iceberg and even cut his own children from his will. His isolationist tendencies can be distilled from the following quote: “We Americans have no commission from God to police the world.” The wars of the next century may have ended much differently had these isolationist views been carried forward.
William Howard Taft (#27, served 1909-1913) was elected after the energetic and lively term of Teddy Roosevelt. As the largest (as in 325 pounds) president in history, he was prone to getting stuck in the bathtub (until he had one installed that could seat four normal size men). His old friend Teddy was so infuriated at Taft walking back many of the policies that he had pushed during his two terms, Roosevelt formed the Bullmoose Party and entered the race. The three way split saw Taft receive the lowest percentage of votes for an incumbent (23) and handed the election to Woodrow Wilson.
When Warren Harding (#29, served 1921-1923) died in San Francisco from a heart attack, it did not exactly rob the United States of an notable statesman. As Harding himself said, “I am a man of limited talents from a small town; I don’t seem to grasp that I am president.” He died after two uneventful years as the chief executive and one can only speculate if his obsession with Poker would dent his reputation (he is said to have wagered and lost an expensive set of White House silverware in one game).
Herbert Hoover (#31, served 1929 – 1933) proclaimed in his nomination acceptance speech that, “The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.” Seven months later, the United States slipped into The Great Depression and pretty much sealed his fate in terms of a second nomination. Keeping up an aristocratic air at the White House (requiring formal attire for lunch and dinner) did not help his chances. As unemployment reached 25 percent, shantytowns (called ‘Hoovervilles’) to house the unemployed began to spring up around the country. Like Nero, Hoover fiddled while the country crashed and burned around him.
The modern era has provided a mixed bag of interrupted presidencies. John F. Kennedy (#35, served 191-1963) was cut down by an assassin. Gerald Ford (#38, served 1974-1977) had the misfortune of following Richard Nixon’s whole Watergate debacle. The only true one and done president elected in the later half of the Twentieth Century was Jimmy Carter (#40, served 1977 – 1981). Jimmy Carter was a devout Christian, non-Washingtonian outsider who entered the White House amid snickers about the ‘peanut farmer-governor from Plains, Georgia’. As a Washington ‘outsider’ surrounded by advisors with his same background, Carter never did advance his political learning curve to the national level. A struggling economy and a botched effort to rescue American hostages from Iran doomed his re-election chances. He did manage to get Israel and Egypt together and brokered the Camp David Accords that finally brought some semblance of peace to the Middle East.
Carter also championed research geared toward using more green energy sources, but these programs were dismantled soon after Ronald Regan took office. In this case, the ‘wisdom’ of walking back a previous administration’s ‘green policies’ set back the development of electric vehicles for decades. After leaving office, Carter continued his life of public service as a roving diplomat asked to mediate various world conflicts. Carter turned his presidential library into a think tank to promote worldwide peace. As of this writing, he is now considered a beloved national figure and the oldest living former president. Even his recent medical problems have not kept him from teaching Sunday school.
Politics do make strange bedfellows. There are those who would advocate that presidents should only serve one term. Our nation has survived presidents who were incompetent, lackadasical, ambitious, and in power at the largess of other political forces. When they look back at the first twenty years of this millenium, it will be interesting to see how future historians classify these times. Only time will tell whether the current election cycle will produce another one and done president or a second term. The COVID-19 crisis is already reshaping the political landscape for the next presidential election. The country grapples with restrictions necessary to stem the spread of the virus while trying to minimize the next wave of the pandemic. Unlike the unfortunate primary debacle in Wisconsin, it will become more difficult to ignore the wisdom of instituting more ‘vote by mail’ systems for the safety of poll workers and voters. Vote by mail programs have already been successfully deployed in multiple states. Those who oppose voting by mail claim it will cause widespread voter fraud, but a detailed analysis of past elections employing the process shows this to be untrue. It is another issue that will rise and fall in the next election cycle, but surely the ongoing pandemic makes it a logical next step in election reform. Toss in the protests about systemic racial injustice that have spread across the country in recent weeks, and it is shaping up to be a long three months until the first Tuesday of November. For me, the best summation comes from the Grateful Dead lyric: What a long, strange trip it has been.
Top Piece Video – Quote the Dead, play the Dead!