The pitfalls and pratfalls of second-term hubris

As the cognoscenti gather for the inaugural festivities President Bush has earned, let this space reflect on the dangers inherent in presidential second terms. They rarely work out well. More usually, they crash and burn on the rocks of arrogance and hubris.

As the cognoscenti gather for the inaugural festivities President Bush has earned, let this space reflect on the dangers inherent in presidential second terms. They rarely work out well. More usually, they crash and burn on the rocks of arrogance and hubris.

Presidents and their advisers are, by then, used to the ways of power and accustomed to its use. Ratified by reelection, they feel themselves bulletproof and invincible and are driven to take risks they would not have chanced in their more cautious and realistic first terms.

Check out the record.

Woodrow Wilson began his second term by breaking the promise that he would keep America out of war. Spurned, the American public rejected him in the congressional contests of 1918 and returned Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.

But the worldwide worship of Wilson as the messiah who had ended — and won — the war so distorted his judgment that he failed to take any congressional Republicans with him as he negotiated the Treaty of Versailles and its concomitant League of Nations. Stubbornly refusing to modify the treaty to suit Congress, he and the treaty went down to bitter defeat.

While Franklin Roosevelt had a hugely successful third term, his second was a model of hubris and conceit. After winning reelection in a landslide in 1936 — Republican Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas carried only two states, Maine and Vermont, and suffered the most crushing electoral defeat since 1820 — FDR decided to try to pack the Supreme Court by adding six new justices to the nine.

This bid to stop the court from rejecting his initiatives backfired massively and cost him his effectiveness in Congress. Far from learning his lesson, he tried to purge recalcitrant Democrats in the primaries leading up to the 1938 congressional elections and was soundly defeated.

Harry Truman, riding high after his surprise 1948 defeat of Tom Dewey, found himself so mired in the deadlocked Korean War that he could not use the constitutional option that explicitly allowed him to run again in 1952. Even when a peace in Korea along roughly the current demarcation line seemed possible, he rejected it and chose to continue the increasingly unpopular war instead. Hubris.

Dwight Eisenhower’s second term was ruined by his deteriorating health and two recessions, although it is hard to see how Ike could have avoided either. 
Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to heed the will of the American people and settle the Vietnam War was hubris at its worst. So massive was the electoral reaction in the 1968 primaries that LBJ was forced to withdraw in disgrace.

But it was Richard Nixon who set the all time record for second-term arrogance with his stonewalling in the face of the Watergate scandal. Convinced that he could make his critics go away by tossing one more aide to the wolves or revealing one more document, he resisted coming clean and found himself forced out of office.

Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council staff was so high-handed in funneling aid to the Nicaraguan Contras in violation of law and to Iran for hostage
release in violation of stated policy that it almost cost him his popularity. Convinced that they could get away with it, the NSC staff members kindled a scandal that destroyed Reagan’s second term.

And Bill Clinton’s Houdini-like escape from scandal and removal from office catalyzed a hubris and conceit that led him and Hillary to believe they could get away with anything, including lying under oath.

Brushing aside impeachment and the firestorm of criticism, Clinton pardoned fugitives and drug kingpins alike on his way out of office. Would the first-term Clinton have taken these risks? No way. But after reelection and escape from prosecution in Whitewater, Bill and Hillary felt they could do anything.

The common thread of hubris running through these second-term sagas is truly chilling. One hopes and prays that President Bush keeps his bearings and his head and realizes the limits of power before he pays for ignoring what these two-term presidents did.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.