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Los Angeles Times

War's Curse On The White House; No Wartime President Has Served Another Full Term

A Tale Of Battered Health, Hurt Reputations And Lost Elections

By Ed Stockly

July 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

Call it the curse of the wartime president. Not a single American president who has led the country into a major war has gone on to serve another full term in the White House. Not James Madison after the War of 1812. Not Woodrow Wilson after World War I. Not Lyndon Johnson after Vietnam. And not George H.W. Bush, who won a popular war but was unable to win over everyday Americans a second time. Will the current President Bush, who is expected to raise record amounts of money in his re-election bid, be able to buck this long and curious trend in American history?

Every president who has led this country into full-scale war has paid a heavy price politically and personally. Most chose not to run for reelection and, upon leaving office, saw their vision for America rejected by the voters, their party defeated and their rivals elected. Some left office with shattered reputations, fading into a marginalized obscurity and irrelevance. And the few who survived grueling reelection campaigns were swiftly cut down by illness or assassination.

"Sometimes the people who lead you in war are not necessarily the people the public wants to lead in peace," said Jerald Podair, an assistant professor of American history at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. "Winston Churchill, who bravely and courageously led the British through World War II, was bounced out of office right at the end of the war."

Founding Father James Madison, the fourth president, saw his presidency falter after he reluctantly asked Congress to declare war on England in 1812, a conflict often called the second war of independence in large part because England kept drafting Americans into its navy. "This was not a war that helped Madison or his presidency," said Podair. "Madison didn't want the war, it was a very unpopular war."

And it didn't go well. Madison was forced to flee the White House to escape a British invasion, said Podair, which diminished his stature and reputation in the eyes of the public.

Following the two-term tradition established by George Washington, Madison chose not to run for a third term and left office in 1817. Unlike the wartime presidents who followed, Madison was succeeded in the White House by a political ally (James Monroe) and lived to see old age, dying at 85.

The other five presidents who survived their final term of office after committing the United States to war saw their plans for the nation rejected by voters, and three of them died within a few years of leaving the White House.

After winning the Mexican War in 1848, James K. Polk, a Southern Democrat, saw the White House handed over to the Whig party, which promptly quashed his plans for expanding the slave states westward. Wilson's hopes for an American role in the League of Nations were defeated and he was replaced by a Republican. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were both followed by Republicans after the Korea and Vietnam conflicts, and both saw their liberal domestic agendas derailed. Even George H.W. Bush's call for a New World Order of cooperation between nations seems to have crumbled, with his son waging war without U.N. support.

The story of Polk, the 11th president, is typical. A one-term president who won the post with less than 50% of the popular vote, he came into the White House with a clear agenda: wage war with Mexico to gain territory in the West where slavery could be expanded, giving slave states more political clout.

While the United States fared well in that conflict (in defeat, Mexico abandoned all claim to a large portion of the American West, including California, New Mexico and Texas), President Polk paid a high price for his success. He was succeeded in the White House by the Whig party's Zachary Taylor, with whom Polk had a mutual dislike and mistrust. Three months after Taylor assumed the presidency, Polk fell ill and died. He was 53 years old.

"Polk was worn down personally by his conduct of the war," said Podair. "He tried to do everything himself, and he basically worked himself to death managing the Mexican War."

Polk's fight to expand slavery set the stage for Abraham Lincoln's presidency, which was defined by the Civil War. It was in the midst of that war that he won reelection against George McClellan, a Union general that Lincoln had fired. Lincoln was assassinated a few months later.

In fact, of Lincoln, William McKinley and Franklin Roosevelt -- the only presidents to win reelection after leading the country into wars -- none survived more than a few months into their final term. Lincoln and McKinley were assassinated. Roosevelt won his fourth presidential election in 1944 and died of a brain hemorrhage a few months later at age 63.

McKinley, the 25th president, led the country in the Spanish American War at the end of the 19th century, which resulted in a decisive military victory that liberated Cuba from Spain, won Puerto Rico and the Philippines as U.S. territories and established the United States as a world power.

In 1900, he won reelection over Democrat William Jennings Bryan but was assassinated by an anarchist six months into his second term.

Early on, Wilson, the 28th president, worked hard to keep America from joining World War I, says Tom Knock, professor of American history at Southern Methodist University. "He won reelection with the slogan: 'He kept us out of war.' "

As the war raged in Europe, Wilson had been pulling together ideas for the League of Nations, a new international peacekeeping organization that would serve to resolve disputes without resorting to warfare.

"Wilson believed that great powers could no longer afford to go to war against one another in this way," said Knock, author of the biography "To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order."

Wilson embraced the concept of the League of Nations so hardily that he saw it as a justification for America to join the conflict and make it the "war to end all wars."

After the war, Wilson fell ill and days later suffered a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Unable to run for another term, Wilson saw his vision of America's role in the international community rejected by a nation headed toward a period of isolationism. In 1924, less than three years after leaving the White House, Wilson passed away at 67.

Likewise, the Second World War took its toll on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president. The outcome of World War II was not in doubt when Roosevelt died in April 1945, but he didn't live to see if the atomic bomb he'd ordered would help bring the war in the Pacific to an early end.

Truman picked up the mantle for Roosevelt, first winning the war, then enjoying a remarkable victory over Republican Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election. In 1950, Communist North Korea invaded South Korea and, under the auspices of the United Nations, Truman committed the American military to war.

"Truman knew this wasn't going to be a popular war because the best we could hope for was to repel the North Korean invasion," said Podair. "With the Korean War settling into a stalemate, which the American people weren't used to ... I don't think he could have beaten Eisenhower, and I think he realized that himself."

When Truman didn't seek the Democratic nomination in 1952, he joined the ranks of Madison, Polk and Wilson, wartime leaders who chose not to run for reelection. Truman left office with the nation still at war.

Likewise, Johnson bowed out of the 1968 presidential race pledging to focus his efforts on ending the war in Vietnam rather than face the distraction of a presidential campaign.

"He came into office with a very strong domestic agenda," Podair said. "He wanted to complete the work of the New Deal, but he destroyed his presidency over a foreign policy issue in a country he probably had barely heard of before his presidency." Johnson died two years before the war's end at age 64.

Johnson, Wilson and Truman all saw their cherished political agendas derailed by war.

"Involvement in their wars brought an end to impressive reform movements," said Knock. "The First World War brought the progressive movement to a halt; World War II certainly ended, at least the liberal phase, of the New Deal; Korea ruined Harry Truman's hopes for the Fair Deal and, of course, Vietnam was the ruin of Johnson's Great Society."

In 1992 George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, became the only American president to ever lead the country into a major war, then lose reelection.

Still, the elder Bush should consider himself fortunate. War is not healthy for American presidents. Bush is one of only three (along with Truman and Madison) who led the country into a major war and then lived more than four years after leaving office. At age 79, the senior Bush has lived 13 years beyond the average lifespan of wartime presidents.

What does this mean for the current president and his political agenda?

"I would be very wary to make too many decisive insights into the Bush administration because we're still in the middle of it," said Knock. "Bush is succeeding on his own terms. From a political standpoint the war has helped him dramatically."

While it's certainly possible that Bush can follow his military success with a political triumph, history is not on his side.

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