For whatever reason, April 2014 has swiftly become Living Ex-Presidents Awareness Month. Whether by chance or design, the former occupants of the Oval Office are eating up newsprint everywhere you look.
You’ve got Jimmy Carter popping up on talk shows from coast to coast, promoting his new book, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.
There was the gathering in College Station, Texas, over the weekend to observe the 25th anniversary of George H.W. Bush coming to power, and to honor the legacy of Bush’s administration, on which there are several books in the works.
Over in nearby Dallas, there was a gallery opening at the George W. Bush Library, featuring oil portraits of foreign leaders by our most recent former commander-in-chief.
And Bill Clinton? Well, since when has he ever taken a day off?
For my money, the most interesting of our living ex-presidents’ exploits at this moment concern Carter and the elder Bush—two men who, for all their political differences, share the dubious distinction of having lost their bids for re-election. Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 amidst the Iran hostage crisis and a lousy economy. Bush lost to Clinton in 1992 in a three-way contest that also featured H. Ross Perot, in a campaign centered, again, on a lousy economy.
As duly noted by most people, to be a one-term president is axiomatically to be a failure. Whatever one might have accomplished in four years as America’s chief executive, if one fails to be re-elected—for whatever reason—then nothing else really matters. Sure, forging a lasting peace in the Middle East is all well and good, but if you can’t then secure 51 percent of the vote here at home, what have you really brought to the table?
Accordingly, most of these electoral rejects spend a great deal of their post-presidential years in a kind of defensive crouch, having to underline their successes against a chorus that seems only interested in reciting their faults.
Of the ten highest-ranked presidents in U.S. history—based on the average of 17 scholarly polls dating back to 1948—the first nine were elected to a second term. Today, let us attempt to draw some wisdom from the tenth, James K. Polk.
The nation’s 11th president, serving between 1845 and 1849, Polk is periodically cited as among America’s most underrated chief executives. Probably his biggest “legacy” concerns his gift as a land-grabber: In the quest for expanding the official borders of the United States, Polk essentially picked up where Thomas Jefferson left off. Following the annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico, and the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain, the United States under Polk secured more than one million square miles of new territory—an expansion greater even than the Louisiana Purchase.
You may well ask: With such a titanic accomplishment to his name, why did Polk not get elected to a second term?
Answer: Because he didn’t run for a second term. In fact, he never intended to. At the highly-contested Democratic convention of 1844, Polk made it abundantly clear that, if nominated and if elected, he would be a one-term president. Period, full stop.
Whatever the political calculus was at the time, Polk made good on this campaign promise. According to legend, he outlined four specific policy goals upon taking office and accomplished all of them within his four-year tenure. As such, he could then depart the White House in March of 1849 with his head held high, his mission having been accomplished. Polk retired to private life, died three months later, and that was that.
I wonder: If Jimmy Carter and/or George H.W. Bush had announced at the outset that they would not seek a second term, and if their presidencies had otherwise shaped out exactly as they did, would we view their tenures differently than we now do? Do we not lay far too much emphasis on winning re-election as an indication of presidential fortitude, compared to what one actually accomplishes while one is in office?
In the future, might the country be better served if more candidates took Polk’s lead by pledging a single term with a short, but clear, list of goals? Such an approach would surely take most of the guesswork out of assessing whether a particular leader is a success, and it would lower the impossibly high expectations branded upon even our most modest commanders-in-chief.
Most important of all, self-imposed term limits would concentrate the mind and workload of the president in question, freeing him to tackle a specific, narrow and realistic agenda, rather than attempting—inevitably in vain—to solve all problems at all times.
It sure seems like an experiment that would be worth trying. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before.