Look­ing for a dif­fer­ent sort of pres­i­dent

Al­ways pick­ing from the Ivy League shelf makes for lead­er­ship monotony

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Vic­tor Davis Hanson

The sec­ond terms of the most re­cent three pres­i­dents have not been suc­cess­ful. Bill Clin­ton was im­peached af­ter his in­fa­mous lie to Amer­i­cans, “I did not have sex­ual re­la­tions with that woman.” Ge­orge W. Bush was blamed for the post­war vi­o­lence in Iraq. Barack Obama’s scan­dals — with his ac­com­pa­ny­ing “lim­ited hang­out” de­nials — are ru­in­ing his sec­ond term: the grow­ing In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice messes, the As­so­ci­ated Press mon­i­tor­ing, the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency em­bar­rass­ments, the Beng­hazi killings, the Syria blus­ter and back­ing down, and, of course, the Oba­macare fi­asco and the mis­lead­ing state­ments about it.

What are other com­mon de­nom­i­na­tors of this col­lec­tive ten­ure of our re­cent pres­i­dents?

Af­ter pop­u­lar first terms and re-elec­tion, they seemed to have lost pub­lic con­fi­dence and the abil­ity to con­tinue an agenda. Do two terms wear out a pres­i­dent? Maybe the hubris of get­ting re-elected con­vinces our com­man­ders in chief that they are mostly be­yond re­proach. Over­reach en­sues. Then the god­dess Neme­sis de­scends in de­struc­tive fash­ion to re­mind them that they are mere mor­tals.

In ad­di­tion, the more ta­lented Cab­i­net and staff ap­pointees of­ten bail out near the end of the first term. At best, they burn out from con­tin­u­ous 16-hour work­days. At worst, they flee to lever­age their for­merly high­pro­file jobs through re­volv­ing-door in­flu­ence-ped­dling, find­ing new work in the me­dia, lob­by­ing, con­sult­ing and Wall Street.

Bore­dom, both on the part of the pres­i­dent and the pub­lic, takes its toll. Bill Clin­ton was an ef­fec­tive speaker — at first. Near the end of his eight years, the pub­lic’s eyes rolled when he pre­dictably mis­led, ex­ag­ger­ated or be­came petu­lant.

Mr. Bush was witty and sin­cere in repar­tee and im­promptu speak­ing but of­ten stum­bled over the teleprompter. By the end of his eight years, his crit­ics were pub­lish­ing books of Bush mal­a­prop­isms.

It is hard now to be­lieve that Mr. Obama’s ba­nal “hope and change” ever set a na­tion on fire. Cer­tainly by 2013, we have come to snore when Mr. Obama for the umpteenth time laces his teleprompted rhetoric with “make no mis­take about it” or “let me be per­fectly clear.”

One-term pres­i­den­cies — or a con­sti­tu­tional change to a sin­gle six-year pres­i­den­tial term — make bet­ter sense. A sin­gle pres­i­den­tial ten­ure might cur­tail an in­cum­bent’s cus­tom­ary ex­ag­ger­a­tions about sup­posed past achieve­ments and the phony prom­ises about great things to come that are both ap­par­ently nec­es­sary for re-elec­tion. Much of waste­ful fed­eral spend­ing and gen­eral bad pol­icy de­rives from the re-elec­tion ef­forts of an in­cum­bent des­per­ate to ap­pease or buy off the elec­torate.

In con­trast, our cul­ture’s he­roes — in lit­er­a­ture, film and the mil­i­tary — get things done pre­cisely be­cause they do not care all that much what hap­pens to them as a re­sult of their courageous de­ci­sions. In that re­gard, Calvin Coolidge’s de­ci­sion to seek just one elected term is a far bet­ter model than Richard Nixon’s two.

Age may be also a fac­tor. We are a youth-ob­sessed Camelot cul­ture that puts far too much stock in good-look­ing can­di­dates who act hip, jog or seem ro­bust. Mr. Clin­ton was only 46 when he en­tered of­fice, Mr. Obama just 47, and Jimmy Carter 52.

In a time of in­creased longevity, per­haps we should re­con­sider the ad­van­tages that six decades of ex­pe­ri­ence might of­fer. Harry Tru­man (60), Dwight Eisen­hower (62), and Ron­ald Rea­gan (69) seemed far stead­ier pres­i­dents. Their skep­ti­cism and per­spec­tive may have re­sulted from long ca­reers of see­ing al­most ev­ery­thing — in ad­di­tion to reg­u­lar af­ter­noon naps.

The youth­ful 40-some­thing John F. Kennedy was im­pul­sive in the same fash­ion as the reck­less and sim­i­larly in­ex­pe­ri­enced Messrs. Carter, Clin­ton and Obama. The sec­ond time around, pres­i­dents in their mid-60s prob­a­bly would not be so ea­ger to paw comely in­terns or in naive fash­ion boast that they could “fun­da­men­tally trans­form” Amer­ica. Can we also take a breather from the Ivy League?

When Mr. Obama fin­ishes his term, we will have had 28 con­sec­u­tive years of pres­i­dents with ei­ther an un­der­grad­u­ate or grad­u­ate de­gree from Har­vard or Yale. We should have learned from chronic deficits, mas­sive debt and Oba­macare that the Ivy League’s best and bright­est are not al­ways ei­ther. Tru­man’s higher ed­u­ca­tion came from the school of hard knocks. Ike grad­u­ated from West Point and helped win World War II.

Rea­gan slogged it out for years in the cut­throat worlds of Hol­ly­wood and tele­vi­sion — af­ter grad­u­at­ing from tiny Eureka Col­lege.

Fi­nally, can our next pres­i­dent have done some­thing for a while other than non­stop pol­i­tick­ing? The press car­i­ca­tured Ike’s gar­bled speeches and Rea­gan’s B-movie re­runs. But at least they did not go un­in­ter­rupt­edly from one po­lit­i­cal of­fice to the next un­til be­ing elected pres­i­dent.

Youth­ful charisma, the Ivy League, ca­reer politi­cians and two pres­i­den­tial terms in the­ory may be fine, but next time around, can we take a needed break in 2016 from what have be­come our pres­i­dents-as-usual?

ILLUSTRATION BY HUNTER

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