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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.

July 04, 2003|Ed Stockly | Times Staff Writer

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.

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