Presidents and the second-term curse
Have your students track newspaper reports of the political scandals in the news including Libby's, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Ask them to explain the issues involved in each case and what the politicians are accused of doing. Lead a classroom discussion about abuse of power and examine factors that lead to corruption.
Ask the students to check their newspapers for local political controversies and partisan attacks and have them write a report about how such behavior affects public confidence in government. Do they trust their local, state and federal governments. (A recent poll of 50,000 people in 67 countries found that only 13 percent trusted their governments.) If the students trust their government, ask them to explain why. And if not, why not?
Ask them to invite a local politician they've read about in their newspapers to the classroom. Have them interview the politician and write a report about the challenges of public service, how raising campaign money can lead to legal difficulties and why political life is a worthy endeavor.
"Second terms are not kind to presidents," Richard Nixon told Meet the Press many years after he resigned in disgrace over Watergate, the only president to quit office. The tape was replayed Sunday on the latest edition of Meet the Press, which focused on the indictment of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, adviser to President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. It was the first indictment of a major White House figure in more than 100 years.
Nixon's observation about second-term curses easily could have been seconded by Bill Clinton, the second president to be impeached but who, as in the case of President Andrew Johnson, escaped conviction.
In fact, the historical trend of second-term curses has plagued presidents for nearly 70 years, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt's 1937 scheme to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices who would uphold his New Deal programs. Congress slapped down the powerful FDR in his most humiliating defeat.
While things look bleak for Bush now, he still has three years left in his second term to recover. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Clinton did. So did FDR and Eisenhower. They all suffered through bad weeks, and Bush has just had a terrible one.
It was the week that the U.S. death toll in Iraq hit and topped 2,000, the week his Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination in the face of fierce right wing Republican opposition, the week when a public fuming over high gasoline prices learned that oil companies made record profits, when yet another hurricane reminded people once again of the Katrina response fiasco -- and finally the Libby indictment and resignation.
On Sunday, a new poll showed Bush's approval rating at just 39 percent. And an array of Republicans appeared on Sunday news shows advised Bush to clean house and make dramatic new initiatives to regain the people's confidence. (A few weeks ago, half of Americans polled by Associated Press-Ipsos said they doubt his honesty.)
Eisenhower's troubles The popular Dwight Eisenhower grinned his way through a successful first term and was happily embarked on a second term when in 1958 the man many people considered Ike's brain, chief adviser Sherman Adams, left his post after accepting a fur coat and oriental rug from a man doing business with the administration. Conventional wisdom was that Eisenhower could not function without Adams, but it gradually became clear that Eisenhower, not Sherman, was Eisenhower's brain. Still, his troubles weren't over. In May 1960, spy pilot Gary Francis Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union and captured. The embarrassment to the administration and the nation was enormous and was among the reasons Eisenhower's vice president, Richard Nixon, lost to John F. Kennedy six months later.
Lyndon Johnson's troubles Lyndon Baines Johnson, who completed Kennedy's term in office, was elected to the presidency in 1964. Three years later, his longtime aide, Bobby Baker, was convicted on seven charges of theft, fraud and income tax evasion. Baker's mob connections and an investigation of his activities by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had forced Baker to leave his post as LBJ's secretary a month before JFK was assassinated in Dallas. Estes was ultimately sentenced to15 years in prison. Estes later struck back by writing a book in which he accused LBJ of involvement in several murders, including JFK's. While these scandals, plus whispers of his womanizing in the Oval Office, dogged Johnson, what really drove him out of office was, of course, the hideously divisive Vietnam War. Defeated in spirit, he chose not to run for re-election and went home to Texas to die.
Nixon's 2nd term downfall While the notorious Watergate burglary occurred during President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign, the scandal overwhelmed his presidency during his second term. Facing impeachment on several charges, Nixon became the first American president to quit office in disgrace. Nothing could save him, not dumping the corrupt Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, not dismissing his two top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman, and not even the amazing contortions of his secretary Rose Mary Woods, who swore that she accidentally erased 18 crucial minutes of Oval Office tapes. Soon after Nixon resigned, President Gerald Ford pardoned him, an act generally regarded as the reason he lost to Jimmy Carter, who campaigned on the promise that he never would lie to the American people. Nixon lived for many years after leaving office and to some degree rehabilitated himself, dying as a senior statesman who advised both Republican and Democratic presidents.
Reagan & Iran Contra The Iran-Contra Affair entangled the administration in a second-term scandal that eventually led Ronald Reagan to make a televised speech in which he said he regretted actions taken by his National Security Council staff. The episode began when the United States diverted proceeds from the sale of arms to Iran to anti-communist Nicaraguan Contras, who were fighting the socialist Sandinista government. At the time, Americans were being held hostage by Islamic terrorists in Lebanon and the administration hoped that if it sold weapons to Iran that Iran would influence the terrorists to release the hostages. Congress issued its final report in 1987, concluding that the President bore "ultimate responsibility" for wrongdoing by his aides and that his administration exhibited "secrecy, deception, and disdain for the law." Reagan, known as the Teflon president, not only survived the scandal, his approval ratings soon returned to previous high levels.
Clinton & Monica President Bill Clinton's sexual appetite nearly destroyed his second term. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached him for his White House romps with intern Monica Lewinsky, but the Senate refused to convict him. In fact, the American public, despite its disapproval of his private behavior, rallied to him and approval ratings of his job performance soared. He left office, basking on the glow of a robust job recovery, a booming economy and a multibillion dollar budget surplus. But his vice president, Al Gore, would not enlist the scandal-ridden Clinton in his own campaign for the presidency and lost in a much-disputed election to George W. Bush.
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