A History of Troubled Second Terms for U.S. Presidents

Noah Adams talks with historian Ellen Fitzpatrick about why so many modern presidents have had difficulties during their second terms. Fitzpatrick also points out some interesting parallels between the current investigation into a White House leak of a cover CIA operative's identity and the Watergate scandal that eventually led to President Nixon's resignation.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

President Bush is having a tough time of late: the failed Miers nomination, low approval rating, the CIA leak case, but at least he's in presidential company. Richard Nixon resigned in his second term, the result of Watergate. The Iran-Contra scandal dominated the final part of Ronald Reagan's presidency, and Bill Clinton, of course, survived impeachment during his last years in the White House. Joining us from Boston to talk about why modern presidents seem to run into trouble in their second terms is New Hampshire University Professor of modern history Ellen Fitzpatrick.

Welcome.

Professor ELLEN FITZPATRICK (New Hampshire University): Thank you, Noah.

ADAMS: Is there anything that you can sort of say is--connects the troubles that these presidents, from both parties actually, have had in their second terms?

Prof. FITZPATRICK: There is a discussion among historians in which people recognize that there does seem to be a jinx second term. The common denominator, as I read it, is war--that is, expansive foreign policy efforts that have not gone very well, for one reason or another, that the president winds up responding to, attempting to control, attempting to deal with in ways that prove not very efficacious and in a couple of cases, of course, have led to terrible scandals of the kind that appear to be unfolding now.

ADAMS: That would be true of Iran-Contra. What else would be an example of that?

Prof. FITZPATRICK: Nixon is, I think, the most interesting parallel to the current situation because sometimes we forget that Watergate really, in many ways, began with the White House plumbers breaking into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Ellsberg, of course, had leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and The Washington Post. And what were the Pentagon Papers about? They were a secret history of the Vietnam War and the fact that--revealed really that the American people had not been told the truth about the Vietnam War. It was really an effort to go after those who were critical of his administration, his political enemies and indeed those who had tried to open up the realities of the history of the war that led to the initial actions of the White House plumbers.

ADAMS: And you had the paranoia of the Nixon White House, then the break-in at the eponymous Watergate...

Prof. FITZPATRICK: Yes.

ADAMS: ...which was called a third-rate burglary, and the real trouble then was, of course, that he--that the White House covered it up.

Prof. FITZPATRICK: It's interesting. I was thinking about it this morning, that the plumbers, of course, got their name because their job was to plug leaks. I don't know what we'd call a group of people whose job appears to be to create leaks, but in both cases, a very problematic war was at the root of the political problem as it was perceived by the sitting administration and really an attempt to deal with enemies--that is, critics of that war.

ADAMS: And you could say the same, could you not, of the current situation at the White House?

Prof. FITZPATRICK: Yes, I think that the parallels are very strong actually, the difference being, of course, is that there is no suggestion to this point that President Bush himself is involved in this leak. But, in a way, it's a more difficult problem that this administration faces because what was being leaked were matters of national security.

ADAMS: When a President Bush comes out at the beginning of his second term and says, famously now, `I have political capital...

Prof. FITZPATRICK: Mmm.

ADAMS: ...and I'm going to spend it,'...

Prof. FITZPATRICK: Yes.

ADAMS: ...somebody watching history is going to say, `Boy, you're going to be on shaky ground here.'

Prof. FITZPATRICK: Yeah, and I think what is really striking about this situation is that this president really came into his second term with a kind of unprecedented power and the opportunity to dominate not only the executive branch but the Congress and also the judiciary with Supreme Court appointments. And look at how rapidly there has been a kind of crash and burn on all three fronts. It's quite remarkable.

ADAMS: Ellen Fitzpatrick is a professor of modern history at the University of New Hampshire. She talked with us from Boston. Thank you, very much.

Prof. FITZPATRICK: Thank you.

ADAMS: And on DAY TO DAY we continue to cover today's lead story, expected to be a very big story, but certainly not yet. We were expecting an announcement from the grand jury investigation and the findings from that deliberation--the two-year grand jury deliberation and hearing witnesses and testimony and that sort of thing. That has not come yet and we're still waiting for that. And then, again, at 2:00 Eastern time there will be--supposed to be in any event--an announcement, a press conference from Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor.

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