David Stokes

In the immediate aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before the nation accepting the total blame for what had happened. He referred to an old saying about victory having a thousand fathers, but defeat being an orphan, and identified himself as the responsible officer in the government. Even though the whole initiative had been first devised and planned by the Eisenhower administration.

JFK’s poll numbers moved dramatically—up. There is something refreshing—though sadly rare—about a political leader saying “My bad.”

In the 19th century, a British politician stood in Parliament and remarked that trying to get his particular point across was akin to flogging a dead horse to make it pull a load. We call this beating a dead horse today. And every time President Obama or a member of his administration plays the blame Bush card, he is beating that proverbial dead horse. It is also getting really old.

Everyone on Facebook has an information page and there is an entry labeled “relationship status.” Some mark “married” or “in a relationship,” others say “single.” Then there are those who put: “It’s complicated.” When it comes to Presidents and those who come before or after, it’s really complicated. Some chief executives have managed to rise above the propensity for personal paltriness—others, not so much.

And it goes way back.

Thomas Jefferson, who ran a particularly aggressive campaign against former-and-would-be-again-much-later friend, John Adams, in the 1800 race, continued the attack on his predecessor well into his own presidency. He regularly smeared Mr. Adams for maladministration of presidential powers, though apparently willing to benefit from things Adams had done that he had opposed at the time. The anti-military, anti-big government Jefferson, had no qualms about using navy Adams had built (opposed by TJ) to deal with the Barbary Pirates; nor did he hesitate to use broad executive powers in the whole matter of the Louisiana Purchase—the kind of action candidate Jefferson would have likely decried as tyrannical.

Democrat Andrew Jackson wouldn’t even pay a courtesy call on outgoing President John Quincy Adams. Mr. Adams then refused to attend his successor’s inauguration. Jackson spent significant time in office tearing down his predecessor—blaming Adams and the whole fierce campaign for his wife’s death after the election. That one was very complicated.


David Stokes

David R. Stokes is a best-selling author, pastor, columnist, and broadcaster. His latest book is a novel: CAPITOL LIMITED: A Story about John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Based on a true story, it's about a unique moment in 1947, when Kennedy and Nixon shared