No wonder that Hoover and Carter, like other unsuccessful presidents, came across as gloomy, self-righteous sufferers. Hoover's secretary of State said that a meeting with him was "like sitting in a bath of ink." Carter staked his presidency on a notoriously sour televised address that became known as "The Malaise Speech," warning the appalled public of a "crisis of the American spirit."
None of our least successful presidents displayed the self-deprecatory humor of Lincoln or the sunny dispositions that powered the Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin) and Ronald Reagan. A visitor described the Pierce White House as a "cold and cheerless place," noting the isolation of the invalid first lady, in deep mourning for three dead sons.
When Buchanan welcomed successor Lincoln, he plaintively declared: "My dear, sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed."
The result of the depressing and erratic leadership of our six most conspicuous presidential failures is that all managed to estrange a once-admiring electorate within the space of a single term. Tyler,Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Buchanan all earned rejection by their own party, failed to win their own party's nominations, entering retirement as discredited figures. Hoover and Carter appeared on national tickets and campaigned vigorously but got wiped out in historic landslides, with each incumbent carrying a mere six states.
Democrats, who denounce George W. Bush as the worst president ever, along with Republicans who apply the same ugly title to Barack Obama, can't explain away the inconvenient fact that both of our most recent incumbents won re-election with 51% of the vote. Regardless of controversies blighting Bush's second term, or setbacks that might afflict Obama's, their legislative and electoral successes place them in a different category from the White House worst.
This baleful history should warn the current occupant and all successors against visibly disregarding commitments while encouraging voters to steer clear of presidential candidates with dour, inflexible temperaments. By selecting aspirants with clear, consistent agendas and cheerful, persuasive personalities, we'll face fewer shattered presidencies that leave reviled incumbents and a disillusioned electorate.
(This column appeared first in USA TODAY. )
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