Today is Presidents Day, and presidents have been much in the news lately. Yes, they’re always in the news, but especially this year. We have had a new one in office for less than four weeks, but his predecessor has never left the headlines, and it doesn’t look like he will anytime soon.
Twenty-four days after leaving office, our 45th president, Donald Trump, was acquitted by the Senate in his second impeachment trial. The whole thing was unprecedented in two ways: it was the first time any president had been impeached twice, and the first time a trial had been held for an impeached president after he left office. Trump was acquitted in his first trial just about a year ago, when he still had some 11 months to go in his term. The two previous presidents to be impeached, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, had both finished out their terms after being acquitted, Clinton in his second and final term, Johnson in the term he had inherited from the slain Abraham Lincoln. After his first acquittal, Trump appeared to have a strong chance of being re-elected later in the year, but as we know, he lost to his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. Trump and many of his supporters still feel the election was rigged, although no proof has been offered, and there are rumblings that Trump will run again in 2024. Many feel the Democratic Party’s frantic effort to impeach Trump a second time was designed simply to prevent him from running again, as the Constitution could conceivably allow such disqualification after a conviction and perhaps a subsequent action by Congress.
It’s a moot point. Nobody is seriously thinking of undertaking such a tenuous thing after his acquittal. No doubt many in Congress and the country would like to see it happen anyway. Is it because they consider Trump a dangerous man who should be barred from ever setting foot in the White House again, or because they fear getting beat by him in the next election? Probably both.
But could he do it? Could Trump become both the 45th and 47th president? The answer, says history, is yes, of course it could happen. It happened in the 19th century, and almost again in the 20th, so why not the 21st?
Only Grover could get it done, so far.
Before the ratification of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1951, presidents were not limited to any number of terms, consecutive or otherwise. George Washington set the precedent in 1796 when he declined to run for a third term, which he surely would have won. Washington’s vice president, John Adams, won election that year in a close race with Thomas Jefferson, who captured the rematch in 1800. Adams thus became the first president to be denied a second term at the ballot box, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last.
By the time of the next election, 1804, Adams was 69 and in retirement. Jefferson won re-election easily and in 1808 declined to run again, becoming the first Chief Executive to respect Washington’s precedent. He would be followed by two more: James Madison and James Monroe. This 24-year run of relative stability has never been repeated; amazingly, in the 196 years since the election of 1824, in which Monroe declined the opportunity to run for a third term, the only time we have seen anything close to that kind of stretch was 1933-53, when Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman kept the presidency in Democratic hands for twenty years.
But in the six decades after Monroe, we had several presidents who lost their re-election bids. Some of them considered running again four years later, but none of them succeeded in even gaining their party’s nomination. Martin Van Buren (8th president, 1837-41) and Franklin Pierce (14th, 1853-57) each made another try for the presidency but were rejected by their parties. James K. Polk (11th, 1845-49) died shortly after leaving office; Pierce’s successor, James Buchanan (15th, 1857-61), pledged during his inauguration speech not to run again and was glad to be rid of the White House by the time he turned the keys over to Lincoln. Rutherford Hayes (19th, 1877-81) also declined a second term and never considered a comeback bid in ’84.
Grover Cleveland was the one who broke the string. Elected as our 22nd president in 1884, Cleveland lost a close election to Benjamin Harrison four years later, which I wrote about three years ago on this holiday: And you thought the 2016 election was bad?. Determined to get a rematch with Harrison in 1892, the 22nd president remained active in Democratic Party politics during his successor’s term and captured the office again, winning the popular vote by only 3% but prevailing easily in the Electoral College; four years earlier, Cleveland won a plurality of the vote but lost in the College. Events out of the candidates’ control helped in that regard: Harrison’s wife, Caroline, died of tuberculosis two weeks before the election at the age of 60. Campaign events were called off for the duration out of respect for the grieving widower. In 1896, there was talk of Harrison trying for the Republican nomination, but he was content in retirement and declined to be considered.
Born in New Jersey in 1837, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Cleveland established a reputation for hard work and personal integrity early in life. At 18 he decided to move west and got as far as Buffalo in upstate New York, where he went to work for an uncle. Buffalo became his home. Helped by his uncle’s connections, Cleveland became an attorney with a prestigious law firm, and at age 33 won election to his first public office, Sheriff of Erie County. During his two-year term he personally executed two convicted murderers by hanging; the sheriff was legally required to do the deed himself, or pay a deputy $10 to pull the lever of the gallows. Ten years later he was elected Mayor of Buffalo, where he fought against the corruption of the entrenched political machines.
Cleveland’s reputation in Buffalo quickly gained the attention of reformers statewide, and he was elected Governor of New York in 1882, less than a year after being sworn in as mayor. From there, it was on to the White House after defeating Republican James G. Blaine of Maine in the caustic election of 1884. Blaine, a former Speaker of the House, was attacked by Democrats as corrupt; documents came to light during the campaign that confirmed earlier charges that Blaine, as Speaker, had used his influence to pass legislation favoring certain railroads, which allowed him to profit on the sale of bonds he held with them.
But Cleveland was not above the fray himself. During the Civil War, he had taken advantage of a Federal law that allowed military draftees to avoid service by paying someone else to take their place. Cleveland, who had started his own law firm in 1862 at age 25, paid $150 (equivalent to some $3200 today) to a 32-year-old Polish immigrant to take his place in the draft. (The man survived the war.) Being a draft-dodger was not necessarily a stain on one’s reputation, though; Theodore Roosevelt’s father was one of thousands who took advantage of that provision in the Enrollment Act of 1863. It was a sexual indiscretion that almost cost Cleveland the presidency. During the early 1870s, the bachelor Cleveland entered into a relationship with a widow, Maria Halpin. She became pregnant and delivered a son, which she claimed had been conceived in an act of rape by Cleveland. He tried to discredit Halpin by having the child taken away and putting his mother into an institution for the insane, from which she was shortly released. But in the election of 1884, Blaine supporters railed against Cleveland with the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” Cleveland’s supporters wanted to revive his old effort to call Halpin’s credibility into question, but he told them, “Above all, tell the truth.” Cleveland admitted that he’d paid child support to Halpin in 1874, and did not contest Halpin’s affidavit that she had not slept with any other men before the child’s birth. If it had come to a paternity suit, Cleveland might have prevailed in court, because it was rumored that Halpin, in spite of her claims, was intimate with other men at the time, including Cleveland’s law partner, Oscar Folsom. A legal fight would certainly have gotten nasty; Cleveland would have had to name names in order to contest Halpin’s claim, but all the other men allegedly involved with her were married, and also friends and associates of Cleveland. His action no doubt saved everyone a lot of trouble, although his effort to discredit Halpin certainly was a step too far.
Cleveland named the boy Oscar Folsom Cleveland, and in another quirk of history, during his first term in the White House he ended his long bachelorhood at age 49 by marrying 21-year-old Frances Folsom, the daughter of Oscar Folsom, who had died in a carriage accident when the girl had just turned 11. Cleveland was executor of Folsom’s estate and had doted on the girl since her birth. Frances Folsom became the youngest First Lady ever (a record highly unlikely to be broken), and Cleveland became the first, and so far only, sitting president to be married in the White House. With young Oscar’s parentage never proven, it’s possible that Cleveland married his son’s half-sister. That is truly a bizarre combination that is a sure thing never to be matched in presidential history.
The Rough Rider gives it another go in 1912.
The second man to assume the presidency after Cleveland’s final term was Theodore Roosevelt, who took office in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. Elected to a term of his own with a landslide in 1904, he followed tradition and announced that he would not stand for another term in ’08, although as the election approached, it was clear he would’ve been a lock for another term. Friends and supporters urged him to renounce his pledge for the good of the country; his daughter Alice pointed out that he would not have served two full terms, since he had been sworn in just six months after the beginning of McKinley’s term. But Roosevelt stuck to his guns, rather reluctantly, and left the White House in what he thought were the capable hands of his preferred successor, William Howard Taft, in March 1909.
Roosevelt went on safari to Africa right after Taft’s inauguration, then toured Europe before returning to a hero’s welcome in 1910. By then, the old Rough Rider had been getting regular updates from his political supporters back home about Taft’s performance in the job Roosevelt had handled so well. During his administration, TR had worked closely with Taft and the men formed a warm friendship, even practicing judo together–which resulted in thunderous crashes in the White House when Roosevelt would throw the 300-pound-plus Taft to the mat. But it hadn’t taken long for that to change. No doubt TR’s disillusionment with his successor was due in large part to his own regret at having given up the office he so much enjoyed holding. There were honest policy disagreements between the two men, including Taft’s support of high tariffs and his abandonment of Roosevelt’s policy of selective antitrust enforcement. Taft also angered Roosevelt by firing his popular Bureau of Forestry head, Gifford Pinchot, a close friend of TR. By 1912, it was clear Roosevelt wanted to be president again, but Taft had no interest in giving up the office without a fight.
In those days, the primary system was just getting started. Roosevelt wanted to wrest the Republican nomination from Taft and challenged the incumbent early on, winning nine of the twelve primaries, including Taft’s home state of Ohio. Taft had the support of the party’s establishment, though, and prevailed in most state conventions and finally at the national convention in Chicago, winning the nomination on the first ballot rather easily. Roosevelt responded by literally walking down the street to where the new Progressive Party was convening and accepting their nomination.
Roosevelt ran hard, surviving an assassination attempt in Milwaukee less than a month before the election. He came in second to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, with Taft a dismal third. If you put all of Taft’s votes into Roosevelt’s column, he would’ve become our second non-consecutive-term president. Instead, he became Wilson’s biggest critic as the new president sought to keep America out of the First World War after it broke out in Europe in 1914. By the end of the war, in which he lost his youngest son, Quentin, when his fighter plane was shot down by the Germans, Roosevelt was being touted as the Republican front-runner for 1920. But his health was declining rapidly, and he died early in 1919. Two years later, Taft was nominated to the Supreme Court by Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding. Taft served as our nation’s 10th Chief Justice for nearly nine years, retiring shortly before his death in 1930 at age 72. He remains the only person in American history to hold both positions. Ironically, during Roosevelt’s presidency he had offered Taft a position on the Court more than once, and although it’s said Taft really wanted the job, his wife knew he was next in line for the presidency and pushed him in that direction.
Had Roosevelt regained his health and lived, he would’ve been only 62 during the campaign of 1920. Harding, a popular senator from Ohio, doubtless would’ve contested TR for the Republican nomination, so there is no guarantee Roosevelt would’ve become president again, but he would’ve had a good shot.
Nobody has tried to follow the Bull Moose…yet.
Harding died midway through his term in 1923, and his vice president, Calvin Coolidge, won a term for himself in ’24. “Silent Cal” declined to run again in ’28, leaving the door open for another Republican, Herbert Hoover, to win the White House. Faced with defeat in 1932 after Hoover’s disastrous term ushered in the Great Depression, some Republicans talked of drafting Coolidge to run, but he let it be known quickly that he wasn’t interested. Hoover was handily defeated by Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, but remained as active in party politics as a defeated ex-president could be. He sought the GOP nomination in ’36 and again in ’40, but was rebuffed by the party both times. The candidates they did choose, Alf Landon and Wendell Willkie, were trounced by FDR.
Roosevelt died in 1945, only a month into his fourth term, and was succeeded by his vice president, Harry Truman. Running for his own term in ’48, Truman came from behind at the wire to beat the Republican, Thomas Dewey, but declined another run in ’52. Dwight Eisenhower swamped the Democratic candidate that year and was heavily favored again in ’56; Truman was never considered for the nomination, which went again to Adlai Stevenson. Reluctant to let his party nominate Stevenson again after his landslide loss to Ike in ’52, Truman worked for the nomination of W. Averill Harriman, the governor of New York, to no avail. Stevenson got the nod and, a few months later, received another beating at the polls from Eisenhower.
By the time Ike left office in 1961, the 22nd Amendment was in place, prohibiting him or anyone ever after from being elected more than twice. Truman had been grandfathered in, making him eligible, technically, for election in ’56 or thereafter, but by then, Harry had given ’em hell long enough. He enjoyed his retirement in Missouri, finally passing away late in 1972 at age 88. By then he had become a legendary figure for most Americans, renowned for being tough and plain-spoken, traits not often seen in politicians of the late 20th century, and perhaps even rarer today.
Lyndon Johnson won a term of his own in 1964, a year after succeeding the assassinated John F. Kennedy, but declined to run again in ’68. There was no talk of LBJ coming out of retirement in ’72, and he died a few months after the election. The next former president eligible to make another run was Gerald Ford, who took over in 1974 upon the resignation of Richard Nixon and served the remainder of Nixon’s second term. Ford lost his bid for a term of his own in ’76 as the nation turned to former Georgia governor and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter. When it became clear that Carter would have difficulty winning re-election in 1980, Ford considered a run for the GOP nomination, but dropped out early in the face of Ronald Reagan’s strength in the party. Reagan, who had given Ford a serious challenge for the nomination four years earlier, at one point considered Ford for the vice presidency, but backed away when Ford insisted on being given more power than any VP before (or since) had wielded.
The next president to have comeback potential was the man Reagan wound up choosing as his VP in 1980 over Ford. George H.W. Bush served loyally in that office for Reagan’s two terms and then won election to the top job in ’88. Wildly popular after shaping the U.S.-led coalition that ousted Iraqi invaders from Kuwait in 1991, a smashing military victory unlike any the country had seen in nearly half a century, Bush seemed a shoo-in for re-election the following year. But the economy stagnated, the Democrats nominated a charismatic young Arkansan named Bill Clinton, and Bush was defeated. Overcoming his bitterness at the loss, which he blamed, at least partly, on the presence of Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, Bush never openly discussed running again in ’96. Instead, he focused on supporting the political careers of his sons, George W. and Jeb. George won election to the governorship of Texas in ’94 and Jeb captured the same office in Florida in ’98. Two years later, George won the presidency in one of history’s closest elections. “Bush 41” died at 94 in 2018, by then regarded warmly by most Americans as a decent, honorable man who had served his country well for nearly half a century, going back to his World War II service as a 19-year-old fighter pilot.
And so, that brings us to Trump. Can he pull a Cleveland out of his comb-over three years from now? It’s way too early to tell, but it’s often said nowadays that the next election cycle begins right after the previous election’s votes are counted. The new president, Joe Biden, will turn 82 just after the next election. He’s already the oldest man ever elected; will Americans want to return an octogenarian to the world’s toughest job? Age might be an issue for Trump, too, since he will turn 78 that summer. Some are saying that Biden will wind up resigning before then, turning the office over to his vice president, Kamala Harris. Barring unforeseen circumstances, which often happen in politics, Harris would seem to be a lock for the Democratic nomination in ’24 if Biden rules out another run. Would Trump have a chance against her? Well, he shocked the political world in 2016 by beating a woman candidate who was said to have the race all but officially won weeks before the votes were cast. If anything, we should have learned by now not to underestimate the 45th president, especially since he retains a huge base of devoted followers. Much, of course, will depend on what happens in the next three years. Where will the country be in February of 2024? So much could go wrong, most of which would be blamed on the incumbent, rightly or wrongly, although it seems that the news media is going to be willing to give Biden a lot of leeway, which they were certainly not willing to give to his predecessor. No matter who he or she is, though, a president has to run on the record, even if the candidate is only seeking to succeed a president who is retiring, as Bush did in 1988; that election was as much a ringing endorsement of Reagan’s years as it was for Bush himself. Whether it’s Biden again, Harris or any other Democrat who gets the party’s nod in ’24, that person will have to run on the Biden/Harris record. If Trump is indeed the opponent, they may try to paint the election as a clarion call to keep Trump out of the White House, as much as their campaign last year was a crusade to remove him. And while they were successful in that, there’s no guarantee that it will work again.