The Public Interest

Is the presidency failing?

Donald L. Horowitz

Summer 1987

SINCE 1960, no President of the United States has served out his full term in honor. Every one has met with death, disgrace, or grave political disability. In fact, the trend goes further back, to Truman’s inability to stand for reelection in 1952 or even to the interwar period, to the rejection of Wilson, the dishonor of Harding, and the helplessness of Hoover. Since World War II, Eisenhower and only Eisenhower has survived unscathed. The 1950s were a decade of such extraordinary political compliancy, and Eisenhower was so skillful at deflecting responsibility for unpopular action, that his presidency may fairly be assumed to be the exceptional one. Thereafter, Kennedy was assassinated. Johnson was undone by a war more unpopular than the war that undid Truman. Nixon was disgraced by scandal. Ford, unelected, left office tainted by the Nixon pardon, an act that produced a deep cleavage in public opinion. Carter was upended by perceived personality flaws as serious in their own way as Johnson’s and by policy failings that appeared to flow from them. Now Reagan’s presidency threatens to be swamped by a hybrid of scandal and policy debacle. The trend seems clear: the presidency magnifies the flaws leaders possess, and the public, seeing the flaws in bold relief, repudiates the incumbent, paving the way for a period of stalemate or enhanced authority for the other branches.

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