Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Needed: A Different Sort of President

Charismatic career politicians don’t make the best commanders-in-chief.

by Victor Davis Hanson // National Review Online 

The second terms of the latest three presidents have not been successful. Bill Clinton was impeached after his infamous lie to Americans, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Photo Credit: Loomingy1 via FlickrGeorge W. Bush was blamed for the postwar violence in Iraq.

Barack Obama’s scandals — with his accompanying “limited hangout” denials — are ruining his second term: the growing IRS messes, the Associated Press monitoring, the NSA embarrassments, the Benghazi killings, the Syria bluster and backdown, and, of course, the Obamacare fiasco and the misleading statements about it.

What are other common denominators of this collective tenure of our recent presidents?

After popular first terms and reelection, they seemed to have lost public confidence and the ability to continue an agenda.

Do two terms wear out a president?

Maybe the hubris of getting reelected convinces our commanders-in-chief that they are mostly beyond reproach. Overreach ensues. Then the goddess Nemesis descends in destructive fashion to remind them that they are mere mortals.

In addition, the more talented cabinet and staff appointees often bail out near the end of the first term. At best, they burn out from continuous 16-hour work days. At worst, they flee to leverage their former high-profile jobs through revolving-door influence-peddling, finding new work in media, lobbying, consulting, and on Wall Street.

Boredom, on the part of both the president and the public, takes its toll. Clinton was an effective speaker — at first. Near the end of his eight years, the public’s eyes rolled when he predictably misled, exaggerated, or became petulant.

Bush was witty and sincere in repartee and impromptu speaking but often stumbled over the teleprompter. By the end of his eight years, his critics were publishing books of Bush malapropisms.

It is hard now to believe that Obama’s banal “hope and change” ever set a nation on fire. Certainly by 2013, we have come to snore when Obama for the nth time laces his teleprompted rhetoric with “make no mistake about it” or “let me be perfectly clear.”

One-term presidencies — or a constitutional change to a single six-year presidential term — make better sense. A single presidential tenure might curtail an incumbent’s customary exaggerations about supposed past achievements and the phony promises about great things to come that are apparently necessary for reelection. Much of wasteful federal spending and general bad policy derives from the reelection efforts of an incumbent desperate to appease or buy off the electorate.

In contrast, our culture’s heroes — in literature, film, and the military — get things done precisely because they do not care all that much what happens to them as a result of their courageous decisions. In that regard, Calvin Coolidge’s decision to seek just one elected term is a far better model than Richard Nixon’s two.

Age may also be a factor. We are a youth-obsessed Camelot culture that puts far too much stock in good-looking candidates who act hip, jog, or seem robust. Clinton was only 46 when he entered office, Obama just 47, and Jimmy Carter 52.

In a time of increased longevity, perhaps we should reconsider the advantages that six decades of experience might offer. Harry Truman (60), Dwight Eisenhower (62), and Ronald Reagan (69) seemed far steadier presidents. Their skepticism and perspective may have resulted from long careers of seeing almost everything — in addition to regular afternoon naps.

The youthful 40-something John F. Kennedy was impulsive in the same fashion as the reckless and similarly inexperienced Carter, Clinton, and Obama. The second time around, presidents in their mid-60s probably would not be so eager to paw comely interns or in naïve fashion boast that they could “fundamentally transform America.”

Can we also take a breather from the Ivy League?

When Obama finishes his term, we will have had 28 consecutive years of presidents with either an undergraduate or graduate degree from Harvard or Yale. We should have learned from chronic deficits, massive debt, and Obamacare that the Ivy League’s best and brightest are not always either. Truman’s higher education came from the school of hard knocks. Ike graduated from West Point and helped win World War II.

Reagan slogged it out for years in the cutthroat worlds of Hollywood and television — after graduating from tiny Eureka College.

Finally, can our next president have done something for a while other than nonstop politicking? The press caricatured Ike’s garbled speeches and Reagan’s B-movie reruns. But at least they did not go uninterruptedly from one political office to the next until being elected president.

Youthful charisma, the Ivy League, career politicians, and two presidential terms may be fine in theory, but next time around can we take a needed break from what have become our presidents-as-usual?

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generalspublished this spring by Bloomsbury Books. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com.

© 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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