Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Reagan-Bush Legacy: Breaking Precedents

Let it never be said that I don’t credit the Reagan-Bush era for something. Now that it’s approaching its end (except in the Supreme Court, where its legacy will, unfortunately, live on), it’s time to note some amazing accomplishments of the three Republican presidents of that era. All three broke long-established patterns in the history of the American presidency.

Ronald Wilson Reagan broke the Prophet’s Curse, but just barely. The story begins with the Battle of Tippecanoe. Tenskwatawa, brother of Tecumseh, was a religious leader known as the Shawnee Prophet. He definitely didn’t have the military skills of his brother. In 1811, Tecumseh had assembled a coalition of native peoples at a camp on Burnett’s Creek near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. He had convinced people from tribes all over the region that they should stop fighting amongst themselves and unite against the Americans, who were steadily encroaching on their lands.

William Henry Harrison, whose military brilliance matched Tecumseh’s, had his army outside the Indian camp. Harrison knew that Tecumseh would never be so foolish as to mount an attack on the American army with his fairly small force. But Harrison also knew that Tecumseh was away from the camp, known as Prophetstown, and seems to have goaded Tenskwatawa into attacking. It’s unclear who shot first, but it appears that Tenskwatawa’s forces were moving in on the American camp. Harrison was prepared, and defeated the Indian coalition.

Two years later, at the Battle of the Thames, (at present-day Chatham-Kent, Ontario), Tecumseh, allied with British forces in the War of 1812, faced Harrison again. Harrison, with superior numbers, triumphed, and Tecumseh died in the battle.

The story goes that Tenskwatawa cursed Harrison and every president elected in a year ending in zero. Harrison, after giving a two-hour inaugural address in the rain, and without a topcoat, died a month after taking office. It's a pretty unlikely story, especially since Tenskwatawa died in 1834, six years before Harrison's election. But until Ronald Reagan, every president elected in a year ending in zero died in office:

Abraham Lincoln, elected 1860, assassinated 1865
James A. Garfield, elected 1880, assassinated 1881
William McKinley, elected 1900, assassinated 1901
Warren Gamaliel Harding, elected 1920, died of a heart attack 1923
Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected 1940, died of a cerebral hemorrhage 1945
John F. Kennedy, elected 1960, assassinated 1963

The only president to die in office outside the Prophet’s Curse was Zachary Taylor, who was elected in 1848, and died in 1850, after eating a dish of iced milk and cherries at a Fourth of July celebration. The cause of death was never established. Of course, Taylor was an officer in the War of 1812, and had fought Tecumseh’s ally, Black Hawk, at the Battle of Credit Island, (in present-day Davenport, Iowa). But Black Hawk and his British allies defeated Taylor’s forces in an ambush.

Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981. Modern medicine triumphed over the Prophet’s Curse. It appears that George W. Bush, elected(?) in 2000, will also live through his presidency. But then, does an election by a 5 to 4 vote in the Supreme Court count as an election?

George Herbert Walker Bush broke the Curse of the Sitting Vice President. Before 1988, the last time a sitting vice president had been elected to the presidency was in 1836, when Martin Van Buren, vice president under Andrew Jackson, was elected in his own right. Of course, there haven’t been many sitting vice presidents who have been nominated to run. John Breckinridge (1860), Richard Nixon (1960), and Hubert Humphrey (1968) are the only ones that I could find between Van Buren and Bush I. But still, it was a first.

That leaves George W. Bush, the only president to win office with less than a plurality of the popular vote and win re-election. The other three presidents who lost the popular vote either lost re-election (John Quincy Adams (elected 1824, defeated by Andrew Jackson, 1828) and Benjamin Harrison (defeated sitting president Grover Cleveland 1884, beaten by Cleveland, 1888) or did not seek a second term (Rutherford B. Hayes, elected 1876). Of course, vote suppression in Ohio probably cost John Kerry the 2004 election.

I don’t have a lot of good things to say about any of the three, but they all broke precedents.


Sustenance Scout said...

Hi Steve! I'm enjoying catching up on your latest posts. Hopefully the weather has cleared in your neck of the woods and you're now able to enjoy the rest of the holiday season. This is always my favorite part, when the hustle and bustle is over but the back-to-school routine is still a little ways away.

As always, thanks for the historical perspective. Whether you're discussing holidays, presidential curses, or electoral catastrophes, you never fail to offer up some fascinating facts.

Best wishes for a terrific New Year! K.

Charles Gramlich said...

I never heard about the "O" curse. Fascinating how it has worked out, thoguh.

steve on the slow train said...

Karen--It's still pretty crazy I'm hoping things will quiet down around Epiphany. Thanks so much for your encouragement and best wishes to you and yours for 2009.

Charles--In January 1980, I only half-jokingly said I was supporting Jimmy Carter in the Iowa caucuses because of the Prophet's Curse: Ted Kennedy was likely to be assassinated. And the likely Republican alternative, Reagan, was so old that he'd probably die in office. I think the curse was in the news that year because of Kennedy and Reagan.

Anonymous said...

So, how do we break the Reagan/Bush/Bush curse?

Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah, happy new year

steve on the slow train said...

Gerry--I hope it's already broken, though it lives on in the Supreme Court. Bill Clinton not only didn't break it, but in a sense became part of it amfter 1994.

And Happy New Year to you.

gnosticserenity said...

It could be that GW may have saved Al Gore's life by stealing that election. LOL

As for the Gipper's shooting... I've always suspected that he used that nutter's attempt to end his life for all it was worth publicity wise... He was moving around way too early for a man of his age to be shot as they said, IMO. Call me a cynic, but that's always struck me as weird.

Anyway, I never knew who was the bestower of the curse before I read this... thank you.