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.