Historians Explore the Risks, Rewards of a Wartime President
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GWEN IFILL: President Bush is not the first incumbent president to seek reelection by building on his prosecution of a war. But what are the risks and rewards for a wartime incumbent?
We look to: History with presidential historian Michael Beschloss; Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; and Meena Bose, a professor of American politics at West Point. Michael, we just heard Chuck Hagel say this is an important time in American history. And yet we know — I looked it up.
There are five previous conventions when incumbents came during wartime to seek the re-nomination of their parties. How unusual a task is this that president faces?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it is often tough, and the maybe the toughest was Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The Civil War had gone on for three and a half years. And Aug. 23, 1864, a week before tonight in that election cycle, Lincoln wrote on a piece of paper that he thought it was exceedingly unlikely that our administration will be reelected because of the frustrations of the Civil War. He wasn’t winning fast enough.
He was running against a general he had fired, George McClellan. The point is, he stayed the course. People were larger-minded enough to see he was doing it the right way.
GWEN IFILL: Meena, are there other former presidents who stayed the course?
MEENA BOSE: Absolutely. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, he declared that he would not run in the usually partisan sense.
And I think that phrase really captures the challenge that incumbents face during wartime to run on their record without making politics of the war that is taking place.
GWEN IFILL: Is that what is happening in other elections, Richard?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You can look at Richard Nixon. You can argue that Nixon was really made president in 1968 because of dissatisfaction over Vietnam. Four years later, he was opposed by George McGovern whose whole candidacy was built on his opposition of the war. Nixon had to some degree defused the issue by bringing hundreds of thousands of troops home.
But in the larger sense he also, he changed the subject. He redefined the terms of the debate by going to China, by going to Russia, by casting himself as a peacemaker.
GWEN IFILL: This president isn’t changing the subject, this president today.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: This president, I think this president has in some ways changed the subject — from a narrow response to 9/11 to a much broader, indeed unparalleled notion of preemptive warfare.
He has not only changed the subject, but he has challenged in some ways 200 years of presidential leadership and military doctrine
GWEN IFILL: Michael, you mentioned Abraham Lincoln earlier. Rudy Giuliani was quoted in “U.S.A. Today” saying, I’ll just read it because I won’t get it right, not talking about 9/11, not talking about Iraq at this convention would be like conducting the reelection of Abraham Lincoln, and not mentioning the Civil War.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He was absolutely right. That is true in the cases that you were talking about. Richard was mentioning Richard Nixon, and I think that’s probably a negative example — 1972, because Nixon was coasting to this landslide against George McGovern in October of 1972, and he was so partisan and so determined to get this enormous landslide, he was worried that people would vote for McGovern because they wanted to get out of the war.
And very shortly before the election, he sent his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, in the press room, to say, “we believe that peace is at hand,” suggesting that a peace treating was about to take place and people who were against the war need not worry. It turned out it was not at hand, and I think that was probably an example of, to some extent, cheap politics that presidents should not follow.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: He also added at the last minute in that campaign another – in effect changing the subject.
Remember, he talked about ending the draft, which of course had been at the heart of much of the intense opposition to the war.
GWEN IFILL: Meena, when you talk about Roosevelt in 1944, did it work, was it an advantage or disadvantage for him to be a president who was stewarding a war?
MEENA BOSE: Oh, I think it was definitely an advantage. There is a concept of valance issues that incumbent presidents in wartime try to use.
GWEN IFILL: Valance?
MEENA BOSE: Which is rather than to debate war or debate the issues of state, to focus on concepts no one can disagree on– national security, patriotism. And I think that we see that to some degree, not just in FDR. In 1944, but with Richard Nixon in 1972 as well, focusing on national security expertise.
He had been a two-term vice president, served as president for four years. The Vietnam War was close to resolution. The Paris Peace Accords actually were signed in January of ’73. Presidents in wartime focus on their strength, issues not in dispute, and it makes it very difficult for challengers to actually debate them.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They do, but even Roosevelt in ’44 – there is a parallel to this year because Roosevelt should have been easy. D-Day had taken place; big success, our troops were marching on to the European continent. The European war seemed almost over. Yet, there was a moment in the fall of 1944, when one of the investigations into the Pearl Harbor attack was said to be quite critical of Roosevelt.
This was transmitted to Thomas Dewey, the opponent who came very near to blasting Roosevelt in a speech that almost suggested that Roosevelt was in some way responsible for Pearl Harbor. So even in a war like World War II, where there was so much consensus and so much success, Roosevelt was, to some extent, in a very risky situation.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: One thing that isn’t going to be repeated from Abraham Lincoln at this convention, Lincoln said it was not a good idea to change horses midstream, which is of course exactly what he did. First he changed the name of the Republican Party; the Republican Party became the union party.
Then he dumped his vice president, the historical footnote, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, and he replaced him with a war Democrat from Tennessee in Andrew Johnson in a blatant and successful attempt to broaden the appeal, make it a more inclusive party.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s go back again to 1968, because Hubert Humphrey almost won even though he was running against someone who was in the position of having all the advantages of wartime incumbency.
MEENA BOSE: Well, of course 1968 was a more difficult situation for Humphrey, given the events around the 1968 convention for the Democrats in Chicago. It was a very close race. And up until the final weeks before the election when there was news that President Johnson was trying to seek a peace plan, it looked as though Humphrey was going to come very close to winning.
Nixon then suggested he had a plan of going ahead that would be able to resolve the Vietnam War.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But, you know, it was one of the most atrocious campaigns in history, because Nixon was pretending that he was likelier than Humphrey to pull troops out of Vietnam if he was elected.
A lot of peaceniks voted for Nixon, bizarrely enough, and Humphrey who would have really done that, was scared into suggesting in public that he followed Johnson on the war because Johnson called him up and said, “Hubert, you oppose me on Vietnam, I’m going to dry up every Democratic dollar from Maine to Hawaii.” Humphrey was already broke, he couldn’t do it.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Also that’s an example where an incumbent president wanting to choose his successor may have overplayed his hand. Remember, at the very end of the campaign, Johnson finally went along with the notion of a bombing halt, and actually it allowed the Republicans to suggest that the president was playing politics with the war and probably in the end cost Humphrey votes.
GWEN IFILL: Well, what’s different about this war is the definition. There seems to be a broader definition about 9/11 and the war on terror. I wonder if there is any comparison you make to previous presidents, wartime presidents?
MEENA BOSE: I think there is a parallel to FDR and Lincoln. In both cases you have nations that mobilized… or a nation on alert at least. In the Civil War and War World II, you have a nation mobilized. But in this case, as well, a nation that’s on alert, that the whole country is watching to see what will happen next.
This is a long-term struggle. As a result, that plays for the president. It’s important to focus on what has been accomplished and what remains to be done. It is an advantage for an incumbent to continue what has been started.
GWEN IFILL: Meena Bose, Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss. We’ll be talking again later. Thank you.