Finally: The last one-termer, George H.W. Bush.

George H.W. Bush taking the oath from Chief Justice William Rehnquist on January 20, 1989.  Onlookers include House Speaker Jim Wright, Senator Ted Stevens, boyish-lookingVice President Dan Quayle,  and Bush’s wife Barbara. 

Two years after becoming president, George H.W. Bush assembled and led a multi-national military coalition against Saddam Hussein in the first Persian Gulf War, successfully ejecting Iraq from Kuwait with minimal US casualties and a prompt exit.  In its wake, April 1991, Bush’s popularity soared to 89 percent, the 2d highest ever recorded by the Gallop Poll.  (Click here for the historical numbers.)  The highest score, 90 percent, would go to Bush’s son George W. after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

But by June 1992, just one year later, Bush’s poll number collapsed to 29 percent — an amazing 60 point drop.  A few months later, he lost his presidency to Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.  

What happened?  How did all that popularity disappear?  The lessons — two of them — are written in big red letters (literally): 

  • First, polls lie.  And lying polls can lull a president into the politician’s worst enemy – complacency.
  • Second, budget deficits matter, sometimes more than wars.

Son of a US Senator (Prescott Bush, D.-Conn.), youngest Navy pilot in World War II, a Yale graduate, self-made Texas oilman, and two-term congressman,  George H.W. Bush in the 1970s was given the chance by Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald Ford to fill four key posts that made him a national figure: Ambassador to the UN, Republican Party chairman, chief US diplomat in China, and Director of the CIA.  In 1980, he ran well enough against Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination that Reagan gave him the VP spot, a role that Bush filled loyally for eight years before winning his own presidency in 1988.   

By 1992, Bush had used his presidency to become an accomplished world leader, presiding over not just the Persian Gulf War but also the collapse of Soviet Russia and other Communist dictatorships and a quick invasion of Panama — all handled cleanly.      

Unfortunately for Bush, however, this was not quite the right mix for American politics.  American votes elect American presidents — not the world — and global feats often play second fiddle to local issues.  Republican conservatives never quite trusted Bush, who had famously referred to Reagan’s tax cut plans in 1980 as “voodoo economics.”   Then add in a few headaches under Bush’s watch like these–

  • The collapse of the savings and loan industry, which required a clean-up costing taxpayers an estimated $500 billion, with scandals galore.  
  • The nomination to the Supreme Court of Clarence Thomas, the most controversial in modern history, complete with an ugly sex-harrassment scandal played out on national TV.
  • Finally, in late 1991, a six-month economic recession pushing unemployment to 7.8 percent and Americans in poverty to 14.2 percent.  Voters still felt pain into the 1992 campaign season. 

Ross Period explaining the budget definit in 1992.

And then there was the deficit.  A point of passion?  Absolutely !!  

During the 1980s, US federal budget deficits had ballooned — a product of Reagan-era tax cuts combined with failure to control spending that caused national debt to triple during this era, from $900 billion to almost $3 trillion.  (It still sounds quint next to today’s mid-2011 debt of $13.5 trillion, but that’s another story.)    

Bush wanted to confront this problem, but he had tired his own hands during the 1988 campaign with his famous pledge: “Read my lips!  New new taxes!”  In the end, Bush broke this pledge and approved a $500 billion deficit reduction package in1990 that included tax hikes.  Click here for more about the pledge.

Breaking the pledge was bad enough, but then came something worse: Ross Perot.  

Perot, a cranky self-made Texas billionaire (founder of computer giant EDS), fed up with Washington incompetence, decided to launch his own self-financed independent presidential campaign in 1992 based on his own version of home-spun economic virtues: balanced budget, trade protection for US jobs, and direct town-hall-style democracy.  Partial to CNN’s Larry King, he came to interviews and debates armed with charts and graphs to explain just how badly the deficit was hurting everyone in the country.  

Bush seemed lost in the crossfire, worsened by his disdain for what he called “the vision thing.”  Perot won 19.7 million votes (about 18 percent)  — the best popular-vote showing by any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  This allowed Clinton to win with a 43% plurality. (See full results here.)

And that sky-high, 89 percent poll numbers after the Persian Gulf War?  They simply melted — like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz.  They had been a mirage, what pollsters call a “rally around the leader” affect in times of crisis.  They had only served to hide Bush’s weakness and allow him to get caught flat-footed and out-hustled by hungry Democrats. 

Finally — Lesson for Obama?

Stay tuned for the series finale — lessons for Barack Obama in 2012.   Coming tomorrow morning.  I  promise!!

Guest Blogger: Jewell Fenzi on the notorious Tea Pot Dome scandal.

Original 1924 campaign poster for Democrats John W. Davis and Charles W. Bryan, running for president and vice president vs. Republicans Calvin Coolidge and Charles G. Dawes, trying to capitalize on the great scandal.

Dear Ken – Your photo of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding en route to Harding’s inauguration in March 1921 (click here to see it) reminded me of a piece of memorabilia from the 1924 presidential campaign in the archives of the Woman’s National Democratic Club:  a teapot, to exploit the Teapot Dome scandal that largely came to light after Harding’s untimely death in 1923.

By the 1920s, it was clear that petroleum was becoming increasingly important to the national economy and security of the nation. President Harding had signed an executive order to create a reserve system to keep the oil under government jurisdictions. However, the management of these reserves began with a turf battle between the Secretary of the Navy and the Interior Department.  Albert Fall, Harding’s Interior Secretary, secretly allowed private oil companies to tap the Teapot Dome oil reserve in Wyoming and the Elk Hills oil reserve in California in return for huge bribes to help support his extensive land holdings.  

The scandal broke in 1924, creating huge public embarrassment just in time for the next national election.  Even so, the teapot, with its request to “Hang me in the window or Hang me on the wall,” did not signal victory for Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis that year.  At the Democratic National Convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Davis won the nomination as a compromise on the 103rd ballot, the longest balloting in U. S. political history.  Also in 1924, for the first time, radio played a major role in an election:  Voters, disgusted by broadcasts of fighting and raucous behavior by the Democratic delegates, returned Calvin Coolidge to the White House. (Click here for full 1924 election results.) 

Jewell Fenzi is chair of the Museum Committee at the Woman’s National Democratic Club, 1526 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036.

New friend on the Internet — The Washington Independent Review of Books

Listen up !!!  This is important !!! 

This morning, an important new journalistic venture made its first appearance on the Internet: the Washington Independent Review of Books.   Follow the link and check them out.  (Click here.)

As everyone knows, not only are newspapers dying in today’s short-attention media age, but so is the book industry.  And one chief cause is the rapid disappearance of newspaper book review pages.  The 2009 decision by the Washington Post to drop one of the stalwarts, its weekly Book World section, was an unnerving headliner for the trend.  (Click here for details.

Now, a dedicated group of Washington-area writers and readers has decided to fight back.  Under leadership of the AIW Freedom to Write Fund,  they have launched a new, self-standing, fully-independent book review based on the Internet.  Today was the first edition.  

David O. Stewart, president of the new
Washington Independent Review of Books
Here’s the welcome message from David O. Stewart, president of the new Review who led the effort.  Give him a read and send them some money.  Tell them you saw it first on Viral History:

Dear Friends,

Welcome to The Independent, the newest voice in the community of readers and writers — a website dedicated to book reviews and writing about the world of books.  The Independent is a labor of love produced by dozens of writers and editors, mostly in the Washington area, who are dismayed by the disappearance of book reviews and book review sections in the mainstream media.

We love finding books we want to read.  We love reading reviews of books we don’t have time to read.  And we love finding out about the world of books, writers, and publishing.  That’s what we want to share with you.

We will be posting new content every weekday, which will include –

  • At least three times a week, a new thoughtful review of a book currently being released.
  • At least twice a week, a new feature, such as a Q&A with a leading author, an essay or blog on book topics by one of our contributors, or a podcast of an interview contributed by one of our radio partners.
  • Links to other sites providing book news and reviews, information about current bestsellers, and — as we find our sea legs with this new venture – much more.

The Independent is sponsored by the AIW Freedom to Write Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization.  We know that Dr. Johnson wrote that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”  But we disagree.  We have taken up this effort to share with you the excitement and pleasure we find in the world of books, and we want to hear from you about The Independent: what you like, and what you don’t like, and what else you think we should try to do.  So please contact us at editor@washingtonindependentreview of books.  (If you like our site enough, we hope you’ll consider making a donation to help keep us afloat!)

Please join us on this adventure by reading The Independent and making it one of your daily online destinations.

David O. Stewart

(You also should know that leading Washington writers – including Alice McDermott, George Pelecanos, Kitty Kelley, Marie Arana, and James Swanson — are supporting The Independent.)

*** Full disclosure:  Yes,  I serve on the Board of the AIW Freedom to Write Fund.  Proudly so.

Coming in February: For Obama, how NOT to be a one term president.

President Barack Obama: Comeback Kid, or starting the long slide down?

Here at Viral History, President’s Day is an obsession.  It lasts all month !!!

First, we’ll have a surprise Guest Blogger to celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.  Don’t miss it.  Mark your calendar for February 11.  (Click here.)

One-termer Rutherford Hayes.  Don’t be like him.

Then, all month, we’ll  look at Role Models for Barack Obama to Avoid: six one-term presidents and the blunders that cost them the White House.


Two years into his term, having survived a self-described “shellacking” in mid-term elections, Obama  stands at a cross

 roads.  He can build on his success in the recent lame duck Congress and good reviews of his Arizona speech to make himself a new “comback kid.”  Or he can continue a long slide into decline. 

How to avoid the latter?  Each of the six presidents listed below shared with Obama the same initial flurry of public good will.  Each, when elected, came respected as a talented, well-intentioned, high-toned man with good pedigree and high expectations.   

Yet, within four years, each managed to fumble the ball: 
  • John Quincy Adams (1825-1829);
  • Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881);
  • William Howard Taft (1909-1913);  (Click here for the first three.)
  • Herbert Hoover (1929-1933);  
  • Jimmy Carter (1977-1981); and
  • George H. W. Bush (1989-1993).
In February, we will present snapshots of these six (in fact, all eleven one-term losers) to see what went wrong and what Obama could learn.   
All that, plus plenty of faces, cartoons, and the usual fare.  Hope to see you here.  We value your clicks.

Politics Posts

Thomas Paine

This Blog is about history, but it can’t avoid politics and money.
History shapes our world. Politics is the sorry outcome.
Sorry for the occasional rant.

Obama and the 2012 Presidential contest:

Middle East


Guest Bloggers

Want to share a great story? Or get something off your chest?

Join us as a Guest Blogger. 


Lucretia MottDebbie Weinkamer: On Lucretia Garfield, “The Vanishing First Lady” – or Am I?
Thomas Paine

All Things Boss Tweed

Tweed - cartoon 3


Can’t get enough of Tweed?  Check out featured material below:

Some Tweed posts and articles:Tweed cover

Or this cool new YouTube video Boss Tweed: the Life and Legacy of a Corrupt Leader.


Tweed Nast Twas Him - smaller









Jacques Cousteau

Faces. By age 40, we each have the one we deserve. So said George Orwell.
Here are links to faces I’ve posted here, belonging to people I liked or disliked enough to profile. Some are current. Most are historical. All are interesting.

Click on the names and look in their eyes. Then decide if you’d want them home for dinner.


Trouble makers:



Cops – Good and Bad:


Artists (all types):


Unfair to General Churchill??

Some of you thought I was unfair to General Marlborough Churchill, chief of US Military Intelligence 1918-1920, when I referred to him as The Official Slanderer in my post a few days ago: Well, on this one, I stick to my guns.
As Exhibit One, I give you, as a sample, one of the many reports issued by Churchill’s MID on Eastern Ruropean Jews. (Click on it for full size to read it clearly.)  If you don’t consider this to be official anti-Semitism, please say so. The paper, on “Jewish Migration to USA” and dated November 1920, was written for General Churchill by a Major T.W. Holloway and decribed why Jewish immigration would be “a serious menace to our civilizaiton.” Take a look–