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Five Best Books on How to Have a Successful Second Term

Tevi Troy

April 1865
By Jay Winik (2001)

Abraham Lincoln’s second term lasted only from his magisterial second inaugural address—“with malice toward none, with charity for all”—on March 4, 1865, to his tragic death on April 15, 1865. It was both the shortest and most famous second term in history. While not focused only on Lincoln, Jay Winik’s book offers a gripping portrayal of Lincoln’s last month in office, calling it the “month that saved America.” Here are vivid, evocative portraits of some of that period’s most memorable moments—Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s theater. The book closes with an epilogue that reflects Winik’s sweeping command of history—and that previews the glorious era of political, economic and cultural expansion upon which America was about to embark. It was an era made possible, he avers, only because of men like Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, who, after a long and bloody struggle, were “determined to look ahead, not backward.”

FDR v. the Constitution
By Burt Solomon (2009)

FDR was elected four times, but his second term, marred by the 1937 court-packing blunder, was the most difficult domestically. Going into his fifth year in office, FDR was the first president since Andrew Johnson who had not had the opportunity to nominate a single justice to the Supreme Court. In response, and to get around the court’s conservatives, who were bent on defeating New Deal aims at every turn, FDR proposed to “pack” the court with as many as six more justices of his own choosing. He did not anticipate the depths of the adverse response, from friend and foe alike. John Nance Garner, his vice president, reacted to the reading of the plan in the Senate by holding his nose and giving it a thumbs-down. FDR was in the wrong, and, as Burt Solomon writes, “the Senate rebuked a president unwilling to bend,” leaving FDR “no longer invincible either with Congress or the public.” In the long run, though, FDR won. He ended up appointing eight justices to the court over the rest of his tenure and “gained his objective—a liberal-minded court, one that would endure for seven decades or more.”

The Breach
By Peter Baker (2000)

As second terms go, Bill Clinton had a relatively successful one, but he will forever be linked to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the resulting impeachment. In breathless, you-are-there journalistic style Peter Baker’s “The Breach” reveals tidbits still fascinating a decade and a half later. For example, Erskine Bowles, now of Simpson-Bowles fame but then Clinton’s chief of staff, desperately tried to keep himself away from the unsavory details of the scandal, even saying to United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson: “I don’t want to know a f—-ing thing about it.” One point the book clearly establishes is how the Clinton team worried that the scandal would become “the single moment defining him in the history books.” Despite their efforts, the scandal does remain among Clinton’s defining presidential moments. It also marked the beginning of a new era in American life. Reading the Starr Report was, Baker notes, “the first major real-time national Internet experience in the new information age.”

Polk
By Walter R. Borneman (2008)

James K. Polk did not have a second term, of course, but he was the only president to lay out goals for one term, accomplish those goals and then retire without seeking a second term. Polk made this intention clear in a letter accepting the nomination in 1844—no convention acceptance speeches back then—saying that, after four years, “I am resolved to retire to private life.” As Walter Borneman writes, Polk “immediately became a lame duck, but it allowed him to spend his political capital freely and he did so aggressively, expanding the powers of the presidency more than any other president before the Civil War.” Polk eschewed vacations, resolving to “remain constantly in Washington” and instructing his cabinet to do the same. Armed with this herculean work ethic and “a firm idea of what he wanted to accomplish,” he won a war with Mexico and acquired most of what is now the American West from the Mexicans and, more peacefully, from the British.

The Nightingale’s Song
By Robert Timberg (1995)

5 William Safire suggested in 1983 that Ronald Reagan step down after one term, à la Polk, having accomplished many of his top domestic goals. Many Americans—certainly most Republicans—are glad that he didn’t do so, but if he had, he would have been spared the embarrassment of the Iran-Contra affair. Robert Timberg’s The Nightingale’s Song provides telling portraits of some of the key players inside the national-security establishment at the time: Oliver North, James Webb, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, and Sen. John McCain. All five were graduates of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Timberg writes, and “shared a seemingly unassailable certainty. They believed in America.” Timberg shows how this shared belief was challenged over time, from their earliest days at the Academy through their time in the Reagan administration. The most compelling vignette concerns a championship boxing match between North and Webb, while they were both midshipmen, in which North grittily bested the heavily favored Webb. Through it all, “The Nightingale’s Song” succeeds in leaving a strong impression that the headaches of a second term might indeed make Safire’s advice seem like sound counsel.

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