The Post-White House Political Career

So presidential terms are fascinating and I like the idea of promising to be a one-termer. The other idea I find fascinating is what happens to presidents after the White House? Most former presidents retire quietly and busy themselves with humanitarian projects.

We’re not a monarchy or an empire, so that’s probably a good thing.

Post-Presidential Politics
Only three presidents that I’m aware of continued their political career after office (at least on a national scale):

  • William Howard Taft served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for nine years.
  • Andrew Johnson served four months in the Senate, his term cut short by a stroke. (Serving with the same senators who voted for his impeachment? Awkward.)
  • John Quincy Adams served 17 years in the House of Representatives and effectively had a second career as an abolitionist.

Adams is the most interesting case in this list of presidents who bucked the trend. He embraced the abolitionist cause and some have argued that he did more in Congress than he ever did as president.

It’s probably not a coincidence that all three served single-term presidencies and were defeated in their reelection bids. I imagine they had a sense of something to prove (definitely the case with Johnson, Adams seemed to have a mission, and Taft always wanted to be chief justice).

Any Current Takers?
I wonder if any current former presidents could pull this off? It seems like it’d be pretty easy for a former president to win (maybe that’s part of what makes this idea unseemly and why so few have done it). Seems like George W. Bush could take Texas and join the Senate. And as reviled as Barack Obama seems to be by half the country, he could easily nab Chicago’s district and take up a seat in the House of Representatives.

While John Quincy Adams served in Congress he met another congressman from Illinois who would go on to be president.

I can’t see any current former presidents actually doing it though. With the exception of George H.W. Bush, the rest are all hated so much by the opposition that they’d be a constant distraction. But it’s interesting to think about.

We don’t need a country of ruling elites (more than we already have), but I’m also intrigued by the example of Adams. Continuing to serve in the name of an important cause is a good reason to buck the trend.

Random Fact: Ever the contrarian, John Quincy Adams was sworn in as president with his hand on a book of constitutional law as opposed to the more traditional Bible. Imagine the uproar if someone tried that today?

What If Presidents Promised to Serve Only One Term?

So I think watching history unfold is captivating, especially when it comes to presidential politics. Yesterday I recounted the numbers on presidential reelection. Today I want to talk about a fun strategy.

The other night I couldn’t sleep and a political strategy came to mind. We seem to be stuck in an era of gridlock, where politicians are always angling for the next election. They’re focused more on staying in office than getting anything done.

So what if a presidential candidate promised to serve only one consecutive term?

They run for president and promise not to run for a consecutive reelection. Assuming they can stick to their promise, that means they have four years in office with no need to worry about reelection. Suddenly the first term is not about ensuring a second term. Their last year isn’t mostly lost to distraction while they run a presidential campaign and the country at the same time. Let the candidates squabble through the debates while the president remains presidential.

The American people get a more focused president. And the president would have the option of running again for a second, non-consecutive term (without the “loser” stigma). If they were a well-loved president and enjoyed doing the job, they’d have a great shot at reelection down the road.

Turning Down the Job
It rarely happens in U.S. history that a president decides not to run. It’s happened seven times.

Three times a president served a single term and did not run again:

  • James Polk. He campaigned with a promise to only serve one term and historians say it kept him focused on actually accomplishing stuff (of course he died 103 days after leaving office, so his post-presidential career was quite short).
  • Rutherford B. Hayes. He also promised not to run for reelection, though his initial win was clouded in scandal. He worked for social and educational reform in his retirement.
  • James Buchanan. He also declined to seek reelection, though that probably has more to do with his incredible lack of popularity as the country descended into the Civil War. More than a principled stand, he was saving face.

Four times a president served a partial term when their predecessor died, were elected to second terms and could have run for third terms but did not: Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon Johnson (though Roosevelt ran for a non-consecutive third term but split the ticket and lost).

It’s rarely been done in U.S. political history. Most presidents either served two terms or served only one and lost their re-election bids (or died while in office). It seems like two non-consecutive terms could be a way to accomplish more and save face politically (a former president could always gauge the popular opinion and have a good idea of their chances before running for their non-consecutive second term; and there would be plenty of reasons to opt out and not run again).

The One Exception
Grover Cleveland is the cagey president who pulled off the two non-consecutive terms. These days losing an election means you don’t get to try again (John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, etc.).

But Cleveland pulled it off. It’d be like Jimmy Carter going up against Ronald Reagan in 1984 and winning, or George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton in 1996 and winning; it’d take a special set of circumstances to work. And that’s really what Cleveland had. He lost the electoral college in the 1888 election but won the popular vote. When he moved out of the White House his wife told a staff member to take care of things because she’d be back in four years. She was right.

So maybe Al Gore coming back in 2004 to challenge George W. Bush would be a better comparison.

Run On a One-Term Platform
Limiting presidents to a single, six-year term is another idea that’s often discussed. Though I like the idea of presidents having another shot and giving the people a chance to weigh in.

But I think promising to run for a single-term would be powerful in our election-mad times. It immediately puts the single-termer above the fray. They’re here to do business. It’s bold. It’s different. And maybe it’s crazy enough to work.

Now which politician is going to be patient enough to walk away and wait four years before trying again? Which politician is going to be bold enough to make that kind of promise in the digital age and stick with it? Which politician is going to realize that this plan would effectively lengthen their time in the spotlight?


Two-Term vs. One-Term Presidents

I’m hardly even an armchair political spectator, but there is something about presidents, political power and history that’s fascinating. Presidential election years tend to kill my productivity because I want to hear the latest news and get the latest insights on what could happen (even when nothing is happening).

Watching history unfold is captivating.

So I’ve got some random thoughts on presidents and who gets reelected. But first, let’s look at the numbers on presidential reelection.

There’s a tendency to think of one-term presidents as failures. (Somehow being elected President of the United States once isn’t good enough.)

Two terms is the standard, exemplified by George Washington and only ever broken by Franklin Roosevelt on the brink of World War II, which brought on the  22nd Amendment and the two-term limit (though Ulysses S. Grant tried for a non-consecutive third term and was nearly nominated).

But the numbers look a little different:

  • 16 presidents were elected to two terms (or more, thanks Franklin).
  • 9 presidents were elected to one term and lost their reelection bids (these would be the guys we think of as failures).
  • 7 presidents were elected to one term and did not seek immediate reelection (3 were simple single-termers who didn’t run again; 4 had succeeded to the job and served a partial term, were then elected to another term, but didn’t run for a third term. Until Theodore Roosevelt tried for a third, non-consecutive term, but lost.)
  • 5 presidents succeeded to the presidency and never won an election.
  • 5 died before getting a chance to run for a second term, so it’s hard to know if they would have made two-term presidents
  • Only 1 president escaped the failure club by losing reelection but then coming back to win four years later and end up serving two non-consecutive terms. (Grover Cleveland forever complicated presidential math because we count him twice; Barack Obama is the 44th president, but the 43rd person to have the job.)

I don’t know what those numbers really tell you, other than the fact that lots of presidents have only served one term. 14 of them served a term and lost reelection and 7 more opted not to run again (maybe because they’d lose?).

My Name Is Not Easy: Native Injustice & Stupid Ideas

My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl EdwardsonMy Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson is the loose story of a group of young teens who are white, Indian and Eskimo gathered at a Catholic boarding school in remote Alaska in the 1960s.

It speaks to the hardships and injustices inflicted on the native people, but also follows them as they come of age, deal with tragedy and struggle to find their own voice.

It’s an interesting historical perspective and study of these characters, but the plot lacks direction and focus. It’s more a snapshot of life than a driving story.

Three compelling ideas stuck with me:

  1. “Luke knows his I’nupiaq name is full of sounds white people can’t say. He knows he’ll have to leave it behind when he and his brothers are sent to boarding school.” The theme of the title is subtle throughout the book, but the fact that he goes by Luke throughout the entire book is powerful. It’s also powerful (but still subtle) when he finally does use his name.
  2. Early in the book Luke’s youngest brother, Isaac, is taken away because he’s too young for boarding school. Rather than return to his family, he’s somehow adopted by a family in Texas. While it’s a small part of the story in terms of space (but not theme), it could have been the entire story. It’s unfathomable that something like that could have happened only 50 years ago, but it did.
  3. Many of the stories and circumstances of this book are based on real stories. In addition to the illegal adoption, there was medical testing on natives, a native hunting protest and Project Chariot—a plan to use nuclear bombs to create an artificial harbor nobody needed (a plan that seems comically stupid by today’s standards).

New John Scalzi is Unlocked

John Scalzi is one of my favorite new authors I’ve discovered in the past few years. He’s got a new book coming out this summer with a free sample and an introductory novella that’s also free. Score!

Scalzi writes sci-fi that’s funny, fast-paced and always exploring interesting ideas (in some cases by rehashing old ones in new ways).  Old Man’s War is probably his seminal work.

His new novel, Locked In, is a near-future story about a mysterious virus that renders people completely immobile. They’re still alive and can sense things, but they can’t move or respond in anyway. They’re essentially trapped in their bodies.

It’s a fascinating idea with bizarre repercussions, and Scalzi introduces us to the world with Unlocked, a novella that uses the oral history approach of World War Z (though he came up with the idea first) to follow the outbreak and subsequent response.

And the free part?

You can read Unlocked: An Oral History of Hayden’s Syndrome for free, right now, in its entirety.

Tor is also releasing the first five chapters of Locked In for free (one chapter per day, so just be patient).

Unlocked is pretty great and I can’t wait for the full novel, which comes out in late August.

When My Name Was Keoko: World War II Korea

When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue ParkWhen My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park is set in occupied Korea during World War II. It follows a brother and sister as the Japanese inflict more and more hardships.

The story itself didn’t blow me away, but the history was a perspective I knew nothing about. I don’t know much about Korean history, so it was fascinating to get this glimpse.

Much of the World War II story we get is the brutality of the Nazis. I’ve heard some about Japanese soldiers, but this viewpoint is more from a civilian point of view as Korea has been occupied by Japan for more than 30 years. The story chronicles many of the ways the Japanese tried to eliminate Korean culture, including banning the language and writing, forced renaming of citizens and even uprooting and burning the national tree of Korea.

The Japanese were working to homogenize their empire, crush the spirit of any resistance and wipe out any unique identifiers that Koreans could take pride in.

With this backdrop it becomes painfully obvious how offensive it is when non-Asians treat all Asians with a broad brush, confusing Koreans for Japanese for Chinese and then dismissing it all as meaningless.

Art-A-Whirl Old School Portrait

Art-A-Whirl portrait

Last Saturday we stumbled unwittingly into Art-A-Whirl in support of our friend Paul Johnson’s new photography magazine, Leaf Shutter. As part of the festivities, photographer Victor Keller had an old school camera set up and was taking portraits.

Victor Keller's Deardorff CameraThe camera he used was a refurbished Deardorff 8×10 (V8) view camera commonly used in the portrait studios in the 1930s-50s. It looked like something out of the 1860s, a square, boxish thing, complete with the black sheet the photographer hides under to take the picture. It had a pretty long exposure, so we had to stay perfectly still for two to three seconds.

When Victor finished he took us into the dark room to develop the picture, giving us the whole experience.

The best part was when he took a picture of the developed print using an iPhone and emailed it to us, turning the old school experience into a thoroughly modern one.

Check out the entire series of Victor’s Art-A-Whirl portraits.

Subverting Expectations in The Butterfly Mosque

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow WilsonAn American woman moves to Cairo in 2003, converts to Islam and marries an Egyptian.

She’s not a terrorist (though the State Department was very interested in her activities).

She’s not an abused and mistreated Muslim wife.

She actually writes for The Atlantic Monthly and Marvel—yes, she writes comic books.

G. Willow Wilson has an incredibly interesting story (one of the many I discovered at the Festival of Faith and Writing) and The Butterfly Mosque is a glimpse into that story. She navigates a new religion and a new culture—effectively entirely new worlds—with poise and grace. She confronts stereotypes and subverts expectations.

But it’s not just a defense of Islam and an attack on America. There are certainly critiques, but Willow works to keep a foot in both worlds. She’s uncomfortable being a bridge between the two, but she takes on the role in the ways she can (such as Ms. Marvel).

It’s a great read. Perhaps my biggest takeaway is that things aren’t always what we expect and no single voice can speak for everyone, whether it’s religion or culture. The Islam we hear about from TV commentators is not the Islam that’s practiced by everyone. There are gradations. There are extremists everywhere.

It’s perhaps most telling when Willow describes tenets of Christianity that I didn’t recognize as my own faith. Ironically, she was pulling from different threads to articulate her rejection of Christianity. It’s the same thing Muslims struggle with when Westerners have a monolithic perspective of Islam that just doesn’t exist in reality.

Overall The Butterfly Mosque is a chance to embrace a diverse viewpoint and find some beauty and commonality despite our differences.

Experiments in Fiction: Fiction Unboxed

If you like to see the bleeding edge of fiction, check out the work of Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt and David Wright.

These guys host the Self-Publishing Podcast and write a lot of books. They follow a serial format—think of a TV series for books. They release individual episodes, collected into a season that makes up each series. And they’ve done a ton of different series.

Platt and Wright have the successful Yesterday’s Gone series, Truant wrote Fat Vampire and Platt and Truant wrote Unicorn Western.

Now I don’t think these guys are perfect. They’re on the bleeding edge, and I think it shows. Yesterday’s Gone is weird. The setup is so bizarre I didn’t get past the first season, but the suspense was pretty great. Fat Vampire is a hilarious concept and I liked the first one, but the sequels fell flat. Unicorn Western is another great concept, but I wasn’t hooked.

That’s just my opinion though. Yesterday’s Gone has nearly 700 reviews on Amazon averaging 4.5 stars. And these guys crank stuff out. Yesterday’s Gone has four seasons out and Unicorn Western has something like nine, and it only started in early 2013.

Now these guys are taking the experiment further and trying to write, edit and publish a novel in 30 days. It’s National Novel Writing Month on steroids. They’re also offering to share the process with the world, thanks to their Fiction Unboxed Kickstarter project.

They’ve got all kinds of rewards (including a free copy of the Scrivener writing software that I highly recommend), but the main idea is that you can see nuts and bolts of how they crank out stories so quickly.

It’s kind of a cool concept. Plus, the project has already met its goal, so it’s going to happen. If you want to support it, jump on board and reap the rewards.

I’m not in love with everything these guys crank out, but they’re out there and doing it. That’s impressive. And it’s worth watching.

The Last Wild: All Imagination, All Rise

The Last Wild by Piers TordayThe Last Wild by Piers Torday gives us a post-apocalyptic world where the red-eye virus has killed nearly all the animals. Save for a few holdouts, humanity has been pushed into cities and subsists on a synthetic formula.

It’s a bleak setup for a children’s novel. But it gets worse.

Kester Jaynes is trapped in a home for troubled children because he stopped talking six years ago. There’s your rejected outcast hero.

But then some of the remaining animals start talking to him, including a flock of pigeons and a fighting cockroach. They break him out and the adventure begins, a journey to cure the virus and save the last remaining animals.

It’s very British.

Kind of a post-apocalyptic Narnian adventure. I give it kudos for imagination (and a killer cover). The middle-grade post-apocalyptic story is quite a challenge.

But I felt like the pacing was off. Quest stories have a difficult task: the author needs to keep the adventure moving but maintain the right balance of hope and despair. We have to keep the goal in mind and feel like we’re getting there, but there also needs to be the drama of the adventure—all the challenges that keep our hero from his goal and jeopardize the entire mission.

There has to be a rising and falling action, moments of intense danger when it’s all on the line, but then moments of rest and recovery when our heroes can gather their wits and prepare for the next challenge. I felt like The Last Wild never had any rest. It was all rise. That might work in a mix CD, but not in an adventure story.

Plus, it’s the first in a series, so we don’t get complete closure on everything.