Presidential Rivalry and Bad Blood in American History (Part 2)
tags: presidential history
Ronald L. Feinman is the author of Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2015). A paperback edition is now available.
For part 1 of this blog series, read here.
Harry Truman had two famous feuds with other presidents: his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, who as a Congressman from California accused Truman of being “soft on Communism,” even before the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Truman and Ike originally got along well. Truman at one point made a stunning proposal to Ike that he run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1948 with Truman, who had low public opinion ratings, serving as his vice president. But Ike was then nonpolitical and uninterested, and turned Truman down. Later, when the Korean War was raging, Ike agreed to run for the Republican nomination in 1952. Even though Truman quickly ended his reelection campaign, the two men were now at loggerheads, as Ike was critical of Truman’s Korean policies. So the two men did not get along during the Eisenhower Administration, and only met and agreed to reconcile at the 1963 funeral of John F. Kennedy. They were never close again in the six years before Eisenhower passed away in 1969.
The Truman-Nixon hatred was clear in 1948, when Nixon rose to prominence as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Alger Hiss. At that time, Truman crudely insulted Nixon, then a freshman Congressman from California, whom he did not personally know. And when Nixon was vice president under Eisenhower, Truman was a regular critic, most specifically when Nixon ran for president in 1960 against John F. Kennedy. But when Nixon finally won the Presidency in 1968, he decided to make the first move to heal the bad blood, determining that he would bring the White House piano used by Truman (it was still in the White House as Nixon also played), to be permanently settled in the Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. The scene of Nixon meeting with Truman, then 85 years old, was a nationally televised event, and Truman seemed not very thrilled, but accepted the gift, and it made Nixon look more presidential to overcome the rivalry. But after Nixon was forced out of office in 1974, two years after Truman’s passing, comedians joked that the dirt moved over Truman’s grave in Missouri, as if Truman in heaven was laughing that Nixon had received his “just desserts”!
Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter competed against each other in 1976. Ford was very bitter about his defeat, and considered joining Ronald Reagan as his vice president against Carter in 1980. Ford was critical of Carter’s record, but in a short time after Carter’s loss to Reagan, the two men and their wives became fast friends, visited each other and their presidential libraries, and held symposiums together. Some considered this rapprochement, the most impressive since that of Adams and Jefferson in the early 19th century. The two men agreed among themselves that the survivor would give the eulogy at the deceased’s funeral, and Carter did precisely that in December 2006.
Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan also had a major rivalry in 1980. The two men did not get along or interact during the Reagan Presidency. One famous moment displaying their continued rivalry occurred when Reagan ordered the solar panels that Carter has installed on the White House roof removed. But Carter went to the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 by Reagan’s invitation, and also attended the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in 1991 and the funerals of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 2004 and 2016 respectively. So in a sense, there was a mild reconciliation.
The same situation occurred between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton during the presidential Election of 1992, and over the next eight years. A reconciliation came during the administration of George W. Bush, whose father and Clinton became close to the point that the senior Bush and his wife Barbara jokingly said Bill Clinton was an adopted son from another mother. Clinton and the elder Bush engaged in Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005, with Clinton offering his sleeping quarters on their shared plane to the older Bush.
Finally comes the story of Donald Trump’s rivalry with both Bill Clinton and his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, and the conflict between Trump and Barack Obama.
It may be hard to imagine, but Trump had invited the Clintons to his wedding to Melania in 2005, and had said good things about both of them, but then turned against both, to run a vicious campaign of insults in 2016. The Trump attack on both Clintons has continued to this day, as has the totally nasty and bitter Trump attack on Obama beginning with the “Birther” conspiracy that Obama is not an American citizen and was born in Kenya, but continuing incessantly ever since.
Trump has set out to destroy everything that Barack Obama has accomplished in both domestic and foreign policy during his eight years in the White House. Trump has accused Obama and all of the people in his administration of treason, and no attack by him or his two older sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, on Obama and his wife is beyond the pale. And now, the baseless accusation that Trump calls “Obamagate” is becoming the newest line of attack in the 2020 presidential campaign against Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden. So anything is possible in the campaign of hatred and division being waged by the 45th president against the 44th president and his vice president. It’s probably no coincidence that this is happening in the midst of the Coronavirus driven collapse of the American economy from the peak of recovery accomplished under Obama after the Great Recession of 2008, arguably the greatest economic recovery in American history (surpassing FDR’s after Herbert Hoover).
While presidential rivalries have happened before, they have reached a new peak with the current president, more vicious and divisive than any other in American history.
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