Comparing W. With Q.; Should We Look To Quincy Adams For Precedent?

By Garry South

October 3, 2004

The Sacramento Bee

In the current campaign, much has been made of some eerie comparisons between George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, president of the United States, and his (partly) eponymous offspring, George W. Bush, the 43rd.

Each launched a war against Iraq and each considers himself liberator of a Middle Eastern domain — Kuwait and Iraq, respectively. One made Dick Cheney secretary of defense, the other vice president.

And both found themselves stuck in a re-election campaign with a sputtering economy technically out of recession but still in the dumps in the eyes of many anxious voters. Will Bush fils also meet the same fate as Bush pere?

In assessing Bush the Younger’s predicament, I wonder whether the press and pundits might not be noodling over the wrong precedent. Maybe we ought to be looking not at Bush I but at Adams II — as in John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, and the only other “P.K.” (president’s kid) ever to follow his father into the White House.

Now, to be sure, there are some wee differences between Q. and W. For starters, John Quincy Adams assumed the presidency a full 24 years after his Founding Father father left it, while George W. Bush took office just eight years after his sire involuntarily gave up the reins. William Henry Harrison once described the intellectual Adams’ opinions as being “drawn from books exclusively.” We all know that’s not Bush’s problem.

Also, John Quincy Adams had acquired massive international experience before becoming chief executive. At age 10, he tagged along with his dad, John Adams, on a diplomatic mission to Paris.

He served as U.S. minister to the Netherlands (at age 26) under President Washington, minister to Prussia under his father, minister to Russia and Great Britain under President Madison and secretary of state under James Monroe.

In fairness, George W. did bring along at least a modicum of foreign experience. After all, he traveled to China in 1975 (at 30) to visit his father when the latter was serving as American envoy to the People’s Republic. Then there’s that still-unexplained jaunt to Guatemala in the early ’70s. And, come to think of it, Bush was sort of a glad-handing goodwill, um, ambassador for the Texas Rangers.

Then, of course, there is that slight discrepancy in erudition. John Quincy Adams, widely considered perhaps the most intelligent man ever to serve as president (born, appropriately, in Braintree, Mass.), studied at universities in France, Germany, Russia, Holland, Sweden and England — all before being admitted to Harvard. Adams also spoke seven languages and read the classics in Greek and Latin.

The younger Bush, on the other hand, was a legacy enrollee at Yale — thanks to his Yalie father and grandfather — and has bragged about his mediocrity as a student, even in commencement addresses as president. And his acquaintance with the English language itself is, how shall we say, casual at best. He also claims to speak Spanish, but his pidgin attempts strike many native Spanish-speakers as akin to “Saturday Night Live” spoofs.

But the parallels between the two presidential scions also are pretty striking. For example, both reached the presidency in two of the most hotly disputed elections in American history.

Adams was elected in 1824 in the first, and so far only, presidential race in which no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Adams emerged victorious over Andrew Jackson after cutting a backroom deal with Henry Clay, one of the other candidates in the five-way contest.

Bush, of course, lost the popular vote in 2000 by 500,000 votes, the first ultimately successful presidential candidate to do so since 1876. He grabbed the White House by virtue of the controversial, unprecedented 5-4 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court, enabling him to win Florida by only 537 hanging chads — and garner exactly one more electoral vote than needed to become president.

Despite Adams’ brilliance, he came to be viewed widely as an inflexible, self-righteous chief executive, remote from average people’s concerns and whose presidency was devoid of any substantial domestic achievements. After one disappointing, desultory term, Adams was demolished in an 1828 rematch with war hero Jackson. (Maybe Bush should thank his lucky stars Gore’s not running again this year.)

Bush, likewise, has shown himself to be stubborn, ideologically rigid and incapable of even admitting to a mistake. And, perhaps due partly to his hallmark massive tax cuts for the rich, his presidency also has come to be viewed by a majority of voters as undistinguished in terms of making life better for average Americans. Other than the war on terror, Bush’s marks are generally mediocre to poor on most domestic counts.

Oh, and there’s this parallel: They made a movie about Adams. It’s called “Amistad,” about the former president winning freedom for a bunch of African slaves who mutinied and took over a ship of the same name in 1839. They also made a movie about Bush.

It’s called “Fahrenheit 9/11.” It’s about… well, you know what it’s about.

So will Bush II, like Adams II, also be yanked out of office after four years? We won’t know for sure until Nov. 2, of course (or perhaps longer if the outcome again boils down to Florida).

One thing we can be pretty certain of, though. If Bush ends up a fellow one-termer, his post-White House career is not likely to equal that of ex-prez Adams.

Just two years after his defeat, John Quincy Adams ran for and won a congressional seat in his native Massachusetts. He served with distinction in the lower chamber until he died (felled by a stroke on the floor of the House), earning the nickname “Old Man Eloquent” for his impassioned speeches against any encroachment on civil liberties and House rules that forbade the discussion of slavery.

Bush, of course, also ran for Congress, in 1978, but was beaten in his first electoral outing. I guess he could become only the second former president to serve in the House — particularly given the mid-decade Republican gerrymandering in Texas that would give him his choice of a couple dozen safe GOP seats. Unlike Adams, however, I doubt George W. Bush will ever become known as eloquent, no matter where he ends up.

But then again, are I misunderestimating him?