Tips from 'squeaker' presidents

Were a new President Bush or Gore to take a class on squeaker presidencies, this is what history would teach them:

Lesson No. 1. Embrace the opposition.

Lesson No. 2. Don't try anything too ambitious.

Plenty of presidents have taken office by the barest of margins, or with no mandate. Some have still been able to govern successfully - and to accomplish something. The key, say historians, was their ability to bridge the partisan divide - whether through personality and rhetorical skill, as was the case with John Kennedy, or through policy compromises, as Rutherford Hayes chose to do in 1876.

Either of these is an option for a Bush or Gore administration, with the Texas governor more likely to approach the task with his personal charm, and the vice president more inclined to look for policy common ground.

But that's the best-case scenario. If you rate the candidates on their first test of leadership - the vote count in Florida - both fail miserably, say many experts.

"What they've allowed is a kind of vacuum in leadership" that's been filled with lawyers and media speculation, says presidential scholar Charles Jones.

Of course, bringing unity to a divided nation is a monumental challenge. Of the three presidents who failed to win the popular vote - all in the 19th century - none served a second term.

Still, the task is not impossible.

A unifying rhetoric

The youthful and suave President Kennedy, who got 49.7 percent of the popular vote to Richard Nixon's 49.5 percent, signaled with his inaugural speech that the campaign was over and he was serious about governing. He reached out to Republicans and appointed them to prominent positions - most notably, free-trader C. Douglas Dillon as Treasury secretary. He met regularly with members of Congress, and did not blast out of the starting gate with a big Democratic agenda, but chose to pick up modest leftovers from the previous administration.

Perhaps most important, Kennedy won over much of the nation - especially young people - with his rhetoric and style. "He conquered the nation personally," says presidential historian Henry Graff of New York's Columbia University.

On the domestic front, Kennedy failed to move his civil rights agenda, but he challenged Americans to apply the Golden Rule in race relations, launched the space program, and inspired them with the Peace Corps.

Building bridges

If anyone should know a few things about bridge-building, it's Gerald Ford. He had no mandate and wasn't even elected. After Nixon's scandalous resignation, President Ford used up whatever good will he had in the public reservoir when he pardoned his former boss.

But Ford, says Fred Greenstein of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, "was a very classy character."

He dealt with the Democratic Congress mostly through the veto pen, but also built personal relations on the Hill. "Ford's appeal to Democrats was simply that they trusted him. He was a straight shooter," says John Kessel of Ohio State University. He cleared the air by going to Capitol Hill to explain his pardon, and he invited Democrats to the White House who were usually shunned by Republicans. Eventually, he came to be viewed as the man who ended a "national nightmare."

Even today, Ford is in awe of the healing outcome.

"As the days went by, and we reached out to my old friends on Capitol Hill..., I was amazed by America's capacity for self-healing," Ford said at a recent reunion of four presidents and five first ladies.

Too much too soon

Many scholars suggest that if the 1976 election had taken place just a few days later, Ford would have bested Jimmy Carter. And they point to President Carter's tenure as how not to respond to a close election.

The Carter administration, says Mr. Kessel, wasted its Democratic majority in Congress by branding politicians like Speaker Tip O'Neill as Washington insiders and holding them at arms' length. Carter was also too ambitious, smothering the Hill in proposals. A big mistake was trying to create a whole new agency - the Energy Department - largely in secret.

Times have changed, of course, and it's difficult to draw too many comparisons to past presidents. But some leadership skills sweep across the centuries, and both Bush and Gore exhibit certain key traits.

Many analysts see Bush as the more natural unifier. "The grace notes associated with his personal style might get him a hearing with the other side," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. As governor of Texas, Bush worked hard to befriend the Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, as well as many members of the state legislature.

Gore, on the other hand, lacks the personal charm of his rival. In fact, he built his campaign on his image as a fighter. He would be a superb leader, say some, if the Democrats had a majority in Congress.

"It's the nature of his style," says Mr. Jones. "He wants not only to win, he wants the other guy to lose. Learning to share credit won't be easy for him - but it's not beyond him at all."

Then, too, Gore might be able to use his fluency with policy as a road to compromise. Before Watergate, that's what Nixon did, moving the nation ahead on traditional Democratic issues such as environmental protection. In his years as vice president, Gore can point to a centrist record, supporting welfare reform, free trade, a balanced budget, and smaller federal government.

In either case, says Mr. Graff, the new president will be in a very tough position.

"Whichever of these guys gets the presidency..., he's going to have to not only take care of politicos who are miffed, but he's going to have to take care of a vast population that has been angered by what's going on in Florida, and who will claim that the election was stolen," he concludes. "I don't envy the guy."

Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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