- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2000

Now that the Republican and Democratic national conventions are over, one thing is certain: Come Jan. 20 at high noon, the United States is going to have a four-letter president either George W. "Bush" or Al "Gore." Sure, there's nothing wrong about either of these men or their qualifications for the highest office in the land. It's just that, well, each will be confronting the ghosts of history in terms of their legacy.

You see, all four-letter presidents James K. Polk, William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford and George Bush had a rough time in the White House in the sense that each served only one term or, in Ford's case, less than a term.

The Democrats' Polk was the first president to come from the "blue," that is, he was a "dark" horse candidate. He defeated another four-letter candidate, Henry "Clay," in 1844. Clay even had a four-letter campaign. He wanted a "just" and "fair" annexation of Texas. (That's right, Texas, the home state of George W.). Polk got Texas for the United States and was credited for starting the war with Mexico, which resulted in even more "land."

But all that "wore" down Polk, who decided that one term was enough. As he wrote in his diary on Aug. 14, 1848: "I am heartily rejoiced that the session of Congress is 'over.' My 'long' confinement and great labour has exceedingly exhausted me, and I feel the absolute necessity of having some 'rest.' " So Polk went home to a state familiar to Al Gore Tennessee. And the Democratic convention of 1848 nominated another four-letter presidential candidate, Lewis "Cass." And guess what happened to him? He "lost."

Republican William Howard Taft was even more unsuccessful than Polk. He was from "Ohio" and was "full" figured, weighing as much as 326 pounds. As president, though, Taft didn't weigh problems very carefully. He appointed Philander C. "Knox" as secretary of state, who negotiated treaties with Nicaragua and Honduras that were turned "down" by the Senate.

Taft failed his first test to show strong leadership with Congress by signing a lousy tariff bill. He called the Payne-Aldrich tariff the "best" ever passed; opponents said it was too "high."

Taft's leadership alienated the man who had put him in "high" office, Theodore Roosevelt, who by 1912 was contemplating coming out of retirement what Roosevelt called a back-from-"Elba" movement. (Thanks to the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution preventing presidents from being elected for more than two terms, a President Al Gore won't have to worry in the year 2004 about Bill" Clinton, the man from "Hope," Ark., doing the same thing as Roosevelt.)

Taft met his Waterloo in 1912 when Roosevelt formed the Bull" Moose Party. The three-way race that developed led to the election of the first Democrat in 20 years, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, however, went on to teach law at his alma mater, "Yale" and eventually took a big "seat" on the Supreme Court as chief justice.

Taft and the next four-letter president, Gerald Ford, had two things in common. Both men liked "golf" and were disposed to have loose "lips." For example, Taft's first words as president his inaugural address were: "My fellow citizens: Anyone who has taken the oath I have just taken must feel a heavy weight of responsibility."

Mr. Ford's memorable words came in the 1976 campaign when he said there was no Soviet domination of "East" Europe.

As for George Bush, ousted from office by Mr. Clinton in 1992, about the only thing historians can say at this point is that he did not completely solve the "Iraq" problem. And he was a long way from cutting the federal "debt." Perhaps his biggest mistake was reneging on his pledge not to raise taxes. He simply failed to read his own "lips."

Of course, both George W. Bush and Al Gore will have their own distinct four-letter problems when one of them takes a lease on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But some problems will be the same, no matter who is elected. Either one, fortunately, won't have to work with "Newt" Gingrich in the House, although that may not be the case for current Senate leader Trent "Lott." For both Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, "Ross" Perot is probably out of the political picture for good. And the winning candidate is almost certain to appear on Larry "King" "Live."

But from what I perceive through their smiles, I suspect either man, if elected, would happily forego Larry King's "show" in favor of the treat that winners of the Super Bowl get a trip to "Walt" Disney theme park.

Thomas V. DiBacco is an American University history professor emeritus.

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