Saturday, September 5, 2015

What Ifs Of Presidential History

If you are like me and find history fascinating, you have undoubtedly thought about how history would be different if something did or did not happen. "Alternate history" has become a burgeoning genre that speculates about everything from what would have happened if the South won the Civil War to how John F. Kennedy would have led our country had he escaped an assassin's bullet in Dallas. 

Although picking historical events to play the "what if" game are endless, speculating about Presidential events is particularly interesting because of the singular role that office plays in influencing our country. So, consider how history would have changed if the following things turned out differently:

George Washington And Presidential Third Terms. As our nation marked 20 years of independence and was still getting accustomed to a Constitution that had been ratified just eight years earlier, George Washington opted against running for a third term as President. There was no legal prohibition at the time (that would not occur until 1951) but by stepping aside, Washington sent a clear message that Presidents should not be monarchs - an unwritten rule that would be followed for more than 130 years. 

Had Washington run again, he almost certainly would have been re-elected (he won re-election in 1792 by unanimous acclaim in the Electoral College), and, potentially, died in office, which would have put the question of Presidential succession foursquare in the body politic 40+ years before it would actually happen (William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841) and also opened the way for two-term presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, U.S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt (not technically elected twice, but more on that later) to consider another term in office, creating their own ripples in our historical pond.

How Was That Play, Mrs. Lincoln? There is no greater "what if" to ponder than what would have happened had President and Mrs. Lincoln taken a pass on going to Ford's Theater on the evening of April 14th, 1865. Lincoln's death and succession by Vice President Andrew Johnson just days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House forever changed our nation. Johnson's tone deaf politics and general incompetence ensured that the transition to Reconstruction was unwieldy and his term of office is notable largely for the fact that he barely escaped conviction and removal from office in the U.S. Senate after being impeached by the House of Representatives. 

There are two other "what ifs" surrounding Lincoln - first, how history would have changed had he not replaced his first-term Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, with Johnson and second, what would have happened had the three-headed plot of assassination on the night of April 14th - of Lincoln, Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward  - been totally successful. Seward was not in the line of succession regardless, so the United States would have welcomed President Lafayette Foster, the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, who would have served for about six months before a new election was held. At that point, who knows what would have happened.

Tilden Wins In 1876. 124 years before hanging chads decided the 2000 election (more on that later), Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden ran a neck-and-neck race for the Presidency that was essentially decided in a back room deal whereby Hayes promised to remove troops from the South, effectively ending the Reconstruction Era and heralding almost 80 years of Jim Crow segregation. Let that one soak in.

McKinley Dodges A Bullet: Just six months into his second term as President, William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo, New York. His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, could not have been more different than the deceased leader. Whereas McKinley was largely a tool of corporate interests, Roosevelt aggressively went after corporate trusts, protected hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Had McKinley survived the assassin's bullet, Roosevelt's hard charging style and trust-busting ways may have never seen the light of day. Of course, Roosevelt's place on McKinley's ticket in 1900 was also a quirk of history. McKinley's first-term Vice President, Garret Hobart, with whom McKinley was quite close, died in office in late 1899. 

TR Wins A Third Term: Since he ascended to the Presidency due to McKinley's assassination, Roosevelt technically could have honored Washington's "no three term" pledge and run for re-election in 1908 because he had only been elected President once (in 1904); however, Roosevelt opted against this move, hand picking William Howard Taft, his Secretary of War, to succeed him. 

Taft won the 1908 election but disappointed Roosevelt, leading the former President to make another run for the White House in 1912. When his own party snubbed him, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate, receiving more votes than Taft, but losing badly to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. However, Taft and Roosevelt combined to receive a million more votes than Wilson (a huge amount when you consider that only 15 million total votes were cast), suggesting that had Republicans simply handed the nomination to their former standard bearer, he would have been returned to office. Roosevelt's deep militarism likely would have led our country into World War I much earlier, and, potentially, made that bloody war shorter. 

FDR Does Not Make It To His Inauguration: As the country spiraled down into the depths of the Great Depression and two short weeks before the eagerly anticipated inauguration of President-Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, an assassin narrowly missed altering the course of history. Just after delivering a speech in Miami, Roosevelt and others were fired upon by an unemployed bricklayer named Giuseppe Zangara. Zangara, standing a mere five feet tall, stood on a wobbly chair and took aim; however, he missed Roosevelt, but struck several others, including the Mayor of Chicago, who was mortally wounded. 

It is an open question whether Vice President-Elect John Nance Garner would have become President, but regardless of whether Nance or someone else ascended to the Presidency, neither the New Deal as we know it nor the regulatory state that arose in the wake of the Supreme Court's decisions upholding key elements of the New Deal would have happened. Wow. 

FDR Takes A Bow In 1940. There's that whole "third term" thing again. FDR, breaking with unofficial precedent, ran for a third term in 1940, largely due to his view that his leadership was needed to contend with the uncertainty of World War II and the nation's ongoing recovery from the Great Depression. FDR did not win the Democratic nomination without a fight, other candidates, including his own Vice President and Secretary of State, as well as a U.S. Senator threw their hats into the ring. Had FDR not been nominated, the Democrats would have contended with affable Republican Wendell Willkie, who ended up losing to FDR by 10 percentage points. 

Roosevelt's third term was particularly eventful what with the Pearl Harbor attack, D-Day invasion and development of the atomic bomb. How history would have been altered if a President Garner, Hull, or Willkie was sitting in the Oval Office during these consequential years is impossible to fathom.

President Henry Wallace. While campaigning for an unprecedented fourth term, FDR sent word to the convention nominating him that he would not oppose the removal of his liberal Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket. The convention obliged, tapping obscure Missouri Senator Harry Truman to replace him. Roosevelt's death in April 1945 elevated Truman to the White House. 

While serving the remainder of FDR's term, Truman made the call to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and create the Marshall Plan. Whether Wallace would have made these same decisions is unknown, but they are not small things. The option of dropping a bomb that would kill 75,000 civilians in an instant versus invading Japan with a force of more than one million troops or funding the reconstruction of Europe at enormous cost to American taxpayers were enormously consequential.

One place where Wallace's more liberal politics would have unquestionably been felt is in the selection of the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Truman picked a crony, Fred Vinson, whose death in 1953 led to the nomination of Earl Warren and the ushering in of the most progressive period in the Court's history. Had a President Wallace appointed someone else, it is possible Warren never gets to be Chief Justice and the entire civil rights era looks much different. 

JFK, Not LBJ. Had Kennedy never visited Texas or survived the assassination attempt that took his life, LBJ's place in history would have largely been erased. From the Vietnam War to the creation of Medicare and the passing of things like the Voting Rights Act, this is one of the great "what ifs" of history. It is widely assumed Kennedy would not have escalated our involvement in Vietnam, but at the same time, the civil rights laws passed after his death occurred largely because of LBJ's indomitable spirit and unsurpassed legislative skills. Would Kennedy have lobbied as aggressively for their passage? We will never know. 

Tragedy at the Washington Hilton. When John Hinckley tried to murder President Ronald Reagan on March 30th, 1981, he easily could have changed the face of modern American history. In fact, Hinckley came within an inch or two of accomplishing his twisted mission. As others have chronicled, had the caliber of the bullet been greater (Hinckley used a .22), lodged an inch or two higher in the President's chest (Reagan was in shock when arrived at the hospital and lost a considerable amount of blood during surgery), or his arrival at the hospital been delayed by just a few minutes, Reagan may not have survived, elevating George H.W. Bush to the Presidency less than three months into Reagan's initial term of office. The what ifs of that are dizzying, but it is entirely possible the world never hears of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama. 

Florida. Just utter this word to any Democrat and no more needs to be said. No war in Iraq. No budget busting tax cuts for the wealthy. No use of terrorism as a cudgel against political opponents. Maybe even no 9/11. Not only had the Clinton Administration broken up a terrorist plot timed for New Year's 2000, but a Gore Administration likely would have retained many of the people who had warned (to no avail) the incoming Bushies about the threat Bin Laden posed. Different ballot, different judges, more careful voting by retired Jewish grandparents in Palm Beach County (Gore won the county 62/35 but Pat Buchanan's 3,411 votes tripled his haul in any other county in the state - no small thing considering Bush "won" by 537 votes), no Ralph Nader, or per-curium-this-decision-has-no-precedential-value opinion of the Supreme Court and our nation looks so much different today.

So that was fun. What are some of your "what if" scenarios?

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 


  1. There is little doubt in my mind that Truman saved a million lives (minimum) with those bombs - and made further use of them much more unlikely - worth tens-of-millions?

    TR, with his notions of nobless oblige and consequent anti-trust work, may well have tempered the communist backlash during the Red Decade.

    On the JFK question, this book may be of interest:

    On the RWR question, the USSR was already in the process of shooting itself in the foot (over and over) in Afghanistan, so it was setting the table for its own demise from within. Hard to say how much Reagan's cold war rhetoric and his Missile Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars) accelerated Putin's Great Regret.

    I should imagine that many of those elderly "Buchanan supporters" warned their grandchildren to read contracts and ballots very carefully.

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