TIME

Meet America’s Most Successful Political Families

It's that time of year again: Bushes and Clintons galore are on the campaign trail supporting candidates who are up for election. Here's a look at America's most successful political dynasties

TIME Books

The Politician America Really Needs: A Certain First Lady

Lady Bird Johnson
Lady Bird Johnson Bettmann/Corbis

Jonathan Darman is the author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of A New America, out this month.

Forget the LBJ fantasies—if we could have Lady Bird back, things might be different

In this dismal hour of American politics, there is no better way to strike just the right note of sober-minded weariness than to speak, wistfully and longingly, about the wonders of Lyndon Baines Johnson. What we wouldn’t give for the impresario of arm-twisting—the president who, in the mid-1960s, forced greatness out of Washington that transformed people’s lives. The steward of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The man who delivered Medicare. If only we had LBJ around, who could force even our do-nothing politicians to do something.

The sad truth is that today’s politics are probably too hopelessly polarized to make good use of a legislative wunderkind. What we need are politicians who are unafraid to go to the most difficult places, to look painful realities in the face. And for that, we don’t need LBJ. We need his wife.

This might seem strange, sure. In pictures from the 1960s, Lady Bird often looks like the ultimate example of a smiling, silent good wife. Throughout her long career in Washington, she was always guided by a simple question: how to serve her husband best. To serve Lyndon, a wild-tempered man of expansive appetites and unending need, that often meant suffering indignities that were shocking even in a pre-feminist era. Jackie Kennedy, who watched Lady Bird write down every one of Lyndon’s thoughts and wishes, thought Lady Bird looked “like a trained hunting dog.”

LANDSLIDE -- book jacket

But Lady Bird’s dutiful subservience obscured her strength: a rare willingness to see the world as it really was. Despite his modern reputation as a pragmatist, LBJ often struggled to look at the future realistically, preferring to alternate between fantasies of great glory or doom and gloom. At key moments in the Johnson presidency, when Lyndon would give in to paranoia about the future, Lady Bird was a lone voice of reason.

During the historic campaign of 1964, as delegates to the Democratic National Convention gathered in the late-summer heat of Atlantic City, a woe-begotten Lyndon, worried about the demands of the office, took to his White House bedroom, saying he might refuse the nomination and let the presidency go. Lady Bird wouldn’t have it. In a letter to her husband she was kind but clear: “To step out now would be wrong for your country, and I can see nothing but a lonely wasteland in your future. Your friends would be frozen in embarrassed silence and your enemies jeering.” Lyndon got on a plane to the convention and accepted his party’s nomination as planned.

In the fall, even as landslide victory began to look like a sure thing, Lady Bird worried about the South, where white Democrats were enraged over the Administration’s handling of Civil Rights. Though southern politicians said they could not guarantee her safety, she set off for the confederacy in a train dubbed the “Lady Bird Special” to make the case for her husband.

And trouble came. In Charleston, she was greeted by angry protesters and a crude sign calling her “BLACK BIRD.” In Columbia, South Carolina, her words were temporarily drowned out by a booing mob. It was enough to shake a seasoned politician but Lady Bird simply held her white-gloved hand in the air. “This is a country of many viewpoints,” she said. “I respect your right to express your own. Now it is my turn to express mine. Thank you.” And with that, her harassers hushed.

Just weeks before the election, the political world convulsed with the news that Walter Jenkins, the Johnsons’ closest aide, had been caught having sex with another man in the basement of a Washington YMCA. Lady Bird urged her husband to show public support and compassion for a man who had served their family for decades. When he refused, Lady Bird defied the advice of his counselors and released her own public statement: “My heart is aching today for someone who has reached the end point of exhaustion in service to his country.”

In the course of the ‘64 campaign, Lady Bird displayed a deep realism about human nature that is far more rare in a First Lady than we might think. President Obama, like his predecessors, promotes his wife as a source of real-talk, the one person who is unimpressed by his office and still gives it to him straight. But a First Lady, like any spouse, often feels the criticisms of her husband more acutely than does the president himself. A bunker of denial and recrimination can be an enticing escape for both partners in a political marriage. Hillary Clinton provided many assets to her husband during their time in the White House, but relief from paranoia and self-pity was not among them.

Even Lady Bird’s powers had their limits. As the Johnson presidency wore on, Vietnam overwhelmed everything, including Lady Bird’s ability to cut through the illusions in her husband’s head. It is tantalizing to imagine an alternate history of the Johnson presidency in which the First Lady was empowered to help her husband in Vietnam the way she helped him in other areas.

And it is tempting to imagine what would happen if more leaders today had Lady Bird’s spirit, her willingness to go to the unkind places, to face the fury of hostile crowds. Imagine how things might be different if our leaders had faith that when you look at the hard things plainly, they often to turn out to be far less frightening than they seem. And then imagine what would happen when a truly gifted leader broke that silence and spoke.

Jonathan Darman, a former political correspondent for Newsweek, is the author of Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of A New America, out this month.

 

 

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TIME White House

The 10 Shortest Stints in the Oval Office

William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia during his first term, is the shortest serving U.S. President

When presidential hopefuls envision their time in office, it’s almost certain that none dream of anything less than a four year stint. Most probably aspire to eight. But a surprisingly high 23% of all U.S. presidents—10 out of our 43 commanders in chief—never made it through a single full term.

So why have so many of our nation’s chief executives called the White House home for less than four years? To find out, see the list compiled by research engine FindTheBest below.

 

10. John Tyler

In office 3.92 years

1841-1845

John Tyler came the closest to completing four years in office of all 10 presidents on the list above. He was also the first president to reach the White House without being elected to office, assuming the title upon President Harrison’s death in 1841. Although he started running for reelection in the 1844 campaign, he withdrew his candidacy in August due to insufficient support from the Whig party.

 

9. Andrew Johnson

In office 3.86 years

1865-1869

Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency after President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. Johnson wanted a quick reconciliation with the South in post-Civil War America, so he didn’t give protection to former slaves, and was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1868 as a result. He was acquitted by the Senate by one vote, and remained in office to see his term through, but had lost the support he needed to run for reelection in 1870.

 

8. Chester A. Arthur

In office 3.86 years

1881-1885

Chester A. Arthur became the fourth vice president to attain the presidency through the death of a predecessor—in this case, James A. Garfield. Arthur chose not to run for reelection, and returned to practicing law instead. Almost a year after his presidency ended, however, he fell ill and died.

 

7. John F. Kennedy

In office 2.83 years

1961-1963

Perhaps one of the most well-known and beloved presidents, John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. Oswald was arrested on the same day of the assassination, but he was shot and killed by a man named Jack Ruby two days later. While the FBI and the Warren Commission investigation concluded that Oswald had acted alone, the exact details of what happened are still a mystery, and many conspiracy theories abound.

 

6. Millard Fillmore

In office 2.67 years

1850-1853

Millard Fillmore was the last Whig president, and took office after the death of President Taylor in 1850. Unlike the other vice presidents on this list who did not seek reelection, Fillmore threw his hat in the ring in 1852, but lost the Whig nomination to his secretary of state, Daniel Webster. He also ran on the American Party ticket in 1856, but came in third place.

 

5. Warren G. Harding

In office 2.42 years

1921-1923

Warren G. Harding campaigned on the promise of a “return to normalcy” after the First World War. He’s most well-known for the Teapot Dome Scandal, but in recent years has been viewed more positively as a moderate politician who passed the first federal child welfare program and endorsed African-American civil rights. He intended to run for reelection in 1924, but passed away for unknown reasons in 1923. The most likely reason for his death is heart failure, but some have speculated that he was poisoned or committed suicide.

 

4. Gerald Ford

In office 2.42 years

1974-1977

Gerald Ford is the only person to rise to both the presidency and the vice presidency without being elected. He was appointed to the vice presidency when Spiro Agnew resigned in the face of extortion, bribery, and conspiracy charges, and was elevated to the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Ford ran for reelection, defeating Reagan for the Republican nomination, but lost to Jimmy Carter in the presidential election.

 

3. Zachary Taylor

In office 1.33 years

1849-1850

Zachary Taylor rose to stardom when he led (and won) several battles in the Mexican-American War, helping America keep control over the annexed territory of Texas. Although he had little interest in politics, he was persuaded to leverage his popularity and run for the presidency in 1849. Taylor won the election, but died of a stomach related illness shortly into his term.

2. James A. Garfield

In office .54 years

1881-1881

James A. Garfield was elected in 1881, but only served for a few months before he was shot by outraged political office seeker Charles J. Guiteau. Although Garfield was shot in June, he passed away (officially leaving office) 80 days later in September 1881. During his short time as president, Garfield appointed a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court and proposed a civil service reform act that was eventually passed into law by his successor, Chester A. Arthur.

 

1. William Henry Harrison

In office .08 years

1841-1841

William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia 32 days into his term, claiming the title for shortest presidency by a longshot. It had generally been believed that Harrison caught a cold that lead to pneumonia during his inauguration, where he delivered the longest address in American history, in stormy weather without a coat or gloves. But a 2014 analysis shows that the president actually died of typhoid, and likely contracted it in a marsh close to the White House.

 

FindTheBest is a research website that’s collected all the data on U.S.. presidents, and put it all in one place so you don’t have to go searching for it. Join FindTheBest to get all the information on presidents, Congress members, and thousands of other topics.

TIME Budget

Which President Accrued The Highest Budget Deficits?

Hint: It wasn't Barack Obama

When looking at the United States’ massive amount of national debt, many Americans focus blame directly on the president. In fact, CNN surveyed 1,010 adults nationwide earlier this year and found that 44% still believe that President Bush and the Republican party were “primarily responsible for the country’s current economic problems.”

But was it this former president who left the country in its worst shape at the end of his two terms? With data provided by the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Council of Economic Advisors, research engine FindTheBest ranked the 14 most recent presidents by the total deficit they accrued during their presidencies—so far, in the case of Barack Obama—as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product of their time in office.

TIME Presidents

Watch the Rise and Fall of Richard Nixon in TIME Covers

President Nixon Graced TIME's cover more than anyone else, and not just for Watergate

In early August of 1974, 40 years ago this week, the news was all President Richard Nixon. On Aug. 5, the “Smoking Gun” tapes were released, revealing to the public that the President had known about Watergate. On Aug. 8, he became the first and only U.S. President to announce his resignation. But Nixon already had a long history in the news, and it didn’t end in 1974. In fact, no other individual has been featured on the cover of TIME more frequently, with 55 appearances to his name.
 
The irony in all that? None of those covers are from precisely 40 years ago. The week leading up to the resignation, the cover featured Rep. Peter Rodino of the House Judiciary Committee; two weeks later, when the resignation itself made the cover, newly-inaugurated President Gerald Ford was featured.
 
The issue in-between—the issue that would have appeared right around the same time as the tapes went public — went in a different direction: Jack Nicholson.

TIME Presidents

9 Things You Didn’t Know About Richard Nixon

TIME Cover Aug. 25, 1952: Richard Nixon
Boris Chaliapin for TIME

From his first TIME cover story

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the milestone for which the scandal-plagued politician is best remembered. But in 1952, when not-yet-President Nixon first appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, the scandal was decades away. He was a relatively young man, 39, whose political career was just taking off. Having successfully moved from the House to the Senate, he was the Republican nominee for Vice President, a man whose background could have still been unknown to readers.

In hindsight, it’s hard not to see foreboding or irony in the story that appeared under the headline “Fighting Quaker.” For example, his mother, the piece notes, preferred not to call the police on shoplifters at their family’s store, thinking of the shame it would bring to their families; Nixon apparently internalized the harm that could be done by exposing wrongdoings. Did he think of the harm he would do when he was the one exposed?

But it’s also easy to see why his life story would have been fascinating to voters. Here are nine things to know from the 1952 cover story.

He once worked as a carnival barker, for the “wheel of fortune” at the Frontier Days Rodeo in Prescott, Ariz. The Nixon family spent time in Arizona for the health of older son Harold, who had tuberculosis.

His parents had a lemon grove in Yorba Linda, Calif.—but, TIME noted, they would have rather grown oranges. (Nixon’s grandfather had moved to California from Indiana with the thought of growing the latter.) When the fruit farm proved “a lemon,” the family opened a general story in Whittier, Calif., called Nixon’s Market.

He played the piano and acted. His family, devout Quakers, attended church services four times a week. The young Richard Nixon played piano for the Sunday school. When he returned to Whittier after law school, he returned to work at the Sunday school when not busy as a divorce lawyer. He also participated in community theater. He met his future wife, Pat Ryan, while playing a fictional attorney in Night of January 16th, a play written by Ayn Rand.

His debating career began with bugs. In a seventh grade boys-vs.-girls debate on the relative merits of insects, Nixon asked an uncle who was an entomologist for a list of good things about insects, thus helping the boys’ team convince the judges that “insects are more beneficial than harmful.” However, he would later find that bugs weren’t so great: While in the South Pacific with the Navy, he said, the only things that bothered him—despite being under fire—were “lack of sleep and the centipedes.”

He worked his way through college, and lived in “a shack” during law school. While at Whittier College in his home town, he worked at Nixon’s Market. (He also helped his mom with the dishes, TIME noted, but that was probably not a paying gig.) After graduating, Nixon attended Duke University law school on scholarship, and lived “in a wooden patch a mile and a half from the campus” with three shack-mates.

He got into politics by answering a newspaper ad. In 1945, a Republican group was looking for someone to run against a popular Congressman in California. They placed an ad, which was seen by a family friend of the Nixons, who called him up and suggested he give it a shot.

But that early political career was dogged by the stench of by cannibalistic minks. When Dick and Pat Nixon moved back to California so he could run for office—they’d been in Baltimore before that—they ended up living next door to a family that owned “a smelly, cannibalistic brood of minks.”

He almost didn’t take the gig that got him national attention. Once he got to Congress, Nixon was offered a spot on the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had a terrible reputation. He hesitated before accepting, but his role in sorting out the Alger Hiss scandal—in which TIME editor and former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers identified the State Department’s Alger Hiss as a Communist—brought him to the national stage, and led the GOP to encourage him to run for Senate, which he did successfully.

He never went to the movies. Never!

If that’s not enough to demonstrate that he charmed some Republican voters, perhaps the letters section from the Sept. 15, 1952, issue will: “There is very little—if anything—that his opponents will find in his career to criticize,” wrote one reader. That opinion would have seemed vindicated when the fall came, as Eisenhower and Nixon took the White House. But, as history showed, another reader had a firmer grasp on the situation: “Surely I’m not the only TIME reader,” wrote George Brasington Jr. of Waycross, Ga., “who is now convinced that the GOP picked a lemon in ex-Lemon Picker Nixon.”

Read more about Nixon in TIME’s archives

TIME Presidents

The 55 Times Richard Nixon Was on the Cover of TIME

The 37th president, who resigned 40 years ago, scored 55 covers

In early August of 1974, 40 years ago this week, the news was all Nixon. On Aug. 5, the “Smoking Gun” tapes were released, revealing to the public that he had known about Watergate. On Aug. 8, he became the first and only U.S. President to announce his resignation. But Nixon already had a long history in the news, and it didn’t end in 1974. In fact, no other individual has been featured on the cover of TIME more frequently, with 55 appearances to his name.

The irony in all that? None of those covers are from precisely 40 years ago. The week leading up to the resignation, the cover featured Rep. Peter Rodino of the House Judiciary Committee; two weeks later, when the resignation itself made the cover, newly-inaugurated President Gerald Ford was featured. The issue in between—the issue that would have appeared right around the same time as the tapes went public — went a different direction: Jack Nicholson.

Read Henry Kissinger’s 1982 take on the “Smoking Gun” of Watergate here, in TIME’s archives

TIME Terrorism

Bill Clinton Said The Day Before 9/11 He Could Have Killed Bin Laden

Listen to the audio

Chilling audio of former President Bill Clinton admitting that he turned down an opportunity to attack Osama bin Laden during his presidency was recently uncovered by Sky News Australia. The audio was recorded on September 10, 2001, one day before the 9/11 attacks which claimed nearly 3,000 lives and dramatically impacted the course of global history.

“I could have killed him, but I would have had to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children,” Clinton said. “And then I would have been no better than him.”

Sky News obtained this footage of the former U.S. President through former Australian politician Michael Kroger.

TIME George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush Turns 90

The 41st president of the United States celebrates his ninth decade of life on Wednesday. George Herbert Walker Bush served as commander-in-chief from 1989-1993, a one-term president sandwiched between two-termers — Ronald Reagan, under whom he served as vice president during most of the 1980s, and Bill Clinton, who beat the New England native handily in 1992 but later became, by many accounts, a fast friend.

“Bush Senior,” whose son, George W. Bush or “Dubya,” became the 43rd president just eight years after that hard-fought 1992 election, was born in Massachusetts in 1924, but later moved to Texas to make a fortune in oil. Entering young adulthood during the thick of World War II, he flew 58 combat missions for the United States Navy. He has been married to his wife, Barbara, since 1945, was famously lampooned on Saturday Night Live by comedian Dana Carvey.

TIME White House

Reagan: A Legacy of Optimism and Common Sense

Michael Evans/Zuma Press

Ten years after the president's death, an appreciation of all he did for his country

There is a wonderful scene in the popular 1980s movie Back to the Future. The film’s plotline sends a teenager raised in the heart of the Reagan era back to the ’50s. There, Michael J. Fox’s character meets the younger version of the mad scientist, Dr. Emmett Brown, who built the time machine that transported him. To check Fox’s bona fides, the scientist tests him.

“Then tell me, future boy, who’s president of the United States in 1985?”

“Ronald Reagan,” Fox answers.

“Ronald Reagan? The actor?” Christopher Lloyd’s character laughs incredulously. “Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis?”

All these years later, the joke continues to be on Ronald Reagan’s skeptics and doubters. The man whose political skills were mocked by California’s legendary governor Pat Brown and then by all the smart guys in the Carter White House made believers of those political rivals by rolling up historic electoral landslides in California and then the nation. Twenty-five years after he flew west on Air Force One for the last time, it is safe to say that millions of Americans would still love to go back to the future and have President Reagan in the Oval Office once again.

It is now 10 years after his passing, which is the occasion of this book. Looking back from this vantage point, Reagan’s legacy remains vivid and potent. How else to explain how a conservative movement and political party continue to obsess over the question “Who is the next Reagan?” And as his Republican Party is slowly learning, it is a frustrating question and may, in fact, have no answer, because Ronald Wilson Reagan was unique.

It makes no more sense than for Democrats to search for the next Franklin D. Roosevelt or military leaders to seek out the next Dwight Eisenhower. These men possessed certain skills for their times that allowed them to bend history for all time. There is no guidebook for such greatness.

In law school we learned the Latin phrase sui generis, which means “of its own kind” or “unique in characteristic.” Reagan was of his own kind. Reagan was unique. He believed in God, the American people and himself—and knew how to communicate those values in a way that no conservative has before or since.

Yet Reagan the conservative was a man as focused on America’s glorious future as he was on preserving the values of the past. He was no reactionary. He was, instead, the iconic American who believed in what was yet to come. This had been the hallmark of American exceptionalism since Thomas Paine told his fellow citizens they could remake the world.

Those men who gathered in Philadelphia set a course for America that has always pointed toward the future. Along the way, our ship of state was violently tossed by slavery, a historically bloody civil war, a staggering depression and two world wars. But America was sustained by its people’s inner strength and determined optimism. Men like Reagan continued to believe that the United States was headed toward a brighter future—until they hit the turbulence of the ’60s and ’70s, when the national identity felt tremors of doubt.

For a time, America stopped listening to her heart and her head. The wind was no longer in her sails.

In the span of 11 years, America lost a war and two presidents, one from an assassin’s bullet and the other by his own failings. A third was driven from office, chased by the chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

The social and moral polarity of the American universe was upended. The antihero had become the hero, and American soldiers, returning home from the lost cause of Vietnam, were spat upon. An oil embargo, 21.5% interest rates and a hostage crisis fostered a malaise that spread across the nation. I still remember my fifth-grade teacher telling my class that, as had befallen the seemingly invulnerable Roman Empire, America’s days as a world power were quickly coming to an end.

Like my teacher, many believed Henry Luce’s American Century was over, 20 years ahead of schedule.

Ronald Reagan was born for a time such as this.

He was a figure derided by the elites of both political parties, Wall Street, academia and the national media. They said he was too simple, too unqualified and too inexperienced to lead the free world. His ideas were antiquated, and they predicted that his foreign policy would push America into a third world war.

Yet the millions of Americans who carried Reagan to huge victories in 1980 and 1984 felt that this was a man who was uniquely qualified to lead the country back to greatness. Reagan, after all, had been a conservative star, a successful labor leader, a two-term governor running the seventh-largest economy in the world and, yes, a Hollywood actor. It would take all of the Gipper’s on-screen skills to make his countrymen believe that the economy could be turned around, that the Soviet Union could be defeated, and that America’s greatest days truly did lie ahead.

John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, in pushing for the creation of a Constitution for the young country, argued that the most important considerations for a president were experience and character. The boy from northwestern Illinois had bushels of both.

He also had Nancy Reagan at his side, and she, as anyone who saw them together will attest, was his greatest treasure.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan won the White House by asking men and women from all corners of the country, including Democrats and independents, to join his “community of shared values.” Unlike many in today’s Republican Party, Reagan made an open appeal to Democrats on the campaign trail and at the GOP convention.

Reagan Democrats and independents answered his call for change. And then President Reagan changed the world.

My friend Craig Shirley, one of Reagan’s leading biographers, told me, “Reagan bends light and thus changes the future. He changes American conservatism, he changes the Republican and Democratic parties, he changes America and he changes the world.”

For Reagan, common sense was intellectualism. He also believed American conservatism was about challenging the status quo. Frederick Douglass, the great Republican abolitionist—whether addressing suffragettes in Washington, D.C., or a church congregation in Dundee, Scotland—summoned his lifelong rallying cry: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

Reagan and Reaganism were about agitating against the conventional wisdom of political parties and entrenched powers. The man who spent most of his life being mocked by Washington ended up changing it forever because, to paraphrase another Hollywood star, he frankly didn’t give a damn what his elite critics thought of him.

Reagan is ubiquitous now in American politics, cited often by members of both parties, who all too often don’t truly understand his brand of conservatism or the man himself. That makes the study of his life and times so vitally important.

Were his eight years in Washington defined by Hollywood glitz and glib politics? Certainly not. On occasion, did he compromise on such conservative touchstone issues as taxes, entitlement programs and immigration reform? Yes, but always with the longer view in mind. In the end, did he succeed? Consider this: America’s victory in the Cold War freed tens of millions imprisoned by communism across the world. Twenty million new jobs were created at home. Double-digit inflation and interest rates were wiped away. Unemployment fell to around 5.3% by the time he left office, and, more important, America’s national morale was restored.

Ronald Reagan had inherited a badly divided Republican Party and an even more fractured country, but as he flew west on the day of his retirement from national politics, he flew over a country more confident in its future than at any time since the 1950s.

John O’Sullivan of the National Review observed that “the fact” of America would always exist, but it was “the idea” of America that the 40th president restored. Shirley points out that well over 1,000 books have been written about Reagan, but for historians, “the realm of Reagan scholarship is just opening up. There is enough of Ronald Reagan for all of us to breathe.”

Some may be discouraged that there is no new Reagan on the horizon. But many, like myself, thank God that America got the leader it needed at precisely the right time and place.

Having him back might even be worth a Vice President Jerry Lewis.

This essay originally appeared in Reagan: His Political Life and Lasting Legacy.

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