Current events as seen in the rear-view mirror

December 14, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

He was the son of a former president, sharing his father's first name, although their middle names were different. He had just won the most bitterly divided presidential election in history, losing the popular vote but prevailing after a series of wrenching decisions.

"Fellow-citizens," he said in his inauguration speech, "you are acquainted with the peculiar circumstances of the recent election, which have resulted in affording me the opportunity of addressing you at this time. ... Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence."

The year was 1825, and the president was John Quincy Adams, but you can call him "Q." And if history has just eerily repeated itself with the convoluted victory of George W. Bush, then "W" had better hope all resemblances to Q's presidency end here and now.

That's because John Quincy Adams served only one term, suffering through an ineffective four years in which most of his grandiose proposals went nowhere with both Congress and the public.

He then lost his bid for re-election to the same Tennessean, a former Senator, who'd beaten him the first time in the popular vote. (And while you're pondering that similarity to present events, consider this one: Q's father, John Adams, was a one-termer just like W's, George Herbert Walker Bush. Q's dad lost to Thomas Jefferson, a bright, articulate guy known to have had illicit affairs. W's dad lost to William Jefferson Clinton, a bright, articulate guy known to have had illicit affairs.)

In the election of 1824, Adams became embroiled in a four-way race with Andrew Jackson (the Tennessean), William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. Jackson won the popular vote, with 42 percent, and led the electoral vote total with 99, but fell short of the 131 he needed for a winning majority.

Adams finished with 32 percent of the popular vote and 84 electoral votes. Crawford received 41 electoral votes and Clay 37. That left it up to the House of Representatives to decide the contest between the top three finishers. Clay threw his support to Adams, and the House voted Adams into office.

But look past their respective elections, and even past their presidential dads, and all similarities between Q and W end.

Q was a brilliant and widely traveled statesman. Before becoming president, he served as minister to The Hague, emissary to England, minister to Prussia, state senator, U.S. senator, minister to Russia, head of the American mission to negotiate peace with England, minister to England and the U.S. secretary of state. Bush, by comparison, trained for the presidency by working in the oil industry, owning a baseball team and serving as governor of Texas.

Q also was an eloquent speaker. Later in life, as depicted in the movie "Amistad," he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, successfully defending the captive Africans who'd taken over a slave ship.

But those strengths tended to work against him politically, especially when he ran for re-election against the rough-hewn "Old Hickory" Jackson, who wasn't exactly known for good study habits.

Jackson capitalized on the public's anti-intellectual mood with the winning slogan, "Jackson Who Can Fight, and Adams Who Can Write."

W seems determined to avoid such pitfalls. It was his opponent, Al Gore, who got labeled an insufferable know-it-all during their debates, while Bush cruised along as amiably as a rush chairman at a frat house mixer, saying "resignate" when he meant "resonate," "preserve" when he meant "persevere," and, "I'm fixin' to win" whenever the outcome seemed in doubt.

But he's not the first Bush to take after Andrew Jackson more than John Quincy Adams. His brother Jeb Bush is already following in Old Hickory's footsteps. Jackson was the first governor of that most famous of states, Florida.

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