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Past presidents and the 2016 contest

By Ciaran Ryan - posted Monday, 24 October 2016

As a presidential historian, I wonder what the post-World War II presidents would make of the US election choice of 2016, between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Harry S Truman, the man who had decisively ended the Second World War, created NATO to repel Soviet aggression, and immediately sent in troops to push back the invasion of South Korea, would perhaps be privately contemptuous of Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, which saw the Benghazi embassy attack, and the fall of much of the Middle East to Islamic extremists. Publicly, as a fiery Democrat, he would be out stumping for Hillary, and possibly use a line once employed against Eisenhower, that Trump doesn't 'know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday'.

As a military man, Republican General Ike Eisenhower would be astounded to learn that Clinton had repeatedly violated national security by sending classified information on her own personal email server, and then deleted tens of thousands of emails in an attempt to cover her tracks. Such a person, Eisenhower would say, is not suited to be Commander in Chief.


Democrat John F Kennedy probably wouldn't care much about the allegations of Trump's sexual advances on women, but a man of his intellect would find him to be boorish and uncouth, and wholly unqualified for high office. Kennedy would relish going head-to-head with such an opponent, and unlike the 1960 contest, the result would not have been close.

Richard Nixon had held his nose and endorsed the self-confessed right wing extremist Barry Goldwater in 1964, all in the name of uniting the Republican party, but perhaps if he were alive in 2016, he would be endorsing Hillary for the job. While Nixon would have respected Trump's strong showing during the primaries, he would no doubt recoil in horror at his suggestion that the NATO alliance be disbanded, and for his curious support for Russia and its ex-KGB leader, Vladimir Putin. Nixon had courted the Clintons in the early 1990s, and found them to be receptive to his wise counsel on foreign affairs: no doubt he would be advising them again were he still alive, all in the pursuit of access to 'the arena'.

Ronald Reagan, who once said 'Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican' would find it hard to follow his own commandment in the face of Trump's appeal to the lowest common denominator of xenophobia and racism. Reagan, unlike Trump, was a sunny conservative, who said that he hoped history would record that he appealed to 'your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence, rather than your doubts'. Trump is all about fears and doubts. Furthermore, Reagan would be unhappy with the comparisons made by some between himself and Trump due to their show business background and point out that he, unlike Trump, had served eight years as the Governor of California, before becoming a presidential nominee in 1980. Reagan loved a good joke, but he wouldn't find Trump funny at all.

Since Jimmy Carter is still with us, we don't have to hypothesise about his vote; he said that 'Everybody knows that I'm a Democrat, and I'll be voting Democrat'. But Carter is no fan of the Clintons and said of the 2016 election, 'Unfortunately, the way it's turned out, both choices in the major parties are quite unpopular'. Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize Laurette who declared himself 'superior' to other ex-Presidents, revealed that President Obama never calls him for advice, and if Hillary gets into office, that's unlikely to change, considering he called Bill Clinton 'disgraceful' for accepting gifts in return for presidential pardons in the waning hours of his administration.

As for the two Bush Presidents, father and son have also indicated that they will not be voting for Donald Trump. While it was folly for Jeb Bush to enter the Republican primaries in the first place (ignoring his mother's sage declaration that 'We've had enough Bushes'), the Bush family are still furious over the bitter contest. In particular, Trump's vulgar attacks on Jeb's Mexican wife, Columba, insinuating that she was an illegal immigrant, is not something that they are willing to forget. A Bush has either been president or vice president for 20 of the past 35 years, as well as holding the governorships of Texas and Florida, but it seems that Trump has ended their political dynasty, and for that, they will never forgive him.

With Bill Clinton, it's no secret who he is supporting: his wife's victory will mean that he gets to move back into the White House, and no president loved living there more than Bill. He had touted his marriage as 'two for the price of one', and Hillary has pledged that should she win office, Bill will be in charge of re-vitalizing the economy. But some of Bill's friends have spoken of his worry that Hillary, as the first female president, will eclipse his own place in history, and they say that he would much prefer to be President, than First Husband. Lyndon Johnson was absolutely miserable playing second fiddle to JFK as Vice President and it remains to be seen how Bill will adjust to standing in his wife's shadow.


In conclusion, it's my view that the majority of America's past presidents would hold the opinion of Jimmy Carter, that America faces an 'unfortunate' choice between two 'unpopular' candidates in 2016, but regardless of party affiliation, they would be either supporting Hillary Clinton, or sitting the election out. Irrespective of how they might view Clinton's questionable ethics, and her propensity to change positions based on the shifting sands of public opinion, they simply could not endorse Trump for President. A President has to make hundreds of tough decisions a week, be able to negotiate with Congress and world leaders, and exercise above all, prudence. Donald Trump can't manage his own twitter account, let alone a Superpower, and therefore Hillary Clinton, disliked as she is, will most likely become the 45th President of the United States, largely by default. As the only person standing between Trump and the Oval Office, there is simply no other option.

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About the Author

Ciaran Ryan has a PhD in American Presidential History from the University of Southern Queensland.

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