Four Presidents Who Chose Not to Run for Reelection (and One Who Chose to)
A sitting president's decision to run for reelection can be an intensely personal one. There are many factors to consider. The current political climate. Age. Health and family issues. How well the president likes the job. Many have risen to the challenge and continued to serve their country. Others decided to bow out.
What follows are the profiles of four men who chose not to seek reelection when they could have done so and one man who sought reelection even though it probably wasn't in his -- or the country's -- best interest.
As the first president of the United States, George Washington set a number of precedents. He created the idea of having a Cabinet of his own choosing to advise him on executive affairs He declared "Mr. President" to be the proper form of address for someone in his position rather than something loftier.
He also decided that two terms in office were quite enough.
When he left office in 1797, he looked forward to returning to his beloved estate at Mount Vernon, where he could attend to some needed repairs, get a distillery going and pursue other agricultural activities common for the gentleman farmer of his day. Except for time spent planning for a provisional army at the request of his successor, John Adams, he engaged in such activities for about two and a half years.
On December 12, 1799, Washington set out to inspect his farm and see what needed to be done. It was a miserable day -- cold and wet, raining, hailing and snowing by turns. He braved the elements for several hours, spending most of the day in wet clothing, not even bothering to change for supper. Awakening the next day, he discovered he'd developed a sore throat which got progressively worse as the day wore on. Treatment by three different doctors could do nothing for him. He died on the evening of December 14th.
Would that have happened had he still been president? Perhaps not. Then again, given the state of medical care in the Eighteenth Century, it's not at all inconceivable that he could have met a similar fate while conducting some affair of state or perhaps while on holiday. If so, George Washington would have been not only the first president of the United States but also the first president to die in office.
James Knox Polk
James K.Polk was the original dark horse candidate. Even though he had served as Speaker of the House, few outside of his home state of Tennessee had ever heard of him. Yet when the Democrats held their convention in Baltimore in 1844, Polk emerged as the nominee.
During the campaign Polk made the promise that he would only serve one term, and he stuck to that promise. But oh, what a term! Early in his administration, Polk set out four goals: tariff reduction, the reestablishment of an independent treasury, the annexation of Oregon, and the acquisition of California from Mexico. By the end of his term he had achieved all four, making him one of America's most effective one-term presidents.
True to his word, in 1848 he decided not to run again. He left the Executive Mansion on March 4, 1849, still a relatively young man but now a very sickly one. He had lost weight and suffered from chronic diarrhea. Rather than going home to Tennessee directly, he made a swing tour around the Southern states greeting well-wishers along the way. He passed through New Orleans, where he probably contracted cholera. Eventually he made it home to Nashville, but he wasn't there for long.
His ambitious program had apparently taken a toll. He died on June 15, 1849, his retirement having lasted a mere 103 days.
Chester Alan Arthur
Chester Arthur was elected in 1880 as the vice-presidential running made of Republican James A. Garfield. A man who had more of a reputation as a back-room politician rather than a favorite son, Arthur had been a compromise choice, a way of mending fences between the two rival Republican factions of the day -- the Half-Breeds, represented by Garfield, and his own group, the Stalwarts.
Arthur's election did nothing to heal the divide, however. In fact, it made it worse. In the summer of 1881, a disgruntled Stalwart office-seeker by the name of Charles Guiteau assassinated Garfield, declaring his express purpose for doing so was to make Arthur president.
Arthur rose to the challenge, surprising many by becoming quite effective in his new job. Among his accomplishments was the passage of the Pendleton Act, a civil service reform measure that awarded positions based on merit, thus ending much of the patronage that had caused so much damage in the first place.
Despite Arthur's relative success as president, it was not enough to convince the Republicans to endorse him for a second term. The leading candidate going into the convention in Chicago in 1884 was James G. Blaine. Arthur did not attend. His representatives tried to form a coalition with those of Senator George F. Edmunds of Vermont but were ultimately unsuccessful in that endeavor.. Blaine became the nominee but lost the election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
Could Arthur have prevailed at the convention? Probably not. By becoming a reformer, he had gained too many enemies. However, it was probably just as well that he lost, for in fact Arthur was not a well man. In 1882 he had been diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney ailment which was fatal at the time. Arthur put on a cheerful face, however, and denied rumors that he was ill. And while it was possible that he could live for several more years with the disease, it was also possible that he could go at any time.
Arthur left the White House on March 4, 1885, and moved to New York City to resume his former law practice. His health quickly deteriorated though, and most of the time he was too sick to make any significant contributions to his firm. His illness led to hypertension, which in turn led to an enlarged heart -- a combination of ailments that caused him to be bedridden for many months. He died peacefully in his home on November 18, 1886, as a result of a stroke. Had he won his party's nomination and prevailed against Cleveland in 1884 he most likely would have died in office just like his predecessor.
Calvin Coolidge was never known for his loquaciousness. There's an oft-told tale of a woman -- some say it was Dororthy Parker -- who sat next to him at a dinner party and told him she had bet a friend that she could get more than two words out of him. The man known as "Silent Cal" supposedly turned to her and said, "You lose."
Therefore, it should have been no surprise that when Coolidge made an important decision about his political future he was equally terse. While vacationing in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1927, Coolidge handed out to reporters several slips of paper, each of which contained the simple one-line statement I do not choose to run for President in 1928.
That was it. There were no comments. No elaborations. No indications of whether by choosing the word "choose," Coolidge meant that he would entertain a movement to draft him.
Republicans found out soon enough. As news of draft-Coolidge movements started to arise, the would-be candidate swiftly slapped them down. He made it clear that he was no longer interested in the job.
Coolidge later indicated that being President of the United States for what would be ten years -- longer than any man had up until that time -- would simply be too much. Part of his decision not to run may also have had something to do with the death of his 16-year-old son, Calvin, Junior, of blood poisoning in 1924. With his death, Coolidge wrote, "the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him." Coolidge fell into a severe depression after that and may at that time have decided that the upcoming election would be his last. Some historians have also speculated that Coolidge foresaw the Great Depression coming and didn't want to have anything to do with it.
Regardless of his specific motivation, Coolidge turned the reins of the government over to his former Commerce Secretary, Herbert Hoover, on March 4, 1929, and returned to private life. Less than four years later, on January 5, 1933, he died of a heart attack in his home in Northampton, Massachusetts -- just a few weeks short of what would have been the end of his second elected term, had he chosen to run.
Lyndon Baines Johnson
At the beginning of 1968 most people expected President Lyndon Johnson to run for reelection.
He was eligible, after all. Even though the 22nd Amendment generally barred anyone from serving as president for more than two terms, LBJ had completed less than half of John F. Kennedy's term, meaning that he was entitled to seek a second elected term in his own right. Thus the nation was stunned when at the end of a television address on March 31, LBJ announced not only that he would not be seeking reelection but that he would not accept the nomination of his party even if it were offered.
What was behind his statement? LBJ was certainly one of the most politically ambitious men who ever lived, and the presidency of the United States was a job he'd craved ever since he was a young man. He'd also scored one of the biggest presidential landslides ever, acquiring 61 percent of the popular vote against Barry Goldwater in 1964. He'd gotten everything he'd ever wanted. Why was he now so eager to leave it all behind?
The Vietnam War was undoubtedly one factor. What had begun with the best of intentions --the containment of Communism -- had within four years devolved into a morass. Half a million troops were trying to wage a war that many believed was unwinnable. Bodies were racking up by the week and Johnson was being blamed. "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" went a popular slogan of the time.
Johnson was also facing serious challenges from within his own party. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota ran as a candidate on an antiwar platform and put in an exceptionally strong showing in the New Hampshire primary, coming within five percentage points of beating Johnson. Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, long a Johnson critic, entered the race a few days later, also vying for the top Democratic slot.
Ever the political calculator, Johnson could see the handwriting on the wall. Vietnam had become an albatross around his neck. By choosing not to run again, Johnson felt he could devote his full time and energy, as he said, "to the awesome duties of this office" -- namely trying to wrap up the war and get the boys home.
But the toxic political landscape might not have been the only factor. Johnson had always been worried about his health. His father Sam had died less than two weeks after reaching the age of 60, and on Fourth of July weekend 1955, while serving as Senate Majority Leader, LBJ himself had suffered a massive heart attack that essentially put him out of commission for the rest of the year.
Johnson left the White House on January 20, 1969, retiring to his Texas ranch and essentially dropping out of society. He let his hair grow long and made few public appearances, choosing instead to spend most of his time with his family. A lifelong smoker, Johnson had another heart attack in the spring of 1972.
A third heart attack was the one that finally did him in. Johnson died at age 64 on January 22, 1973 -- a mere two days after what might have been the completion of his third term.