Presidents Say Crazy Stuff in Their Second Terms


Barack Obama, Harry Truman and George Bush are just three of the presidents who became more candid at the end of their terms. BrettMarty/Bettmann/Corbis (c) 2015 HowStuffWorks
Barack Obama, Harry Truman and George Bush are just three of the presidents who became more candid at the end of their terms. BrettMarty/Bettmann/Corbis (c) 2015 HowStuffWorks

Jokes have been made about U.S. President Barack Obama's uncannily even temper. Really good jokes. For seven years, Obama has successfully kept a lid on snarky insults and openly hostile remarks during press conferences and public speeches (OK, there was that one time), but as his lame duck-ness approaches, there are signs that the gloves — and the filters — are coming off.

During last month's G-20 summit in Turkey, Obama took questions from the press, including some not-so-veiled criticism that he was “soft” on ISIS, the terrorist group responsible for killing 130 people in a string of attacks in Paris. Some of the loudest criticism came from Republican presidential hopefuls Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush.

In his response, the second-term president employed a slang term for “talking trash” that's more commonly heard on rap mixtapes than C-SPAN.

“Folks want to pop off,” said Obama, to the delight of Black Twitter, “and have opinions about what they think they would do. Present a specific plan.”

Obama isn't the first president to go “off script” during his waning days in office. His predecessor, George W. Bush — who was no stranger to the unintentionally hilarious remark — bumped it up (or is it down?) a notch at the end of his presidency. Leaving a private 2008 G-8 meeting about climate change, he pumped his fist in the air and exclaimed, “Good-bye from the world's biggest polluter!

“George W. Bush is a good example of a president who just didn't give a sh*t what people thought of him once he got re-elected,” says Robert Schnakenberg, author of the entertaining quote compendiums "Crazy Sh*t Presidents Said: The Most Surprising, Shocking and Stupid Statements Ever Made by U.S. Presidents, from George Washington to Barack Obama" and "Distory."

In an interview with HowStuffWorks, Schnakenberg describes a natural progression he's noted during his extensive research into presidential gaffes.

“The stuff a president says early in his term that people consider stupid, that's more representative of his actual mindset and worldview — what you might call ‘authentic stupidity,'” says Schnakenberg. “Later, in the second term, it's more that the filters are off — the safety is off the gun — and they're just saying whatever jumps into their head.”

Schnakenberg points to Bill Clinton's Freudian flub when asked by journalist Jim Lehrer how he was handling the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal that plagued his second term.

"I'm just trying to suppress my natural impulses and get back to work,” said Clinton.

During the 1988 election to pick his successor, Ronald Reagan dismissed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, saying, “I'm not going to pick on an invalid,” a reference to rumors that Dukakis had sought psychiatric treatment for depression.

Reagan's late-presidency gaffes — including a 1988 Republican convention speech in which he said “facts are stupid things” instead of “facts are stubborn things” — could be attributed to his own mental state. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1994.

As much as presidents loosen up during their second terms, their most candid moments — and uncensored remarks — come once they've left office, says Schnakenberg.

Franklin Pierce, the 14th U.S. president, made it clear that one term was plenty for him. After the deaths of his three young children, his failure to mend the growing rift between the North and South, and his rejection of the party's plea to run again in 1856, the beleaguered Pierce was asked what he would do next.

“There's nothing left [to do] but to get drunk,” Pierce allegedly replied. Sadly, he might not have been joking. He died at 65 from complications from alcoholism.

Schnakenberg's personal favorite is Harry Truman, who was no shrinking violet in office. Here's one famous line: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a Republican ... but I repeat myself.” But Truman really let loose in his post-presidential memoirs. 

“Truman just unloaded on everyone he didn't like, from Douglas MacArthur to Eisenhower to Joseph McCarthy. He's a font of really interesting, insulting and rude quotes,” says Schnakenberg, who sent us some Truman highlights:

         “Adlai Stevenson was a man who could never make up his mind whether he had to go to the bathroom or not.”

          On Gen. MacArthur: “I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals.”

          “I never liked Kennedy.  I hate his father.  Kennedy wasn't so great a senator ... However, that no good son-of-a-bitch Dick Nixon called me a Communist and I'll do anything to beat him.”

Will Obama upend eight years of tight-lipped stoicism with a scathing, tell-all memoir? We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, we can thank our lucky stars for the foot-in-mouth-machine who is Joe Biden