Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, pens a President's Day tome to our Worst President Ever:
Our great country has had 43 presidents. Many very good. A few pretty bad. On Presidents Day next Monday, it's appropriate to commemorate them all.
I remember every president since Herbert Hoover, when I was a grade school kid. He was one of the worst. I've personally met every president since Dwight Eisenhower. He was one of the best.
A year ago I criticized Hillary Clinton for saying "this (Bush) administration will go down in history as one of the worst."
"She's wrong," I wrote. Then I rated these five presidents, in this order, as the worst: Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, Hoover and Richard Nixon. "It's very unlikely Bush can crack that list," I added.
I was wrong. This is my mea culpa. Not only has Bush cracked that list, but he is planted firmly at the top.
I think he might have meant Andrew Johnson, since Jackson is generally regarded as a top tenner (despite his part in the horrific Trail of Tears, rather than a bottom dweller, but point taken. So for the dear reader's edification, it might be worth recalling precisely why some presidents are consistently remembered less than fondly by historians...
Andrew Johnson (Democrat, 1865-1869) -- Although Abe Lincoln was a tough act to follow, nobody could have dreamed that Mr. Lincoln's vice president would follow him so poorly. The native Tennesseean was so eager to bring the Confederates back into the fold, he presided over the dismantling of Reconstruction before it had really begun, and he vetoed civil rights legislation to try and speed the plough. The Radical Reconstructioninsts in the then Republican Party impeached him in 1868 over his attempts to dismiss Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, in violation of the Tenure of Office Act, but he survived by a single vote.
James Buchanan (Democrat, 1857-1861) -- Apparently, Lincoln was also a tough act to precede, and his predecessor, Mr. Buchanan, generally tops the list of worst U.S. presidents. He is principally blamed for failing to avert the Civil War, which cost the lives of nearly 620,000 American lives, by coddling the seditionist Confederates, and claiming that even if secession from the Union was illegal, going to war to stop it was, too. Buchanan favored slavery, and wanted it exanded into all new U.S. territories, including Cuba. He wanted to see the issue of new territories and slavery resolved by a Supreme Court friendly to Southern attitudes, and he is said to have been personally involved in the Dred Scott decision, having shared a Dick Cheney-Tony Scalia style relationship with the Chief Justice, Roger Taney, who wrote the decision. Last but not least, he threw his administration's weight behind the war-ginning decision to admit Kansas as a slave state. Oh, and his administration was also rather corrupt.
Franklin Pierce (Democrat, 1853-1857) -- James Buchanan's predecessor, and another of the pre-Civil War bad presidents, Franklin Pierce was another of the so-called "doughfaces": Northerners with Southern sensibilities when it came to slavery and race. Pierce supported the expansion of slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories, which is considered to be a major contributing factor leading to the civil war. He was ultimately abandoned by his own party, which nominated James Buchanan as the presidential nominee in 1857. A hero of the Mexican-American war, Pierce ultimately died of alcoholism.
Ulysses S. Grant (Republican, 1869-1877) -- Sandwiched between James Buchanan and "Rutherfraud" Hayes, Grant is best known ... or should I say worst known ... for allowing rampant corruption and patronage to take hold during his administration. But he gets good marks for pushing Reconstruction programs and for supporting civil rights for freed Blacks and bold moves to try and break up the Ku Klux Klan. He also is ranked among America's best generals, for his exploits during the Civil War.
Warren G. Harding (Republican, 1921-1923) -- The first of our 20th century bad presidents (and the first U.S. president to ride to his inauguration in a car,) Warren Harding is best known for presiding over the Teapot Dome scandal, in which his interior secretary, Albert Fall, took bribes and no-interest personal loans in exhange for leasing public oil fields to his business cronies, leading to Fall's becoming the first presidential cabinet member to go to prison. Herbert Hoover was his secretary of commerce, and one of the few members of the cabinet not to wind up needing a lawyer. From wikipedia:
Thomas Miller, head of the Office of Alien Property, was convicted of accepting bribes. Jess Smith, personal aide to the Attorney General, destroyed papers and then committed suicide. Charles Forbes, director of the Veterans Bureau, skimmed profits, earned large amounts of kickbacks, and directed underground alcohol and drug distribution. He was convicted of fraud and bribery and drew a two-year sentence. Charles Cramer, an aide to Charles Forbes, also committed suicideNot a good look, even though there was never any direct link proved between the scandals and the president. He had the largest feet of any U.S. president, which may be why he was also said to have dabbled in extra-marital affairs ... hmmm.... Beaten down by scandal, Harding died in office at age 57 after suffering a stroke or heart attack while visiting Alaska (he was also the first U.S prez to do that...)
Herbert Hoover (Republican, 1929-1933) -- How much must it blow to be the president who gets elected on the eve of the Great Depression? Herbert Hoover was actually a very well known and respected economic mind (and both Warren Harding and Calvin Coolige's commerce secretary) before he wound up being the nation's 31st president. But after just one term, the phrases "Hoover hotels" and "Hoovervilles" said all you need to know about his presidency. It's possible that there was nothing Hoover could have done to avert the Depression, but what's clear is that once it happened, he was a paragon of presidential paralysis, particularly after the Smoot Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 crippled U.S. trade and touched off a string of international bank collapses.
Richard Nixon (Republican, 1969-1974) -- From Watergate to Vietnam, Richard Nixon's presidency was a study in presidential overreach, corruption and scandal. But Nixon was actually quite a liberal when it came to civil rights and the environment, and he created OSHA. He opened diplomatic channels to China, and pioneered detente with the U.S.S.R., but his increasing paranoia, spying on opponents, grabs for presidential power, and tunnel vision on the war ultimately did him in. Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign his office on August 9, 1974.
And then there's George W. Bush... where ... oh God ... to begin ...
There's also John Tyler (Whig, 1841-1845) who was a traitor and served in the Confederate House of Representatives after his term, Millard Filmore (Whig, 1850-1853) who supported the Fugitive Slave Act, and Calvin Coolidge (Republican, 1923-1925), who had a great re-election slogan, but a rather sheepish president at a time when the Great Depression was looming. But these are the really, really bad eggs.
So happy President's Day, George W. ... you're in good ... or should I say BAD ... company.
Oh, and I might as well big up the president with the shortest term in U.S. history: William Henry Harrison, also our nation's second oldest president at age 68, who insisted on giving an hour and 45 minute, 8,445-word inaugural address on the coldest inauguration day in U.S. history. 30 days later, he was dead, setting the table for John Tyler, the man with two wives, but no vice presidet, and who was otherwise known as "His Accidency."
Labels: American history, President's Day, U.S. presidents, worst president ever