Wednesday, October 05, 2005

more on presidents

An on-going discussion has started regarding the nation’s worst president. Hugh , the instigator, is probably chuckling privately at the contention. I’ve thrown my hat into the ring a few times already, ranking GWB near the bottom, but not at the very bottom.

It is apparent that this dissention stems in part from using different criteria (criterion?) to define “worst.” TRP argues that the definition belongs to someone who leaves the nation in a worse condition than when their term began. Mr. Spoon, when not pondering our examples and exercising his right to change his mind, kindly asked for my opinion. (Such a nice fellow.)

I would posit that the distinction of “worst” should go to the leader who sits idly by while Rome burns. The current administration, though comfortably reclined in their rocking chairs at times, also takes action. Though I disagree with nearly all of their decisions and efforts, and am horrified at the delays associated with Katrina, even the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind qualify as action.

Using this definition, I have argued elsewhere that James Buchanan’s administration best fits the “Rome Burns” description. Mr. Spoon kindly asked for the names of other candidates who might be ranked alongside JB and GWB.

William Henry Harrison - Harrison contracted pneumonia soon after his inauguration and spent much of his one month in office ill and comatose. More than one of my students has ranked him as the greatest president for this reason. (joke!) I cannot blame a comatose man for the chaos inherited by John Tyler.

Millard Fillmore – Fillmore is often faulted for signing the individual bills that made up the Compromise of 1850. I do not advocate slavery, but I laud his attempt to compromise. In particular, I laud Fillmore’s decision to support a compromise first created by the brilliant compromiser, Henry Clay. (I’ll blog about him another day.)

Franklin Pierce - Pierce inherited an unmitigated sectional disaster from Fillmore & Taylor. His foreign policy successes are noteworthy and he attempted to achieve cooperation between the increasingly divided North and South.
Pierce bears further examination by those who study the current administration. Like GWB, Pierce struggled with alcoholism. While in the White House, he remained sober, but clearly battled the depression and anxiety that facilitated the disease. Just before his inauguration, Pierce and his wife saw their only surviving child crushed to death beneath the wheels of a train. Both Pierces struggled with depression during his four years in office and I confess to feeling quite sorry for them. His presidency could have been better but, again, Pierce did at least take action.

The presidents from the second half of the 19th century frequently land high atop the historians’ polls for corruption and graft. All of this is true. It is also worth remembering that corruption and graft fell well within the bounds of ordinary behavior during this time. Briefly:

Johnson inherited an untenable political situation. Lincoln might have created and sustained a lasting peace within the nation, but no one other than Washington could have achieved it. It is worth noting that Lincoln, like GWB, skirted the Constitution, utilized military law to suit his purposes and pursued an unpopular war. I would not compare the two, but others have.

Grant led a corrupt administration, but took action against it and attempted to restore the power of the presidency. Hayes won possibly the most corrupt election of all time then settled into a very quiet and respectable term. Chester Arthur, despite his history of graft in local politics, did his utmost to cleanse the system of presidential appointments based solely upon favoritism.

Now then – the twentieth century. If you use my argument, none of the twentieth century’s presidents can rank as among the worst of the worst. Hoover, Nixon, Carter and Clinton might not assume a position within the upper echelons, but neither are their administrations without merit. Though ranked among the all-time greats, I’d note that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacies remain complicated; plenty of people then and now disparaged and disparage his policies. Politicians and activists of the last fifty years or so have expended considerable effort toward dismantling or eliminating many of his policies.


Hugh said...

Hee Hee!

Great post, Lemming, given my knowledge of 19th century Presidential history. It's hard for me to rank any of the recent Presidents as best or worst. It seems as though the country has become over the past fifty years so strong and safe as to mitigate the effect of any one President. We may "win" or "lose" the war in Iraq, but is it going to change the fundamental nature of this country? No. We now are pretty comfortable with the cyclical booms and busts that the country goes through, and that really isn't solely attributable to a president (Clinton didn't cause the dot-com boom, and Bush didn't cause its demise).

TeacherRefPoet said...

Marvelous post, Lemming.

I disagree with this point:

"I would posit that the distinction of 'worst' should go to the leader who sits idly by while Rome burns. The current administration, though comfortably reclined in their rocking chairs at times, also takes action."

Bad metaphor department:

Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

Bush, in an effort to save Rome, knocks over a lamp, and burns Rome, Naples, and Florence. Then, it turns out Rome wasn't burning after all...actually, someone was smoking a pipe.

I'll take Nero every time. I give no points for effort when the effort harms us.

In short, can you justify that your criterion is better than mine?

(I love this stuff...)

Bartleby said...

I hereby nominate Mr. Lincoln as worst president ever, by any reasonable criterion. He utterly destroyed the Constitution, as well as the United States as a confederation of sovereign states. He had state legislators arrested and imprisoned for the crime of voting "wrong." In short, he was a corrupt and despicable tyrant.

That should be a popular answer ...

tommyspoon said...

[Golf Clap]

Well done, Lemming! But I'm afraid I'm siding with TRP on his critique of your criterion.

We may have to wait 50 years to see how this argument is decided. I'll be 87 then, and plan on hanging around! Meet me in Gambier and we'll continue this debate...

tommyspoon said...

Oooh! Oooh! I have a response to Bartleby!

Every point you make is 100% correct. And it is for those very reasons I think that Lincoln is one of the best Presidents we ever had.

Huh? Hang on, I'll explain:

My Dad has been very sick and is still in hospital. The doctors discovered that he was fighting a massive infection that may have been brought on by an allergic reaction to a medication. The treatment for that reaction is to administer massive amounts of steroids. But this treatment could end up killing him. So the decision was made to leave him "sicker longer" so that he could make a better recovery. That appears to have been the right course of action, as Dad is getting ready to be moved out of the ICU after almost a month.

Ok, what Lincoln did was bad. I deplore it. But he did preserve the Union. He let the country be "sicker longer" in order to save it. Seems to have worked.

Unfortunately, his assassination scuttled his plan for Reconstruction which would have treated the South with dignity and honor. I constantly tell my Southern relatives that the assassintion of Lincoln did more damage to the South than Sherman's March to the Sea.

This may not satisfy you, Bartleby. But I never pass up a chance to connect events historical and current.

Rachel said...

A criterion for a bad leader:

He who kills his hearth companions while drunk.

Courtesy of _Beowulf_ and perhaps completely off topic. But talking about bad kings is much more fun, in my humble medeivalist opinion.

Actually, studying kings has made me realize one of my main objections to GWB (and John Q Adams): the presidency should not be hereditary. Being the son of a president should in no way qualify one for the presidency. Charlemagne's sons were not that great, Henry II (Plantagent)'s sons managed to lose all of England's French holdings. Of course, Henry V was a bit of an improvement -- but Henry VI was a major let-down (insanity will do that.)

Swankette said...

I agree with Rachel. Especially when Daddy has some grudges still on the table, as in why didn't I get Saddam out while I still could? I knew from when he first made it in office that GWB was gonna' try to go into Iraq to finish Daddy's business. WMD's just sounds so much nicer.

lemming said...

Bartleby's answer is dead on correct and reasonably common. It's also one that many of my students who support Bush have made as proof that GWB is one of our greatest presidents.

Greg said...

Bartleby's answer is correct, true, Lemming, but I think you should fail those students who try to make such a comparion.

Lincoln had a grand goal to achieve - keeping the union intact. Bush has no such goal. He DID have one, the WOT, but that seems to have disappeared, and is not really as grand a goal as Lincoln's. Terrorism will not destroy the country. Secessionists would have effectively divided this country in half and taken some key American assets in the south with it.

Lincoln was a great president because he flouted the law for a good cause. Bush is a bad president because he's invented a good cause to flout the law.

As far as Grant, remember:
Ulysses Simpson Grant
would scream and rave and rant
While drinking whiskey
Although risky
'Cause he'd spill it on his pants

GrigorPDX said...

OK, I can't resist. :-)

Rome burning? I say "urban renewal by arson."

GWB's not just blundering around well-intentionedly making things worse, he's out there energetically fanning flames to free up all that land for his investor buddies. He's using Katrina as the excuse to ramrod through school vouchers and Medicare "reforms." He's using the war in Iraq for just about everything - re-election (all that "strong leadership in troubled times" bullshit), no-bid contracts and massive spending increases going to defense contractors, an excuse to cut funding to domestic programs, oil drilling in ANWR, dismantling all those inconvenient human and civil rights that only get in their way, tax cuts to the very people who need it least, ... I'm sure I missed a few. The official reasons for his actions and the actual results have little, if any correlation.

I think you and TRP are buying a bit of the spin. Of course he's going to spin screwing us all over in terms that make it sound like he's trying to "Do What's Right(tm)". His folksy, "gawsh, I just want to help" attitude is great camouflage to cover his astonishingly-brazen assaults on our civil society. As much was we all like to joke about the Bush-isms and how foolishly he acts, nobody that stupid can obtain and hold the Presidency of the United States. No, GWB is more a student of Goebbels and Orwell than Howdy Doody and Gomer Pyle.

TeacherRefPoet said...


How do you know what GWB thinks?

Your argument is unwinnable unless you can answer that question.

Yeah, I know Lemming and I can't answer it either, but given a standstill, it seems to me we should assume someone is better than Goebbels until we have irrefutable evidence of evil (as Goebbels had). Not bad choices--evil.

What troubles me most is that this kind of rhetoric makes it far harder for our side to win an election as we so desperately need to.

Doug said...

I think Occam's Razor comes into play. Bush's actions look like Rube Goldberg efforts to achieve his stated goals. They look like fairly direct efforts to achieve the goals Grigor suggests.

Kurt M. Weber said...

The end does not justify the means.