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.