originally published April 30, 2014 - NOTE THAT THIS WAS BEFORE THE ELECTION OF TRUMP.
If a politician’s legacy was determined solely by how many bad things are said about them in public, then all of history’s worst politicians are either presently in office or they have served their terms since the advent of the 24-hour news cycle. This isn’t true of course – to truly dig through history’s nuances and rank our politicians’ situational responses would be an impossible task, and a magnificently arbitrary effort in academic wankery.
So naturally it has been done, several times over in fact.
I can see ranking our leaders as an interesting exercise, if performed by historians and political experts who can employ their breadth of knowledge of tariffs and policies and the various global goings-on that were impacted by each one. But expecting the general public to provide any insight on whether James Polk or Martin Van Buren had a more positive impact on America is going to produce a somewhat questionable result.
Nevertheless, we’ll dig through the filthy, obfuscated muck of public opinion as well as the academically-approved muck from the professionals. It’ll be nice to take a break from picking on history’s worst movies, TV shows and music and having a dig at actual people who – for reasons either selfless, corrupt, or a sprinkling of both – decided they wanted the chance to be in charge.
Abe Lincoln, FDR and George Washington tend to top the U.S. Presidential rankings, with an honorable mention to Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and JFK. I’m looking at a collection of seventeen surveys conducted between 1948 and 2011, from sources like the Wall Street Journal and Sienna College. A few curious trends are immediately evident. First, in the half-century between James K. Polk’s term ended in 1849 and Teddy Roosevelt’s began in 1901, the only president considered to be even remotely above mediocre is Lincoln. In fact, three of the bottom four-ranked presidents served just before and just after Abe.
There’s no significant slant toward one party or another (except it seems the three Whig Party presidents were apparently rather sucky), and George W. Bush was not the unholy crap-hole I’m sure many believed him to be. In the eight polls conducted since 1999, all but one rates Ronald Reagan higher than Bill Clinton, and a whopping ten presidents scored lower than Richard M. Nixon. When you start looking at the polls taken from the general population, Bush Jr. and Nixon often show up in the top ten answers when asked, “Who was the greatest president?” This might be because the people surveyed can’t name more than ten presidents, I don’t know.
Let’s have a quick look at the bottom five, according to the aggregate score of those seventeen polls by people who actually (allegedly) know what they’re talking about.
The fifth-worst presidential spot is actually a tie. You’ve got William Henry Harrison, who should probably be at the bottom of this list due to his hubris and idiocy (or ‘hubriocy’). Sworn in on a cold and rainy day in early 1841, but wanting to show the country that he was just as much of a bad-ass as he had been in the War of 1812, Harrison didn’t wear a heavy coat or a hat. He contracted pneumonia a few weeks later (not as a direct result of his display of hubriocy, but still…) and died on the 32nd day of his presidency, accomplishing literally nothing.
Fellow Whig Millard Fillmore’s legacy is tied with Harrison’s as the fifth-worst. Fillmore was on the other end of a presidential demise, taking over when Zachary Taylor died in 1850. I don’t know why Fillmore gets such a lousy rap; his foreign policy quelled some potential conflicts from Peru to Portugal, and while he failed to unite the Whig party and secure its nomination in 1852, he still… oh, right. The Fugitive Slave Act. Fillmore signed this piece of legislation that made it a law that any escaped slaves were to be returned to their masters upon capture. Fuck this guy.
Franklin “Itchy-Nipple” Pierce was elected right after Fillmore and he is ranked even lower on the historic love-meter. Pierce’s biggest flaw was grabbing hold of the wrong end of the slavery debate and clinging to his position with an iron grip. He was the first president to hire a bodyguard. He had to – the country was frothing with violence while he was steering the ship.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (which I’ve already written about) cancelled the Missouri Compromise and opened up the possibility of slave ownership to new states out west. This led to a number of bloody skirmishes, an air of violence in Kansas that would make the modern Middle East seem like a good vacation spot, and a bloody beat-down in the Senate chamber in Washington. Pierce ranks lower than Do-Nothing Harrison because he actually appears to have made the country a worse place to live.
Andrew Johnson only had one month and eleven days’ experience in vice-presidenting when he was called up to the big chair courtesy of Abe Lincoln’s death. Johnson had two significant enemies while in office: Congress and black people. He opposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave African-Americans citizenship. When Congress refused to welcome the representatives from the re-Americanized southern states (only because they were the same representatives who had pushed for secession a few years earlier), Johnson vetoed their bills. Then they overrode his veto. It was ugly.
When Johnson pushed to remove Edward Stanton, his Secretary of War, from his job, Congress voted to impeach the president for violating the Tenure of Office Act. The impeachment proceedings ended with a 35-19 vote to boot Johnson out of the White House – one shy of the two-thirds majority they needed. It came as no surprise to anyone that Johnson was not picked as the Republican nominee for the 1868 election.
James “Faux-hawk” Buchanan has the honor of being ranked lower than the guy the US Senate tried to kick out of office. While Franklin Pierce laid the groundwork for violence in Kansas and anywhere slavery was up for debate, Buchanan found a way to make it worse. His efforts to negotiate peace between the slave-happy south and the freedom-fancying north wound up alienating both sides.
In the end, Buchanan believed that secession was illegal. He also believed that taking military action to prevent it was illegal. It was this sort of ineffective leadership that plunged the country into the Civil War. Southern Democrats picked their own champ for the 1860 election, while northern Democrats opted for Stephen Douglas, Buchanan’s archenemy. Once the Republicans picked Lincoln as their guy, the election was a virtual lock.
So who could be worse? Worse than a guy who came within a lone Senator’s vote of being booted from office, and worse than the schmucks who drove the country into a bloody inner turmoil?
Scoring at or near the bottom of almost every one of these polls is the crotchety-looking Warren G. Harding. He was the first president to take over in the age of Prohibition, yet he happily served confiscated whiskey to his guests in the White House. He appointed numerous friends to important (and financially powerful) positions, and appeared oblivious as they used their new power for their own gain. While most of the really juicy corruption wasn’t exposed until after Harding’s death, it was clear that knowing Warren was an unnaturally good thing in the early 20’s.
Harding had affairs, he had children through those affairs, and there was even talk of orgies. Despite his waning popularity in 1923, Harding was still eager to run for re-election the following year. And why not? He and his friends were cashing in on the job; of course he wouldn’t want to lose it. Then fate stepped in (or possibly the Tippecanoe Curse that killed off all presidents elected in years ending in ‘0’ for more than a century), and Harding dropped dead during a trip to California. Was it poison? Congestive Heart Failure? Karma biting him in the ass (and inside his rib cage)?
It was the second thing. But all is not lost – Harding earned the ignoble raspberry at the bottom of the presidential hit parade. Hey, it’s a place in history.