Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents

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Overview

Picking America's best presidents is easy. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt usually lead the list, But choosing the nation's worst presidents requires more thought. In Star-Spangled Men, respected presidential biographer Nathan Miller puts on display those leaders who were abject failures as chief executive. With pointed humor and a deft hand, he presents a rogues' gallery of the men who dropped the presidential ball, and sometimes their pants as ...

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Star-Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents

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Overview

Picking America's best presidents is easy. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt usually lead the list, But choosing the nation's worst presidents requires more thought. In Star-Spangled Men, respected presidential biographer Nathan Miller puts on display those leaders who were abject failures as chief executive. With pointed humor and a deft hand, he presents a rogues' gallery of the men who dropped the presidential ball, and sometimes their pants as well.
Miller includes Richard M. Nixon, who was forced to resign to escape impeachment; Jimmy Carter, who proved that the White House is not the place for on-the-job training; and Warren G. Harding, who gave "being in the closet" new meaning as he carried on extramarital interludes in one near the Oval Office. This current edition also includes a new assessment of Bill Clinton — who has admitted lying to his family, his aides, his cabinet, and the American people.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
John Dorfman The Washington Post Book World An amusing and instructive book...what stands out are his anecdotes, most of them humorous or just plain bizarre.

Anne Stephenson The Arizona Republic The interesting, often funny stories [Miller] tells are comforting proof that we've had bad presidents before, and survived them all.

Lowell Branham The Knoxville News-Sentinel Anyone who's studied history might wonder how Miller was able to boil his list down to only ten.

The Tampa Tribune A disturbing view of a system where presidential candidates are often chosen on the basis of their inability to upset anyone, thus making mediocrity one of the aspects of job description.

Washington Post Book World
An amusing and instructive book...what stands out are his anecdotes, most of them humorous or just plain bizarre.
—John Dorfman
Arizona Republic
The interesting, often funny stories [Miller] tells are comforting proof that we've had bad presidents before, and survived them all.
—Anne Stephenson
Knoxville News-Sentinel
Anyone who's studied history might wonder how Miller was able to boil his list down to only ten.
—Lowell Branham
Tampa Tribune
A disturbing view of a system where presidential candidates are often chosen on the basis of their inability to upset anyone, thus making mediocrity one of the aspects of job description.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Combining brief biographical profiles with scathing critiques, this one-man's rogues' gallery offers up Miller's (The Roosevelt Chronicles) opinions on who he considers to be the least successful American presidents. The trenchant though often superficial nature of this account is first revealed in the table of contents, where Miller lambastes William Howard Taft for being so fat he got stuck in a White House bathtub and characterizes Benjamin Harrison as looking like a "medieval gnome" with a handshake like a "wilted petunia," as if these qualities affected leadership. In an epilogue, he deflates two more presidents as the "most overrated"John F. Kennedy, whom he calls a "confirmed cold warrior" (wasn't virtually everyone in those days?), and Thomas Jefferson, whom he accuses of wrecking the nation's economy and leading the country to war with Britain through the Embargo Act of 1807. Miller writes with passion in this irreverent broadside, where opinion tends to overstep analysis. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Few Americans, let alone historians, express much interest in the worst events or characters, as such, in our history, but presidential historian Miller (The Roosevelt Chronicles, LJ 10/15/97) decided to investigate whom he considers to be the ten worst presidents. His self-described subjective but nonpartisan criteria for measuring our "failed" leaders include bad character, dishonesty, inability to compromise, lack of vision, weak political skills, failure to communicate, andhis most important consideration"How badly did they damage the nation they were supposed to serve?" Each individualCarter, Taft, Harrison, Coolidge, Grant, Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Buchanan, Harding, and Nixonreceives about 20 pages, in which Miller provides little more than a Reader's Digest version of a political biography. In the last chapter, the author writes about Jefferson and Kennedyin his opinion, the two most overrated presidents. There is little to recommend this book to anyone who seriously wants to understand any of these presidents, especially the two "overrated" ones.Thomas J. Baldino, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684852065
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 2/25/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,431,999
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.43 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nathan Miller
Nathan Miller is an award-winning journalist and the author of twelve works of history and biography, including Broadside: The Age of Fighting Sail, 1775-1815, FDR: An Intimate History, and War at Sea. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt


PROLOGUE

Picking America's best presidents is easy. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt usually top any list. Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Woodrow Wilson belong among the near greats. But choosing the nation's worst chief executives requires much more thought. Warren G. Harding and Ulysses S. Grant are easy choices. But what about Richard M. Nixon? Except for Watergate and its concomitant crudities, he was not a bad president. Nevertheless, he was the only one forced out of office -- and for no less than trying to make off with the Constitution. Does Herbert Hoover belong on such a list? How about Jimmy Carter? Ronald Reagan? Or William Jefferson Clinton? The possibilities are almost endless.

Ranking presidents is a popular sport among Americans. Perhaps the first such list appeared back in 1948, when Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger of Harvard asked fifty-five leading historians for their ratings of the nation's chief executives. Nearly a half century later, his son, Arthur Jr., put the same question to thirty-two experts. A startling result of all the polls in between is that those named the best and the worst presidents remained pretty much the same over the years despite the adding of new presidents. The major reshufflings have been in the near-great and average categories.

My selection of the worst presidents is purely subjective. It is not the result of a scientific sampling of historians or leading Americans. I have made my choices based upon a lifetime of reading American history, graduate study, a career in political journalism on the local, state, and national levels, and as a Capitol Hill staffer, as well as having written two presidential biographies and other books with a political slant. If the reader suspects me of partisan bias, let me state that in the last thirteen presidential elections, I voted Democratic seven times, Republican four times, and twice for minor-party candidates. Two of the candidates for whom I voted are on my list of worst presidents.

Pragmatism, strong character, vision, political skill, a basic integrity, and the ability to communicate with the American people are generally listed as the qualities for a great or a good president. If so, then the qualities for a poor president are a mirror image of them: bad character, the inability to compromise, a lack of vision, poor political skills, dishonesty, and an inability to communicate. To these, I have added my own basic criterion -- How badly did they damage the nation they were supposed to serve?

As a result, my list is different from the conventional wisdom. The ground rules under which I made selections are as follows: From the start, I ruled out William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and James A. Garfield because they were in office too brief a time to have had any great effect. Bill Clinton, as the incumbent when this was written, gets a bye -- at least this time around. The reader will also note that I have not included two presidents who have been rated near the bottom in every ranking since 1948: John Tyler and Millard Fillmore. They are yoked together with Zachary Taylor in a pantheon of drab, almost forgotten presidents whose dusty portraits are tucked away in the back corridors of Washington. My guess is that their low ratings are based less upon what they did -- or didn't do -- in the White House than upon the fact that they were ranked low on the first Schlesinger list and remain there because hardly anyone knows anything about them.

In point of fact, they are not as bad as they are usually portrayed. Both were vice presidents unexpectedly elevated to the White House by the death of their predecessor. Tyler, a diffident Virginia aristocrat who became president after the death of William Henry Harrison, fought off numerous challenges to his authority as the first "accidental president." He refused to allow Congress to brush him aside and take control of the government. By clever management, he brought about the annexation of Texas and presided over the resolution of a major boundary dispute between Canada and the United States -- all of which should place him above such nonentities as Benjamin Harrison.

"Honest, commonplace Fillmore," as he was called by historian Allan Nevins, also deserves more respect than he gets. Following the death of Zachary Taylor, he played an important role in the adoption of the Compromise of 1850, which staved off the Civil War by a decade, and dispatched Commodore Matthew C. Perry to open Japan to American trade. My guess is that Fillmore's low reputation is not based upon his presidency but is colored by his decision to run unsuccessfully for president in 1856 on the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing ticket. Besides, the name Millard Fillmore seems to generate laughter on its own.

While this book was under way, I was repeatedly asked if I were going to include any contemporary presidents, particularly Reagan or George Bush. Reagan is not included because he came to Washington with two goals -- to reduce the influence of "gov'ment" and to destroy the "Evil Empire" -- and he accomplished both. Whether one approves of the means he used is open to debate. The key to Reagan's success was knowing where he wanted to take the American people and the ability to convince them to follow him. My guess is that his historical reputation, while not high today, will grow in future years in the same manner as that of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who now stands far higher in the ratings than he did only a few years ago.

As for Bush, he barely misses making the worst list. The creation and management of the alliance that won the Gulf War of 1991 saves him, but lacking vision, he was unable to capitalize on this victory to ensure his reelection. Hoover, although the scapegoat for the Great Depression, does not make it either. In reality, he was the victim of the criminal neglect of previous administrations. The last classical liberal to serve in the White House, Hoover was incapable of dealing with the chilling realities of the economic collapse, but so was everyone else -- except for Franklin Roosevelt. I expect the inclusion of Jimmy Carter among the worst presidents will bring howls of protest based upon his postpresidential career. But there is no hiding that he was a poor president.

One thing that emerges from this book is the truly undistinguished nature of most presidential candidates -- winners and losers alike. America can survive, and make progress, even with bad presidents. But the country needs -- and should have -- good presidents. The American people must find and elect men and women of high moral character, as well as intelligence and experience. Character and conduct are clearly linked, and the personal weaknesses of a president can often turn out to be public liabilities. Teapot Dome, Watergate, and Whitewater all have their roots in the character flaws of Warren Harding, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton.

For the most part this book has been excavated from standard sources, but I have put my own spin on what I have found. I expect brickbats and dead cats as a result of some of my selections. But as the English historian J. A. Froud said, "Historical facts are like a child's box of letters. You have only to pick out such letters as you want, to spell any word you want." If you disagree with my choices, get your own box of letters.

Copyright © 1998 by Nathan Miller

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS
AMERICA'S TEN WORST PRESIDENTS
(IN THE ORDER OF THEIR WORSTNESS, FROM THE POOR TO THE HORRID)
PROLOGUE
(IN WHICH THE CRITERIA FOR MAKING THIS LIST ARE DISCUSSED)
FOREWORD TO THE TOUCHSTONE EDITION
I. Jimmy Carter, who showed that the White House is not the place for on-the-job training
II. William Howard Taft, who was so fat he got stuck in a White House bathtub
III. Benjamin Harrison, who looked like a medieval gnome and had a handshake like "a wilted petunia"
IV. Calvin Coolidge, who was a living embodiment of Woody Allen's observation that "eighty percent of success is showing up"
V. Ulysses S. Grant, who proves that old soldiers should fade away rather than go to the White House
VI. Andrew Johnson, who declared, "I am right" about Reconstruction — but was wrong
VII. Franklin Pierce, who said, "There's nothing left...but to get drunk," after being denied renomination — and promptly did so
VIII. James Buchanan, who was on the government payroll for forty years and never had an original idea
IX. Warren Gamaliel Harding, who gave being "in the closet" a new meaning
X. Richard Milhous Nixon, who maintained, "I am not a crook!" — but was
EPILOGUE
(In which we consider the two most overrated presidents)
Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy
NOTES
BIBLIOGRAPHY
INDEX

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    Posted October 5, 2013

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    Im ready! Beats wings in anticipation. Hazel. Am i ready?

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