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 Hillstaffer, as well aon 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 "Ev il 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