23 June 2010


The vitriolic political rhetoric of the past decade or more in the United States has reached a level unseen in the history of a generation that has seen the end (for now) of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, and the loss of two Space Shuttles (Challenger & Columbia) and their crews. The cries of “worst president ever” echo in the halls and on TV, talk radio, and internet blogs on a minute by minute basis. It should be noted that, while the war of words has gone tactically nuclear, we still don’t even approach the chaos of some contemporary foreign legislatures or the violence of the antebellum Congress when Representative Preston Brooks savagely beat Senator Charles Sumner into unconsciousness on the floor of the Senate Chamber. But for flaming rhetoric, the Internet has given voice to millions of people whose freedom to speak has not yielded verbal and written contributions of value to the historical narrative. George W. Bush was (and still is) vilified as stupid, bumbling, inept, and the greatest liar in history. Barack Obama is an elitist, arrogant, anti-US, Big Government Socialist, who is spending money by the trillions, rivaling any band of drunken sailors ever to disembark.

Labeling either Bush OR Obama as the “worst president ever” is at best simplistic, and more likely belies a serious lack of knowledge of United States history. Since its inception, America has had 44 presidencies by 43 different men (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms). The halls of the White House have seen a staggering level of corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement. Let’s look at a few former “leaders of the Free World;” men who would be in the running, were we officially assigning an award for “worst president.”

1. William Henry Harrison. President for about 2 hours in 1841. Harrison is on our list, if for no other reason, because he literally didn’t have sense enough to come in out of the rain. Despite being the oldest president elect in history until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Harrison wore neither hat nor overcoat while delivering a nearly two-hour inaugural address. His attempt to dispel his critics by a most public display of vigor resulted in pneumonia. His greatest accomplishment during his 32-day presidency? Calling Congress into special session.

2. Ulysses S. Grant. President from 1869-1877. Grant had the ignominy to preside over perhaps the most corrupt presidency in U.S. history. Grant’s two-term presidency was plagued by no fewer than twelve separate scandals. Grant staffed his administration with a litany of former military associates, many of whom were simply not up to the task, and a few of whom were actively involved in the aforementioned scandals. Grant has the distinction of being one of the few presidents to give a deposition during a criminal investigation regarding the alleged actions of a subordinate (at least so far, notwithstanding the current trial of Rob Blagojevich). Grant’s few “accomplishments” include the establishment of The National Weather Service,” Yellowstone National Park, Department of Justice, and the Office of the Surgeon General.

3. Warren G. Harding. President from 1921-1923. Before his death by heart attack in 1921, Harding’s presidency looked promising for a country emerging from the shadow of WWI and a financial depression in 1920-21. He would go on to give Grant a run for his money, scandal wise, suffering at least seven separate scandals, watching the first U.S. Cabinet member (Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall) ever to be convicted and sent to prison for accepting a bribe; endure his Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and future 4-term president) Franklin D. Roosevelt launching an investigation into allegations of homosexuality in the Navy. Harding himself was accused of at least three extra-marital affairs. A quick Google search gave no indication of the existence of any stained dresses.

4. Millard Fillmore. President from 1850-1853. The first unelected President (to this day sharing that title with only Andrew Johnson, who completed the term of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, Chester A. Arthur, who completed the term of the assassinated James Garfield, and Gerald R. Ford, who became president when Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment over the Watergate break-in), Fillmore failed to even receive the nomination of his own party after serving out the term of Zachary Taylor. Fillmore’s presidency was marked by the violent defense of and opposition to slavery and the so-called “Compromise of 1850", which ultimately failed to avert the U.S. Civil War. He may best be seen as attempting to, if not make anyone happy, at least make virtually everyone equally UNhappy.

5. Richard M. Nixon . President from 1969-1974. Where to start? Nixon was described as “an idiosyncratic president, so brilliant and so morally lacking”(Skidmore 2001, James MacGregor Burns), Nixon remains the only man ever to be elected twice as both president and vice president. The stark contrast of his presidency may be seen by his successes: a negotiated cease-fire with North Vietnam, effectively (although not successfully by most standards) ending the Vietnam War, opening arms treaty talks with The Soviet Union, and being the first U.S. President to visit China while in office. Unfortunately, he also very likely committed several major felonies and left office in disgrace over his role in the so-called “Watergate" scandal. His iconic “I am not a crook” speech remains a common punchline, ranking right up there with “you misspelled ‘potatoe’”, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” “Mission Accomplished,” and “I’m going to find out whose @$$ to kick.

The list goes on, but you get the point. Obama might go down in history as the most EXPENSIVE president in US history, and Bush might go down as the progenitor of the longest war(s) in US history 24, but neither could crack the top five, perhaps even the top TEN worst presidents.

1 comment:

Suzanne Shumaker said...

Some interesting points, however, if Obama is "the most expensive president ever" wouldn't that qualify, by some standards, as the worst? And, Bush's war certainly resulted in far too many deaths (and also was quite expensive).