As all 5 living US Presidents gathered together on the grounds of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University yesterday to celebrate the unveiling of The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, we were reminded that while history may be written by the winners, it is all fine-tuned by the losers with obscene piles of cash. Unsurprisingly, the George W. Bush’s massive 207,000 square foot presidential complex—the second largest behind our dearly departed, small government loving Gipper’s 243,000 square foot monstrosity in Simi Valley, California—takes care not to dwell on the rougher spots of our 43rd President’s time in office in the hope that the sands of time will smooth them over and leave our great grandchildren with the impression that George W. Bush was a 21st century Teddy Roosevelt with an adopted southern accent. When they are forced to acknowledge some of Bush’s catastrophic cock-ups, the library takes a stance that can broadly be described as, “man, you don’t understand. Being President is really freaking hard.” In the “Decision Points Room”, us average Joes and Janes can take our hand at being President Bush by participating in a series of high tech Choose Your Own Adventure games relating to the attacks on 9/11, the Iraq War, the troop surge and Hurricane Katrina. Of course, if you select the path that President Bush didn’t take in reality,his digital doppelganger will pop on the screen to smugly inform you of why he was right and you are wrong.
George W. Bush has repeatedly taken the stance when asked by reporters that he isn’t terribly interested in how folks judge his legacy at the present, stating in a recent interview that, “I did what I did and ultimately history will judge.” And, as much as I don’t want to admit it, the crafty little devil might be right. We have little idea how his legacy will take shape over the coming decades and, judging by his resurgence in popularity over the past 5 years, it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to have Bush judged as a mediocre President who swung for the fences and ended up hitting a can-of-corn out to the warning track in right field. However, it is also very possible that history will judge him as harshly as his contemporaries, who have ranked him as the 6th worst President in American history according to a meta-poll conducted by Nate Silver, and the worst President to ever be elected to a second term. So, in the interest of seeing if George W. Bush has what it takes to keep climbing down the ladder of Presidential acclaim, here is a brief overview of some of the things that made the 5 men standing between Bush and rock bottom so extraordinarily bad.
- Andrew Johnson (5th Worst – 1865-1869):
More than anyone else on this list, Andrew Johnson’s reputation precedes him. After attaining the office of President after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Johnson endured a tumultuous 4 years as Commander in Chief before becoming the 1st US President to be impeached by the House of Representatives. Johnson is universally reviled for his opposition to the establishment of the 14th Amendment, dismantling of The Freedman’s Bureau and support of Black Codes in southern states after The Civil War, but his colossal bungling of Reconstruction wasn’t his most entertaining fault. Like Ulysses S. Grant, the man who would succeed him as President, Andrew Johnson was fond of his drink. However, unlike Grant, Johnson did not hold the same affinity for the Republican Party as he did his spirits, and felt the need to get properly soused up the night before his swearing in as Vice President. Apparently, hungover and not possessed of good cheer, Johnson came up to Lincoln’s Vice President during his first term in office, Hannibal Hamlin, and asked him for some whiskey on the morning of the inaugural festivities. Hamlin gave Johnson a bottle of whiskey, from which he took two big swigs and proceeded to the Senate chamber where he blathered on like someone’s alcoholic uncle giving a toast at Christmas dinner until Hamlin finally swore him in as our nation’s 16th Vice President. To my knowledge, Johnson is the only American President or Vice President to take the oath of office in a drunken stupor.
- William Henry Harrison (4th Worst – 1841-1841):
Honestly, this ranking is a festering pile of historical horseshit. How can a guy be the 4th worst President in our country’s history when he was only in office for 32 days? Just be virtue of not doing anything of consequence, Harrison should be smack dab in the middle of the pack, or at the very least granted an N/A beside his name. George W. Bush started a trillion dollar war on false pretenses, gutted US civil liberties and left an entire city to rot after Hurricane Katrina and William Henry Harrison is ranked below him for what—getting pneumonia? Yeah, giving a two hour long inaugural address in the driving rain is really stupid, but his illness didn’t even show any symptoms until three weeks after his inauguration. Don’t forget that at 68 years old, he is our nation’s 2nd oldest President behind Ronald Reagan, and at a time when making it to 68 was considered a decent achievement in and of itself. So, essentially, he’s been judged an awful President because modern medicine was still 40 years off and his doctor’s ideas of sound treatment for pneumonia was to apply some leeches and give him a little opium.
- Warren G. Harding (3rd Worst – 1920-1923):
Here’s yet another guy on our list who died in office and has been somewhat unjustly delegated to the Island of Misfit Presidents, in large part I imagine, because he couldn’t defend himself on account of being, well, dead. More than anything else, Harding is remembered for The Teapot Dome Scandal, which naturally was exposed after he had gone to meet his maker. Essentially, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior leased some choice oil reserves in Wyoming and California from the US Navy to some private companies at a low rate in exchange for some cash on the side. Naturally, Fall was convicted on charges of bribery and was sentenced to a year in prison, becoming the first cabinet level official to do time in lock up. I’m still unsure as to how having your Secretary of the Interior accept bribes equalling $5.2 billion in today’s money results in prison time while having your Vice President take a $36 million severance package from Halliburton before awarding them billions of dollars in oil contracts results in a pat on back. And, the last time I checked, The Harding Administration didn’t have to declare war on the state of Wyoming to get its kickback from big oil. I realize that Harding was a bad president, but for all of the union busting and corruption the man oversaw, he was also ahead of his time in other ways. Harding was a supporter of the Women’s Suffrage movement, advocated for civil rights at a time when Jim Crow was sacrosanct in the south and he started the Veteran’s Bureau, which would become the Department of Veteran’s Affair.
When asking yourself whether or not someone was a monumentally awful President, ask yourself the following questions: a) Did he enter/keep us in a horrific war under false pretenses? (LBJ, Nixon, George W. Bush), b) Did he oversee a massive economic collapse that was caused in part by his own policies? (Hoover, George W. Bush), c) Did he willfully commit genocide or put in place laws that explicitly or implicitly oppress marginalized populations? (Jackson, Pierce, Johnson, Nixon) and d) Did his incompetence lead to The Civil War? (Buchanan). If your guy doesn’t come up in any of those questions, he can’t be in the Bottom 5, end of story.
- Franklin Pierce (2nd Worst – 1853 -1857)
There is plenty to dislike about Franklin Pierce. The man singlehandedly wiped out the illusion of popular sovereignty as a viable doctrine in America, took a crap on Manifest Destiny and reignited the slave question in the west by supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, invalidating the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and turning the geographic center of our country into a bloody mess. For God’s sake, the man selected Jefferson Davis, the future President of the Confederacy, as his (in-retrospect) extremely ironic pick for Secretary of War. However, Pierce earned his seat at the kiddie table of American Presidents not simply because he was one of our nation’s most incompetent leader’s, but because he was also our most tragic. Generally when we think of tragic Presidents, we go straight to those great men who were cut down in the middle of their prime. The only problem with this is that, in thinking of the Lincolns and the Kennedys who were so senselessly taken from us while in office, we think of men who had achieved a great deal and whose legacies will live on for as long as western civilization does. These men were so influential and beloved that their deaths were more tragic for the nation at large then they were themselves as individuals.
On the other hand, my grandparents likely couldn’t tell you what Franklin Pierce did and their grandparents might have voted for the man. He is the Mr. Irrelevant of Presidents, beating out Millard Fillmore because he wasn’t lucky enough to be blessed with a memorable name like Millard Fillmore. But his irrelevancy pales in comparison to the misfortune of his personal life. Pierce had three sons, and none would live long enough to see him become President. His first son lived only 3 days before passing away while his second son made it to the age of 4 before succumbing to Typhus, but it was his third son that takes the cake for parental heartbreak. In January of 1853, after he had won the Presidency but before he had been sworn in, Pierce, his wife and his 11 year-old son Benjamin were on a train from Boston when it suddenly derailed and crashed into an embankment. Franklin and his wife were unharmed, but Benjamin had been crushed to death during the accident. Pierce’s deeply religious wife blamed him for their son’s death, saying it was god’s punishment for his egotistical office-seeking. Franklin Pierce soon began drinking to excess and become a full blown alcoholic by the time his wife died in 1863, eventually passing away from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 65.
- James Buchanan (The Worst – 1857-1861):
Some times call for a man of action or a woman of courage. James Buchanan was elected President at a time when circumstances cried out for such a person and history would find him wanting on all counts. More than anything, Buchanan’s presidency can be characterized by chronic indecision and timidity during a period when sectarian differences in America had never been greater. Like Franklin Pierce before him, Buchanan was labeled by his detractors as a “doughface”, which was another name for a Northerner who tried to placate the South. As such, Buchanan didn’t want to upset anyone’s apple cart and took an official stance on the mounting tensions over slavery in the west that amounted to the belief that seceding from the United States was illegal, but that declaring war to stop that secession was also illegal. It was the political equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and running around the room screaming “I can’t hear you” for four years. By the time Buchanan had left office in the winter of 1861, the Civil War was all but started and he had presented Abraham Lincoln with Southern secession on a silver platter. Not content to just divide the nation in two, Buchanan also caused a schism in the Democratic Party, damaging them to the point that another Democrat wouldn’t be elected President for another 24 years.
A few days before his death when the subject of his public perception came up, Buchanan remarked that “Posterity will do me justice,” before going on to say, “I have no regret for any public act of my life; and history will vindicate my memory from every unjust aspersion.” Now, why does that sound so familiar?
P.S. For what it's worth, the 5 men I listed above are not who I would rank as the 5 worst presidents in history, but rather are the 5 listed below George W. Bush in Nate Silver's survey. If I were ranking the bottom 5 POTUS', there would be a good amount of overlap, but I would make a few changes:
5. Richard Milhous Nixon
4. George W. Bush
3. Franklin Pierce
2. James Buchanan
1. Andrew Johnson