One reader asked why there were so few Presidents who earned grades higher than C. The answer is fairly straightforward. The majority of the men who have held our highest office were not particularly impressive. During the era before the Progressive movement many were placeholders because the office had not yet become the focus of political power not intended by the Constitution. That changed at the end of the 19th Century.
My interest in this was triggered when I got tired of being told that Ronald Reagan was “an amiable dunce” and, therefore, not fit for office. In response I have read biographies of all but the most recent Presidents. It was a depressing task as many of our Presidents were mediocrities. This post will rank the worst of the two term Presidents and in most cases it is because they used their authority to undermine the Constitution. They ignored the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) Overall C- Short term C+ Long Term C Reaction to events C+ Intangibles F
Jackson was the first President elected as a candidate of the Democrat Party. He was a polarizing personality and was clearly anti-establishment. He stood up against South Carolina when the state threatened to “nullify” a Federal tariff law and chose to ignore a Supreme Court ruling protecting the Cherokee tribe in Georgia. He told the Court that it had made it’s ruling and they were free to enforce it. Ultimately Jackson presided over the forced expulsion of the Cherokees from Georgia to territory beyond the Mississippi River known as the Trail of Tears. He also supported the Second Seminole War which ultimately came close to eliminating the Seminole nation. On the plus side he shut down the Second Bank of the United States and brought the power hungry Nicholas Biddle down. When political insiders tried to save the bank Jackson simply removed all the government deposits and the bank collapsed. He seemed to be wary of the concentration of power as represented by a Federal bank.
Suggested reading:Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands and The Age of Jackson by Arthur Schlesinger.
William J Clinton Overall C- Short Term C+ Long term D Reaction to events C Intangibles F
Bill Clinton campaigned on a fraud which is no surprise. One wit observed that Clinton was an empty suit, but is was an Armani. He argued that the US economy was the worst since the Great Depression when, in fact, it was nowhere near as bad as the economic situation Reagan inherited. He was executing a strategy articulated by the charming and winsome James Carville: “It’s the economy stupid!” Clinton was a very lucky man. He turned over the destruction of the US healthcare system (Obamacare stillborn) to his hapless wife who managed to so alienate the voters with her plan that they elected the first Republican controlled House since 1954. The Gingrich Congress proceeded to hold the growth in the rate of spending to the rate of inflation and we ended up with budget surpluses for the first time in a generation. Clinton reacted predictably when he was asked if the government would return the surplus to the taxpayers: he couldn’t allow that because that the benighted taxpayers could not be trusted to spend THEIR money properly. The country rolled on with the tech revolution and there was no need for the President to actively participate in the process of governing. This allowed Clinton to concentrate on harassing young interns in the Oval Office and other distractions. George Will summed up Clinton as follows: “He was not our worst President but he was the worst man who was ever President.” He was the second President to be impeached. Among his silly quotes: “The era of big government is over” and “It depends on what the meaning of is is.” He actually lamented that he was not President on 9/11 because he could have had a foreign policy legacy that included something other than the bombing of an aspirin factory in the Sudan.
Suggested reading: Clinton Cash by Peter Schweitzer and Boy Clinton by R. Emett Tyrell
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) Overall D Short term C Long Term D Reaction to events D Intangibles D
US Grant was a tragic figure. A great general, who did so much to ensure victory in the Civil War, but he was simply not up to the task of being President. His administration was marked by corruption although there is no evidence that he personally profited from various corrupt schemes. He was a poor judge of character and naive about the people who surrounded him. He put loyalty ahead of trust. His administration was otherwise without consequence but he did sign into law the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the first attempt to address the continuing repression of American blacks in the South. Unfortunately the law was deemed to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Southern Democrats ensured that thereafter there would be no meaningful civil rights legislation for more than 85 years. It is impressive that he wrote his autobiography in long hand while dying of throat cancer.
Suggested reading: Personal Memoirs by US Grant and Grant by Ron Chernow
Richard Nixon (1969-1974) Overall D Short term D- Long term C Reaction to events D Intangibles F
Richard Nixon was an enigma. He was one of the smartest men ever to serve as President but he was haunted by a number of character flaws that led to his downfall. He and the country would have been better served if he had been Secretary of State for life. Domestically he was a disaster. Because there were inflation rates of between 5 and 7% Nixon imposed wage and price controls across the economy. Economists pointed out that (1) wage and price controls never work and (2) that inflation does not end, it is only postponed. When the controls were lifted this Nixonian IED blew up on Carter’s watch and, as predicted, inflation rates doubled. Nixon created the EPA and supported a Congressional effort to allow the EEOC to sue employers. On the international front he was more successful opening diplomatic relations with China and ending the Viet Nam War. Facing impeachment he became the only President to resign from office leaving the nation in the incapable hands of Gerald Ford.
Suggested reading: No More Vietnams by Richard Nixon, Richard M. Nixon by Conrad Black and Nixon Agonistes by Gary Wills.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) Overall F Short term F Long Term F Reaction to events F Intangibles F
Wilson was the second “progressive” President. It is instructive to note that this progressive was a virulent racist. He re-segregated the federal office buildings in Washington and hosted, in the White House, one of the first showings of D.W. Griffiths racist movie Birth of a Nation. This film glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson supported and enforced the Espionage Act which became law in 1917. Eugene V. Debs, 1912 Socialist candidate for President, was imprisoned by the Wilson Administration for opposing US entry into World War I. He also used the Sedition Act of 1918 to suppress newspapers which opposed his policies. Wilson supported the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. The Federal Reserve was the chief architect of the Great Depression when it dramatically contracted the money supply in the late 1920’s. After promising during the 1916 campaign that no Americans would die on foreign shores the nation was manipulated by Wilson and his alter ego Colonel Edward House into entering the war in Europe. After the war his naivete was exposed as our European allies took advantage of him during the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty and the League of Nations, both of which Wilson backed, were rejected by the US Senate. A series of strokes limited his ability to govern and some have suggested that the presidential affairs were then managed by House and Wilson’s second wife Edith Galt. Wilson was a total failure as President.
Suggested reading: The Creature from Jekyll Island by Edward Griffin and The First World War by John Keegan and The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark.
Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) Overall F Short term F Long Term F Reaction to events F Intangibles F
Roosevelt is unarguably the worst of the Presidents elected more than once. He dedicated his entire term in office to undermining the Constitution. FDR was not a particularly bright fellow and was easily manipulated. He took the “gentleman’s C” at Harvard and failed to complete law school at Columbia. Those who defend him try to argue that he saved us from Communism which is, of course, unprovable. In fact he was an enthusiast of Fascism especially as practiced by Benito Mussolini. He and many of his advisors were quite taken by the Italian dictator’s ability to make the trains run on time. Roosevelt’s so-called “brains trust” believed that economic activity must be managed by a central authoritarian regime based on the preposterous argument that capitalism had failed. Almost every decision the brains trust made seems to have been designed to destroy job creation and growth. There was, in 1937-8, a recession within the Depression. Internationally he was equally ineffective not withstanding the victories over Germany and Japan. When he ran for his fourth term in 1944 he had been told by his doctors that his cancer had spread and that he would die in a matter of months. Sadly his incredible ego would not allow him to retire before the election. But to his credit (only good thing that can be said of him) he dropped Henry Wallace as his VP and put Harry Truman on the ticket. Truman proved to be an excellent choice. Roosevelt was weak and medicated when he met with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta and he presented a gift to his friend “Uncle Joe” Stalin…Eastern Europe. Europe went to war because Poland was invaded and Roosevelt gave Poland to the USSR without a second thought. It has been said that shortly before he died he did acknowledge that Stalin played him. That did nothing for the people soon to be enslaved behind the Iron Curtain. FDR was a failure by every measure.
Suggested reading: The Forgotten Man by Amity Schlaes, New Deal or Raw Deal by Burton Folsom and Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson.
The next post will rate those Presidents that were elected only once. I hope you find these posts educational.