Remembering American presidents

Who was the worst, the most failed American president? This question is undoubtedly all the more actual in the wake of current economic and political developments and considering that the presidential elections are only ten days away.

First ever rankings of American presidents started by a renowned Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr. in 1948, who asked 55 historians to rank American presidents on a scale from “great” to “failure.” Changes in presidential rankings reflect shifts in how we view history. When the first poll was taken, the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War was regarded as a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting black men the right to vote. As a result, Andrew Johnson, a fervent white supremacist who opposed efforts to extend basic rights to former slaves, was rated “near great.” Today, by contrast, Johnson is duly considered a failure due to currently prevalent views that Reconstruction was a flawed but noble attempt to build an interracial democracy. Another American president who has been regarded ambivalently, according to Alan Brinkley, is Richard Nixon, who said “There are presidents who could be considered both failures and great or near great (for example, Nixon).” Nixon became notable for his accomplishments and defeats in domestic and foreign policy, but is mostly associated today with disdain for the Constitution and abuse of presidential power. He was paranoid about national security and obsessed with secrecy and media leaks. Nixon always considered himself above the law.

There are nonetheless few American presidents about whom the public has consistent and unaltered views regardless of historic perspectives. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt always figure in the “great” category. Most presidents are ranked “average.” Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, James Buchanan constantly occupy the bottom rung, and George W. Bush is a leading contender to join them. A look at history of his policies will explain why.

At a time of national crisis, Pierce and Buchanan, who served in the eight years preceding the Civil War, were simply not up to the job. Stubborn, narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to criticism or to consider alternatives to disastrous mistakes, they surrounded themselves with sycophants and shaped their policies to appeal to retrogressive political forces (in that era, pro-slavery and racist ideologues). Even after being repudiated in the midterm elections of 1854, 1858 and 1866, respectively, they ignored major currents of public opinion and clung to flawed policies.

Harding and Coolidge are best remembered for the corruption and scandals accompanying their years in office (1921-23 and 1923-29). They slashed income and corporate taxes and supported employers’ campaigns to eliminate unions. Members of their administrations received kickbacks and bribes from lobbyists and businessmen. “Never before, here or anywhere else,declared the WSJ, “has a government been so completely fused with business.” Current presidential hopeful John McCain, according to certain views, is considered not unlike Harding.

Bush’s (and his VP Cheney’s) disdainful stance towards things lawful and democratic has been much publicized. Be it his decision to go to an unsolicited war on Iraq or his attempt to strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the inception of Magna Carta: trial by impartial jury, access to lawyers and knowledge of evidence against them. He has asserted the right to ignore the parts of laws with which he disagrees. His administration has adopted policies regarding the treatment of prisoners of war that have disgraced the nation and alienated virtually the entire world. Usually, during wartime, the Supreme Court has refrained from passing judgment on presidential actions related to national defense. The court’s unprecedented rebukes of Bush’s policies on detainees indicate how far the administration has strayed from the rule of law.

Whether the history will judge Bush Jr. as the worst will be known only in future. US News‘s Jay Tolson conducted a thorough research (in 2007) of American presidents and came up with the list of the worst ten American presidents:

1. James Buchanan (1857-1861) – He refused to challenge either the spread of slavery or the growing bloc of states that became the Confederacy.

2. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) – He was an ineffectual and indecisive leader who played poker while his friends plundered the U.S. treasury.

3. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) – He survived impeachment after opposing Reconstruction initiatives including the 14th amendment.

4. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) – His fervor for expanding the borders–thereby adding several slave states–helped set the stage for the Civil War.

5. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) – He backed the Compromise of 1850 that delayed the Southern secession by allowing slavery to spread.

6. John Tyler (1841-1845) – He was a stalwart defender of slavery who abandoned his party’s platform once he was president.

7. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) – Serving right after Johnson, he presided over an outbreak of graft and corruption, but had good intentions.

8. William Harrison (1841) – He was president for all of 30 days after contracting pneumonia during his interminable inaugural.

9. (tie) Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) – He was known as a poor communicator who fueled trade wars and exacerbated the Depression.

9. (tie) Richard Nixon (1969-1974) – Though politically gifted, he will forever be associated with the Watergate scandal and his resignation.

10. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) – A political novice, the war hero is entirely forgettable as president.