Rate that President! : Part II
The second part of my rating of US Presidents. The first part may be viewed here.
24. John F. Kennedy-From a moral standpoint perhaps the worst man ever to sit in the White House, the recent revelations of his teenage White House intern mistress during that time period helping to cement that status. Kennedy was a strong advocate of the space race and set the country the goal of landing a man on the moon which the nation met in 1969. He presided over a prosperous economy, helped along with a reduction in marginal rates which he pushed through. In foreign policy he presided over the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and our widening involvement in South Vietnam, lending support to the coup that toppled Diem. He will always be best known for the Cuban Missile Crisis which he successfully navigated, but it was a very close shave for the world. On civil rights, he gave much lip service to it, but it would be his successor who would push through the key civil rights legislation. The second most over-rated president in our nation’s history.
25. James Garfield-A Union Civil War general with a superb combat record, Garfield was also a canny politician with seven terms under his belt in the House. During the brief four months he held the office before his assassination, he staked out positions in favor of civil service reform, the hot domestic issue of the day, and reform of the post office. He refinanced a substantial portion of the national debt at a lower interest rate, saving the nation millions in interest payments. An ardent advocate of civil rights for blacks, he sponsored a bill to provide for universal federal education to combat the fact that in many Southern states no provision was made to educate blacks. It failed in Congress after Garfield’s death. He appointed many blacks to federal office, and began to reverse President Rutherford’s policy of conciliation white Southerners at the expense of blacks. Garfield began the policy of modernizing the Navy carried forward by President Arthur.
26. John Tyler-Known as “His Accidency” by his critics after he took over when President Harrison died just after thirty days in office, Harrison set the mold for Vice-Presidents who assumed the office. It was by no means clear that he would be called President and that he would have the full powers of the President or be considered to be simply conducting a caretaker “regency” until the next election for President. Harrison had none of that. He insisted on being called President and was quite clear in his own mind that he had all of the powers of an elected President. Aside from this setting of precedent, the most signficant event in his presidency was the annexation of Texas at the very end of his term. Tyler was a former Democrat and he acted like a Democrat as president, vetoing almost the entire Whig agenda, including vetoing a proposed national bank twice. The Whigs in the House, for the first time in the nation’s history, began impeachment proceedings. Tyler probably would have been impeached if the Whigs had not lost their majority in the 1842 election in the House. Tyler died in 1862, shortly after his election as a representative to the Confederate Congress. Stunningly, he still has two living grandsons.
27. Herbert Hoover-Hoover rose from poverty to become a self-made millionaire as a mining engineer. He was a noted philanthropist, organizing relief efforts in Europe throughout World War I, saving tens of millions of lives. His administration was dominated by the Great Depression. To combat the Depression Hoover initiated policies that set the precedent for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like the New Deal, Hoover’s policies were largely unsuccessful in combating the Depression. Out of office, Hoover became an outspoken critic of the New Deal which he regarded as socialism by another name. Hoover lived on until 1964, staying active in various causes, and being called upon by all his successors as president for advice and to conduct special missions for them. The only exception was Roosevelt, who shared with Hoover a cordial enmity.
28. Gerald Ford-Our only president never to be elected either president or vice president, Ford was left to pick up the pieces after Nixon resigned in disgrace. Pardoning Nixon was probably the right thing to do to avoid the nation having to go through several more years of the Watergate melodrama, and Ford took immense grief for doing so. In foreign affairs his hands were tied by a Democrat leftist dominated Congress that came to power in the election of 1974, and 1975 witnessed the fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the Communists, and set the stage for Soviet adventurism in Africa and Afghanistan. Domestically, the country went through a short but sharp recession in 1974 largely caused by the Arab oil embargo. Inflation was still a great problem, but the economy had vastly improved by 1976 and Ford probably would have beaten Carter but for Ford making a verbal mistep in one of their debates, claiming that Poland was not under Soviet domination, and stubbornly refusing to correct himself for several days. He died in 2006 at 93, making him the longest lived president, beating Reagan for that distinction by 45 days.
29. Millard Fillmore-Fillmore took over as the last Whig president following the death of Zachary Taylor. He helped push through the Compromise of 1850 which delayed the Civil War for decade, and after you have mentioned that you have largely accounted for any historical importance of the Fillmore administration, other than the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry which occurred under President Pierce but which Fillmore initiated. In retirement Fillmore turned down an honorary degree from Oxford, saying that he was unworthy of it, and noting that it was written in Latin and that a man should never accept a degree that he was unable to read.
30. Rutherford B. Hayes-Perhaps the president most likely to be omitted in a presidential trivia contest, the today obscure Hayes was a Civil War general and a Congressman and Governor from Ohio, that mother of presidents. When he ran against Tilden in the 1876 presidential election, Tilden won both the popular vote and a greater number of electoral votes. However, there was a dispute about the status of the electoral votes in Florida, Lousiana and South Carolina, competing slates of Tilden and Hayes electors claiming to have been elected. A bi-partisan electoral commission was established by Congress to decide the dispute, with the Republicans having an eight to seven advantage. Mirabile dictu, the eight Republicans voted to recognize the Hayes electors. The Democrats were outraged and for a brief time it looked like a new civil war would erupt, with the Democrats threatening a filibuster in Congress to prevent the acceptance of the recommendation of the commission. A compromise was reached between the parties by which the Democrats accepted the electoral commission result, and the Republicans agreed that federal troops would be withdrawn from the South in 1877. Starting off thus tainted, the Hayes administration was a weak one. He attempted to protect the civil rights of blacks in the South, but with the withdrawal of the Federal troops he lacked the basic tool needed to do so. Hayes fought for civil service reform, but was stymied by Congress. He used federal troops to put down riots caused by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, a move that bothered his conscience. In retirement he spoke out about the dangers to democracy by the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in America.
31. William Henry Harrison-Dying after thirty days in office, it is impossible to say anything about Harrison as president. However, he is an important historical figure as the first of the two Whig elected presidents who broke the dominance that the Democrats had on the office for just over three decades. His success at the polls gave the Whig party another decade as the opposition party to the Democrats.
32. Martin Van Buren-Old Kinderhook pledged himself to follow the policies of Jackson. He certainly reaped the whirlwind of those policies, with the Panic of 1837, largely caused by Jackson’s war on the national bank, dooming Van Buren to being a one term president.
33. George W. Bush-His presidency was completely dominated by the 9-11 attacks. His initial handling of the response was masterful, with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan being ousted before the end of 2001. Everything else about his administration of the war, from the invasion of Iraq to the setting up of Homeland Security, remains hotly contested and controversial. In regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military defeated their conventional foes rapidly, but then a persistent guerilla war erupted in both countries. The Surge in Iraq allowed the US to prevail, although Iraq looks none too steady today. In Afghanistan the Obama administration has entered into talks with “good Taliban”. How Bush looks in the history books on the two wars will probably depend upon how events ultimately play out in both nations. Domestically he was a “compassionate conservative” which seemed to amount in practice to spending more money than most prior Democrat administrations, and materially increasing the debt problem confronting the nation. Bush presided over a prosperous country, until the economic meltdown of 2008 demonstrated that much of the prosperity rested on sand.
34. Bill Clinton-From a moral standpoint perhaps the second worst man ever to sit in the White House, as his tawdry involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky indicated. He presided over a prosperous nation, fueled by the dot.com bubble. The Republicans taking Congress in 1994 saved him from his worst excesses and helped produce budgets that were as close to being in balance as any in recent history. A smarmy con man in my opinion, Clinton retained his popularity throughout his presidency. Second president to be impeached and acquitted, and the second president to lose his law license.
35. Warren G. Harding-A strong and consistent advocate for civil rights for blacks, Harding presided over an administration that helped launch the economic boom of the Twenties. His administration was all but destroyed by a steady stream of scandals, the most notorious being Tea Pot Dome.
36. Ulysses S. Grant-An advocate of civil rights for blacks, who fought a successful mini-war to suppress the Klan, and a strong proponent for a more humane policy for Indians, Grant’s two terms were mired from beginning to end in corruption scandals. Personally honest, Grant continually surrounded himself with dishonest politicians, Grant being completely out of his depth in politics, as he was in most spheres of life except for his family and war.
37. Richard Nixon-A Greek tragedy is too mild a term to apply when discussing the presidency of Nixon. Dealt a bad hand in Vietnam, he extricated the country from Vietnam while building up the South Vietnamese military to the extent that they could hold their own against the North Vietnamese, as long as supplies kept flowing from the US and their ground forces were supported by American air power. His diplomatic opening to Red China was a masterful, if fairly obvious, strategic win over the Soviets. Talks with the Soviets helped lower the temperature of the Cold War. Domestically Nixon was the liberal Republican he always was, with wage and price controls and an expansion of the Federal government. He came to complete disaster through a fairly insignificant political burglary, rather a routine type of the dirty tricks engaged in by both parties. Instead of coming forward and disposing of the matter in a ten minute speech telling how subordinates had gone too far, he engaged in a massive cover up that destroyed his presidency. The Democrats in Congress then proceeded to cut off aid and air power to South Vietnam, guaranteeing the conquest of that nation by North Vietnam.
38. Lyndon Baines Johnson-A crooked politician and philanderer, Johnson was perhaps the third worst man from a moral standpoint to serve as president.The father of the Great Society, Johnson set the stage for the fiscal morass in which we find ourselves with his radical expansion of the role and scope of the Federal government. He embarked on a war in Vietnam with no strategy as to how to win it. (At one point in the war he offered financial assistance to North Vietnam in exchange for peace, boasting to an aide that “Old Ho can’t turn this down!”) I would rank him lower, but for the long overdue civil rights legislation passed during his administration
39. Andrew Johnson-Thrust into the presidency after Lincoln, Johnson attempted to have the former Confederate states re-admitted to the Union quickly, with virtually no safeguards for the civil rights of blacks. This launched a war with the Republican Congress, which wanted protections for civil rights for blacks and a stringent policy of Reconstruction, and his eventual impeachment in the House and trial in the Senate, where he escaped conviction by one vote. This conflict started off Reconstruction in the worst possible way and materially helped that experiment fail, with evil consequences the country is still dealing with.
40. Franklin Pierce-Proof that a good man can be a terrible president. Loving husband and father, his only son died before his parent’s eyes in a train wreck shortly before Pierce was sworn in as president, and an able and brave volunteer general in the Mexican War, Pierce as president was a complete disaster. His policy of appeasing the slave holders of the South enraged the North. Pierce vigorously enforced the Fugitive Slave Law, and attempted unsuccessfully, to have Kansas admitted to the Union as a slave state. Passions over slavery built throughout his administration and Pierce, through his Doughface, a name applied to Northern politicians with Southern sympathies, policies did nothing to tamp them down.
41. Jimmy Carter-The second worst president of my life time. His economic policies helped drive both inflation and interest rates to record-setting levels. His energy policy consisted mainly of sweaters and advising people to turn down thermostats. His manifest weakness encouraged Soviet adventurism. (His reaction when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan was to exclaim that Brezhnev, the Soviet Premier, had lied to him.) The impotence of him and his administration was best symbolized by the botched attempt to rescue our diplomats held hostage by the Iranians. A kidney stone of a presidency.
42. Barack Obama-He found the nation in a fiscal disaster and made it worse. No president has ever been as feckless when it comes to piling up government debt as has the current occupant of the oval office. We will be generations cleaning up after him. His recent contraception mandate demonstrates the complete contempt he has both for the Constitution and American liberties. By far the worst president in my lifetime.
43. James Buchanan-There is little to be said in favor of the worst president to sit in the White House. His policies of attempting to appease the South helped encourage an ever-growing movement towards secession during his term. During the secession crisis following the election of Lincoln, Buchanan dithered and convinced the South that the “cowardly Yankees” as typified by Buchanan, would never fight to preserve the Union. James Buchanan by his malfeasance and nonfeasance in office did more than any other man to bring about the Civil War.