Thursday, October 16, 2008

"I don't think Bob won that election legally. I can't believe a convicted felon would get so many votes and another convicted felon would get so few."

Ranking the Presidents, Part Three: The Still Pretty Awful

See also:
part one, part two

So far:

42. James Buchanan
41. Warren Harding
40. William Henry Harrison
39. Franklin Pierce
38. George W. Bush
37. Andrew Johnson
36. Millard Fillmore
35. John Tyler

34. James A. Garfield (1881)

High Points/Accomplishments:
Had he survived, probably would've been a force against corruption (or would've become corrupted by said system--it's really a toss-up at this stage).

Low Points:
Involved in quite possibly the worst presidential election (note: not "most corrupt") in American history, in that both he and his opponent (Winfield S. Hancock--the S standing for "so obscure that I can almost guarantee that you've never heard of him") ran on virtually identical platforms. The one major difference? Garfield and the Republicans were in favor of a high tariff (and say what you want about elections today, but at least be grateful that they don't hinge on tariff issues, as seemingly every election between 1880 and 1908 did), while (hold on to your hats!) Hancock and the Democrats...favored a slightly lower tariff. Glad we cleared that up.

Fun Facts:
(1) ambidextrous.

(2) only President to go directly from the House of Representatives to the presidency.

(3) Due to his untimely assassination ("untimely" probably being redundant there), 1881 is the second (and one hopes: the last) year on record where three Presidents served. Rutherford Hayes relinquished the office to Garfield in March, and Chester A. Arthur took over for Garfield on September 20th. Guesses for the other year? Highlight over the blank space that follows for the answer. 1841. Martin van Buren hands off to Harrison, who promptly dies, with Tyler swooping in.

(4) Would likely have survived his wounds, had his doctors not been so incompetent, as they repeatedly probed the wound with bare fingers and dirty instruments, thus giving Garfield blood poisoning.

(5) his assassin, Charles Guiteau--who killed the President because he wasn't given a diplomatic post--wrote Chester A. Arthur (who assumed the presidency) the day Garfield died, explaining why he killed Garfield (God told him to do it, essentially) and then proceeded to advise Arthur on selecting a new cabinet. Remember when assassins were able to flee the scene of the crime instead of being instantly riddled by bullets? Good times! (Follow up: turns out Guiteau was arrested--but not shot--as soon as he attacked Garfield. This means that he wrote his letter to Arthur while in prison. Which means...they let a presidential assassin correspond with the sitting president. Hmmmm.)

In Writing:
The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James A. Garfield (2004) by Kenneth Ackerman. Who would have thought that a book that painstakingly detailed all 36 ballots at the 1880 Republican National Convention would be so sleep-inducing? Given that I nearly wrote my doctoral dissertation on dark horse candidacies (as in: had I done one, it would've been on that; not that I ended up writing an actual dissertation on something else or anything...) this was quite a disappointing revelation.

In Popular Culture:
Inspiration for everyone's favorite lasagna-loving feline (note: very probably not true.) (Follow up: he's actually named after Jim Davis's grandfather.)

Test of Time:
Again, no one particularly cares about Garfield. His admin was so short that most historians don't even bother to rank it.

33. Zachary Taylor (1849 - 1850): not to be confused with Zachary "Zach" Taylor, the Black Power Ranger, who, somewhat awkwardly, was black. Nice job there, FOX! Very original!

High Points/Accomplishments:
Something called Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850; opposed the extension of slavery....a position that would be significantly more impressive if he didn't personally own more than 100 slaves.

Low Points:
may have died from a combination of heat stroke and a bad batch of cherries. Yikes.

Fun Facts:
(1) DeGregorio on the first documented case of spam (at 180):
"After the nomination, the president of the [Whig] convention sent the nominee a letter of notification, without postage, a frequent practice of the period, which required the recipient to pay the amount due. Taylor, who had been receiving a large volume of such mail from admirers around the country, informed his local postmaster that he would henceforth accept only postage-paid letters. Thus the communication notifying him of his nomination languished in the dead letter office for weeks before the president of the convention realized what had happened and sent Taylor a second, prepaid notice."
(2) Just an educated guess, but I believe he has the shortest Wikipedia entry of any President.

In Writing:
The Impending Crisis (my post-Jackson, pre-Lincoln catch-all). Standalone bio? No. Do people still even write about the Taylor Administration? An amazon search reveals--aside from slender volumes for a presidential series and children's books--...not really. Alright then.

In Popular Culture:
shit...I already used the Power Ranger thing...

Test of Time:
doomed (justifiably, I might add) to an eternity of being lumped among "mid-19th century Presidents that weren't Abraham Lincoln."

32. Ulysses S. Grant (1869 - 1877)

High Points/Accomplishments:
You know, initially I had Grant ahead of Nixon (and both of them as orange--aka "still pretty terrible"--entries, but, upon further review, I had to drop him down a spot, since his Presidency (two terms! And they tried to nominate him for a third in 1880!) was an outright disaster. If we were rating the man (or the soldier), he'd be much higher--top ten for sure, but we're not (hence Reagan not appearing in the bottom ten). And, yes, the only reason I'm putting this comment here is so that someone skimming this entry might think he actually accomplished anything while in office (spoiler: he did not).

Low Points:
The fact that his eight years in office were one giant scandal. Just to name a few: Black Friday (gold speculators James Fisk and Jay Gould attempt to corner the gold market, convincing many that Grant was on their side by hanging out with him repeatedly); Credit Mobilier Scandal (corrupt holding company--CM--tries to conceal the fact that they skimmed millions off of the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad by becoming even more corrupt, selling shares of their own company at cut-rate prices to key congressional and cabinet members); the Whiskey Ring (exactly what it sounds like); the Sanborn Scandal (under a bizarre scheme whereby he was allowed to keep half of all the delinquent taxes he collected, Treasury Department Special Agent John D. Sanborn manages to "earn" $200,000 ($3.6 million today)--this revelation leads to the abrupt resignation of SecTreas William Richardson)...and so forth.

Fun Facts:
(1) Grant has the dubious distinction leading all Presidents in "number of times gone bankrupt" (it happened four times within the first 200 pages in Smith's bio and at least once after his presidency--an ill-fated brokerage firm that left Grant virtually penniless). I don't even think it's close. (2) Comically, Grant--one of America's finest generals--could not stand the sight of animal blood, to the point where he always ordered steaks well done. (3) His opponent in 1872, Horace Greeley, actually registered a historic zero electoral votes (this oddity is actually somewhat misleading, in that Greeley actually carried 6 states and would've received 66 votes in the college, but he died before the electoral votes were cast, thus freeing electors to split their votes among favorite sons.)

In Writing:
The aforementioned bio by Jean Edward Smith (lost at the dentist's office). I only got to 1862 in the book--how did the war turn out? Was President Lincoln ok? ("He was fine, Ralph."). Grant's own memoirs are said to be fantastic--though it should be noted that they stop at the end of the war.

In Popular Culture:
(1) Lamentably, Grant was a minor character in the hide-your-eyes bad Wild, Wild West (though, for the life of me, I can't seem to find who played him). Also: I'd totally forgotten Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh were in that. Yikes.

(2) In Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee, the Emmy winning HBO movie, Grant was portrayed by Fred Thompson. You may remember him as the guy that briefly (and remarkably poorly) ran for President last year. Remember when people thought he was the dream candidate? (OK, resume here once you've stopped laughing.)

Test of Time:
A bit of a Grant (to my mind: unwarranted) resurgence of late. In both the the 1948 (28th out of 29) and 1962 (35th out of 36) Schlesinger polls, Grant trailed only Harding in terms of being the worst president on record. In three polls released in the last five years, he's finished 32nd, 35th, and 29th (WSJ), with some pointing to his admirable support for civil rights and that he's unfairly maligned for corruption in his administration that was beyond his control. I'm not buying, frankly. I could try to make an argument that, as General of the Union Army, he capably oversaw hundreds of thousands of men and thus should've been a better manager of disparate personalities in the White House, but I think it sort of mischaracterizes the issue. Grant was a soldier, not a politician. I don't even think he even wanted to be President. And even if he cared enough to try to curb D.C. cronyism (which, make no mistake, he did not), I don't think he would've been able to stop it.

31. Richard Nixon (1969 - 1974)

High Points/Accomplishments:
A few things, surprisingly (this is the first time that "High Points" is getting anything close to a workout). Ended the war in Vietnam (we'll table the whole "bombing Cambodia into oblivion" thing for the moment); Normalized relations with China; signed the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty with the Russians; implemented revenue sharing between the federal government and states/municipalities--a hundred years later, baseball followed suit; created the EPA; the ratification of the 26th Amendment (lowering the voting age to 18) though, despite his support, his role here wasn't exactly central. DeGregorio even points to the Moon landing as a feather in Nixon's cap, though I can't for the life of me understand why he deserves any credit for this (he doesn't cut their funding and, in exchange, they place a plaque bearing his name for the rest of time on the moon? Lame.) Of course, all of these positives are mitigated by the fact that...

Low Points:
...he was a piece of shit. Just an awful man. Want more? OK.

(1) Everything surrounding Watergate, obviously. You know when you probably should've realized you'd gone mad with power, Dick? When you allowed your Committee to Reelect the President run with the acronym CREEP. I won't re-hash (everyone knows the story anyway), except to say: has there been a less necessary political break-in than the plumbers busting into the DNC HQ? He beat McGovern by 18 million votes and won 49 states!;

(2) The Saturday Night Massacre (related, but not the same);

(3) The Enemies List;

(4) Went to Duke;

(5) Had the single worst Vice President (as a person, I'm talking about here) in American history (Spiro Agnew)--at least Aaron Burr could cling to the fact that he was a fucking lunatic. Never mind his "nattering nabobs of negativism" and "an effete corps of impudent snobs" talk. How about this? In his own autobiography, released eight years after he negotiated a sweetheart resignation arrangement despite a litany of misdeeds, Agnew claimed that he stepped down, not because he feared prosecution but because he thought that White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig would have him murdered.

Fun Facts:
(1) A tremendous poker player, to the point where he allegedly financed his first Congressional run with his winnings. (2) Look at his official portrait! My God, if ever someone were less qualified to mimic Mr. Rogers...disgraceful.

In Writing:
if you want self-serving, there's always RN (Nixon's own memoirs). If you want florid (often uncomfortably so) prose, there's Richard Morris' The Rise of an American Politician. If you want one written from the perspective of a grown man who has obviously fallen in love with John F. Kennedy, there's Theodore White's The Making of the President, 1960. If you want a mind-numbing look at the daily minutiae of Nixon's life, there's Stephen Ambrose's seemingly-never-ending 3 volume set. If you want a great one-volume even-handed biography, send a cheque for $20 to 123 Does Not Exist Avenue, Faketown, America. Seriously, it's incredibly difficult to find an objective Nixon biography, largely, one assumes, because he was so polarizing (that means "reviled," right?). As a result, you tend to get a lot of hatchet jobs (although given his misdeeds, an objective bio could still resemble a hatchet job) commingling with occasional apologist accounts.

In Popular Culture: Too much to chronicle, really. Quickly: best Nixon? Dan Hedaya in Dick. (He nailed it.) Worst (in a walk)? Anthony Hopkins in Nixon. (Remind me again why casting a Welshman as Nixon was a good idea? Anyway, it's probably more like 15% Hopkins' fault, 85% Oliver Stone's ridiculous script. I still can't believe I paid to see that.) And, no surprise, my favorite Nixon reference comes to us via The Simpsons:
Burns: Who is that lavatory linksman, Smithers?
Smithers: Homer Simpson, sir. One of the fork and spoon operators from sector 7-G.
Burns: Well, he's certainly got a loose waggle. Perhaps I've finally found a golfer worthy of a match with Monty Burns, eh?
Smithers: His waggle is no match for yours, sir. I've never seen you lose a game. Except for that one in '74 when you let Richard Nixon win. That was very kind of you, sir.
Burns: Oh, he just looked so forlorn, Smithers, with his [imitating Nixon] "Oh, I can't go to prison, Monty. They'll eat me alive!" [Smithers laughs] I wonder if this Homer Nixon is any relation?
Smithers: Unlikely, sir. They spell and pronounce their names differently.
The two-part Seinfeld ep where Morty gets impeached also holds up quite well.

Test of Time:
well, now, he's looking better by the President, isn't he? Hopefully this trend doesn't continue. That said, if you ever start to feel like Nixon is underrated, I implore you to check out the Nixon Tapes online. Once you've listened to them and then showered (twice ought to be enough--no more than three times) give me a call. We'll talk. It's going to be ok.

Next: #30 - #27


Jesse said...

How could you write this without having read Conrad Black's "Nixon: A Life In Full"?

Kyle Wasko said...

It's very hard to tell if you're being facetious or not, but isn't this the same bio that essentially defends Nixon's shameless red-baiting in the fifties and holds that the Watergate cover up wasn't so much morally wrong as it was...badly covered up?

Is it worth reading? I must confess that I got about 150 pages into his FDR (a man I, unabashedly, love) tome before abandoning it out of sheer boredom.

The R.O.B. said...

I'm not sure if, or how much Futurama you've watched, but the repeated appearances of Slick Dick's head are pretty solid...

And, did you just give away your number 1?

Kyle Wasko said...

I just remember Nixon's head trying to bite Fry.

Well, put it this way: I gave away one of my top two...but I wouldn't say it's a huge spoiler.