Monday, October 13, 2008

"I voted for Prell to go back to the old glass bottle. After that, I became deeply cynical..."

Ranking the Presidents, Part Two: More Bums

See also:
part one

So far:

42. James Buchanan
41. Warren Harding
40. William Henry Harrison
39. Franklin Pierce

Note: upon further review, I'm discontinuing the largely unnecessary "Allowances for the Instability of the Time Period," except in cases where I feel touching upon it is needed.

38. George W. Bush (2001 - 99 days from now)

High Points/Accomplishments:
dead handy with a megaphone; between September 12th and September 15th, 2001, had the highest approval rating (237%) in American history.

Low Points: much time do you have? Let's give this one a shot: Cheney; the Patriot Act; "Brownie, you're doing a hell of a job"; skyrocketing national debt; lax environmental policies; Iraq; everything involving Alberto Gonzales; whatever No Child Left Behind is supposed to be; Bushisms; everything out of Colin Powell's mouth during his Feb. 5, 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council; waterboarding; no-bid contracts; Harriet Miers; intense secrecy and overt hostility towards the press; basically anything to do with Hurricane Katrina; and the current economic meltdown (though, admittedly, I'm not totally sold on the extent of his role in all of this).

Allowances for Instability of Time Period: to phrase this? Everyone--and I don't mean to be insensitive here, though my sense is it'll come off as just that--went a little bit crazy (and not, I'll add, entirely unjustifiably) post-9/11 (see: Miller, Dennis--and it's not just a right wing thing either, switching from hardcore conservative to bleeding heart liberal would be strange, too.) That said, such turbulence really does not justify the gong show that followed in any way, shape, or form.

Fun Facts:
(1) this is probably all Bud Selig's fault (this and the 2002 All-Star Game), since, purportedly, all Bush every really wanted was to be Major League Baseball's Commissioner. (2) GWB scored a 1206 on his SATs.

In Writing:
Oooo...the only Bush bio I've ever read is Molly Ivans' Shrub, which was absolutely atrocious. I look forward to reading nothing but Bush books starting in, say, 2013. I believe Bob Woodward has three already in the can.

In Popular Culture:
Yes. To be honest, I can't really muster the enthusiasm to chronicle them (though my favorite remains the scene in "Two Bad Neighbors," when Homer designs cardboard cutouts of George Jr. and Jeb to trick George Sr., largely because of Barbara's dismissive response:

Homer: [knocking at door] Yoo hoo!
George: Who is it?

[looks through spy hole without glasses on, sees two figures]

Homer: It's your sons, George Bush Jr. and Jeb Bush. Come outside, Dad.
George: Oh, good. Bar, the boys are out in the front yard. They'll help me think of a plan to get those Simpsons.
Barbara: Oh, George, is that all you ever think about? The boys probably just want a letter of recommendation.

I also like how Homer refers to the kids by their full names ("Mrs. Burns' is 122 years old, so try to sound more dessicated. And she doesn't call her son 'Mr. Burns.'").

Test of Time:
TBD. (I'm kidding, of course...obviously worse.)

37. Andrew Johnson (1865 - 1869): doesn't he look an awful lot like Steven Seagal (top left)?

High Points/Accomplishments: Bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for two bottles of malt liquor (two cases today).

Low Points:
hmmm, you know what? I can't think of a single th--oh, wait, that whole impeachment thing! I won't really go into detail here, except to say that, while he was a particularly unmemorable President, the Radical Republicans that tried to impeach him (for, you'll recall, dismissing a Cabinet member--something ordinarily within a President's purview, but not in this instance as a result of the Tenure of Office Act) were fairly dickish; also, this (DeGregorio, p. 252):

"As he prepared to take the oath as vice president, Johnson was recovering from typhoid fever. Feeling weak on entering the stuffy chamber, he fortified himself with a few shots of whiskey. After being sworn in, he gave a rambling, incoherent speech, a performance that convinced many in the audience that he was drunk [me again: because he was drunk]."

Allowances for Instability of Time Period: clearly, following Lincoln was an all but impossible task.

Fun Facts:
(1) file this under embarrassing: after leaving office, Johnson ran for the Senate in 1868 and then the House of Representatives (!) in 1872, and lost both times. He was, however, elected to the Senate in 1874 (the only President to serve in the Senate after his presidency).

(2) Was also supposed to be assassinated on April 14, 1865, but his would-be assassin (George Atzerodt) totally pussied out.

(3) When he returned to his hometown of Greenville, Tennessee (where, during the war, they'd--because of his loyalties to the Union--flown a banner reading "Andrew Johnson Traitor" across main street) after his term ended, the townspeople hoisted one reading "Andrew Johnson, Patriot." Personally, I'd like to think it was the same sign, with "Traitor" simply crossed out, a la Arrested Development ("look at banner, Michael!").

In Writing: Nope. Hans L. Trefousse's Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989) is likely what I'll end up reading.

In Popular Culture:

Test of Time:
Interestingly, for the better part of the first sixty years following his death, Johnson was regarded by many as a "great" or "near great" President, undermined by the tactics of the absolutely shameless Radical Republicans. In particular, Johnson was championed by the Dunning School, a group of influential scholars that were adamant that Reconstruction had ruined the South (or nearly so). You'll be not at all surprised to find out that Dunningites were actually a fairly racist lot (as Jean Edward Smith has noted: "despite every intention to be fair, these students, like Dunning and Burgess themselves, shaped their monographs to support prevailing attitudes of white supremacy"--a sentence which, if parsed, strikes me as illogical) and their views came under attack in the second half of the twentieth century. Most historians now see Johnson's tenure as a failure, a view that's unlikely to change any time soon...

36. Millard Fillmore (1850 - 1853): Note: Fillmore took office after Zachary Taylor died in 1850.

High Points/Accomplishments:
His initials would've looked kick-ass as a monogram; secured the passage of the Compromise of 1850, thus defusing (albeit only temporarily) another secessional crisis. (It also basically destroyed the Whig Party--which was bad news for MF--see?).

Low Points: There's actually not a lot to be said about his time as President, actually. He had arguably the worst two years a President could have starting in the summer of 1852, as, in rapid succession, he was denied renomination by his badly divided party (extremely rare in presidential politics), his wife of 27 years developed pneumonia at the inauguration ceremonies of Fillmore's successor, Franklin Pierce (damn you, Pierce!), and died ten days later. Then, roughly a year later, his daughter died of cholera. Then he undertook an extensive tour of the South and the Midwest (ok, that one's not so bad). Interestingly, a heartbroken Fillmore actually ran for President again in 1856, as the standard-bearer for the nascent Know-Nothing party. Alas, he finished a distant third, carrying only one state (Maryland--motto: "Manly Deeds, Womanly Hands.").

Fun Facts:
(1) the last President to be neither a Democrat or a Republican (though, if you want to get technical, Lincoln was elected on a National Union ticket in his second term--an alliance of Northern Democrats and Republicans that supported Lincoln).

(2) (I like this one) He's the only President who is in the same position alphabetically and chronologically (thirteenth).

(3) Was functionally illiterate until the age of 17, but then became a voracious reader.

(4) According to DeGregorio, despite being on the same ticket, "Fillmore and Taylor had never met, and they did not meet until after their election in 1848"--so take that, McCain-Palin!

(5) "Fillmore lived for eighteen years with a pair of magical talking cats, who for reasons known only to them insisted on calling their human master "Mr. Norris." Denise, the female of the pair, was also influential in the foreign policy of the Fillmore Administration, a period later dubbed by historians as "The Era of the President Who Was Batshit Insane."" (America: The Book, p. 54).

In Writing: Again, see The Impending Crisis. There's also something called The Remarkable Millard Fillmore, which was released last year by George Pendle. Wikipedia bills it as "a fake biography based on real events that happened in Fillmore's life," which...doesn't make any sense!

In Popular Culture: Somewhat inexplicably, Fillmore trivia abounds, including: Fillmore Junior High on The Brady Bunch, Millard Fillmore High School on Head of the Class (a program Carrie is not familiar with and swears I am making up), the comic strip Mallard Fillmore, and something called the "bathtub hoax," which is so stupid I refuse to talk about it.

Test of Time:
No clue...though something tells me that the eventual DVD release of Head of the Class (including, in particular, the lamentable Billy Connolly season) can only hurt his legacy...

35. John Tyler (1841 - 1845)

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) Convinced people that he was actually justified in being President upon William Henry Harrison's death, which is no small feat considering that many in Washington took the absurdly narrow view of the Constitution that they thought "that only the powers and duties of the president, [and] not the presidency itself, devolved on the vice president." Meaning, essentially, that Tyler would serve as Acting President...for 47 months. Tyler wisely rejected this ridiculous position, going so far as to return letters addressed to him as "acting president" unopened, which strikes me as both hilariously petty and kinda awesome. Tyler was, of course, vindicated by history on this front. (2) responsible for the annexation of Texas. So he's got that going for him.

Low Points:
...pretty much everything else. Nothing in particular jumps out. He was just incredibly ineffectual as President. There's this particularly revealing factoid in DeGregorio (at 149):

"He mixed readily with strangers of his class. Around working people, however, he became a different person--ill at ease, aloof unresponsive. Some took this for vanity. But, as biographer Robert Seager pointed out, "What appeared to be vanity was an ingrained shyness and discomfort in the presence of people with dirty fingernails...He had never had any experience with these people, and was too diffident to gain any."

So it wasn't vanity so much as a crippling fear of the lower class? Ohhh...that's much worse.

Seems as good a time as any to point out that there were some seriously rough times in U.S. political history, where, over a fifty-two year stretch starting in 1840 (kicked off by the Harrison-Tyler four-year fiasco), the American people were, sandwiched between the incomparable Lincoln and the competent Polk, subjected to eleven terrible presidents.

Fun Facts:
(1) The first President to obtain the position via succession.

(2) Fathered fifteen legitimate children (Tyler was married twice) and, allegedly, at least one illegitimate child with one of his female slaves (stop copying Jefferson, Tyler!).

(3) The first President born after the Constitution was ratified, Tyler was thus the first President to be born a U.S. citizen (attempts by his heirs to have him retroactively be included as one of the Founding Fathers have, thus far, been unsuccessful).

(4) Tyler's first wife, Letitia, died when Tyler was in office, in September 1842. The caddish Tyler (then 54), after mourning for roughly a long weekend, began dating Julia Gardiner--at 24, 30 years his junior--four months later. They were married in June 1844. Interestingly, the new First Lady was actually younger than five of Tyler's seven children, making for, one assumes, some exceedingly awkward Thanksgiving dinners.

(5) And here's where it gets even stranger: ever heard of the Princeton Explosion? No, me neither. In February, 1844, Tyler and other dignitaries were invited to inspect the USS Princeton, an advanced, Swedish-engineered warship which possessed the world's largest naval gun (wildly inappropriately named "The Peacemaker"). The gun was fired twice successfully earlier on the tour, but the third time it exploded at the breech, killing anyone in the immediate vicinity. Luckily for Tyler, he was below deck with his trophy fiancee. Unluckily, those above (all killed) included the Secretary of State (Abel Upshur), the Secretary of the Navy (Thomas Gilmer), the president's valet, and--somewhat improbably--his future wife's father, New York State Senator David Gardiner. Can you imagine the extent of the CNN coverage today?

(6) It's argued (stupidly) by some that he's the only former President to die outside of the United States, as, when he passed in 1862, he was residing in Richmond, Virginia, then part of the Confederacy. Whatever.

In Writing:
Edward Crapol's John Tyler: The Accidental President (2006) is probably your best bet. I'm proud to report that, to this point in my life, I've never been bored enough to actually attempted to read it.

In "Popular" Culture:
the city of Tyler, Texas (population: 110,000) is named after him. Tyler's claims to fame? It's the "rose capital of the U.S.," where the the Adopt-a-Highway movement originated, and the birthplace of Earl Campbell and Sandy Dunc--oh my God, it's the dullest city in the world. That's probably fitting.

Test of Time:
As soon as a presidential historian actually acknowledges his existence, I'll let you know. He's been dead for almost 140 years--I don't see his reputation improving anytime soon.

1 comment:

Question Mark said...

Only thing I have on Johnson is that I recall Craig Simpson telling some great anecdotes about him in first-year North American history. In summation: "the US has a chance to truly rebuild itself after the Civil War, but failed because Johnson was such a piece of crap as a president."