Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"And the results are in. For Sideshow Bob, 100%, for Joe Quimby, 1%. And we remind you there is a 1% margin of error..."

Ranking the Presidents, Part Six: The Slightly Below Average

See also:
part one, part two, part three, part four, part five

So far:

42. James Buchanan
41. Warren Harding
40. William Henry Harrison
39. Franklin Pierce
38. George W. Bush
(not for nothing: that ranking is actually 11 points higher than his current approval rating)
37. Andrew Johnson
36. Millard Fillmore

35. John Tyler
34. James A. Garfield
33. Zachary Taylor
32. Ulysses S. Grant
31. Richard Nixon
30. Herbert Hoover
29. Benjamin Harrison
28. Jimmy Carter
27. Chester A. Arthur
26. Rutherford B. Hayes
25. Gerald Ford
24. Martin Van Buren
23. Calvin Coolidge

22. John Quincy Adams (1825 - 1829)

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) Was a big proponent of internal improvements, in particular, a network of roads and canals (one thing I do recall from classes on the early years of the republic is that people were batshit crazy for canals--that one was never appropriately explained to me).

Low Points: ...
aside from the internal improvements movement (which ultimately failed, or was only partly successful, because it was over-ambitious), I couldn't find another high point in the JQA administration. Goddammit, Adams! There must've been thousands of problems in need of fixing in 1825! To borrow a bit from Jefferson's introduction (p. xi) in America: The Book (to this day, my favorite piece of comedy writing ever):

"Yes, we were very accomplished. We discovered electricity, invented, stoves, bifocals, the lazy susan, efficient printing presses, and the swivel chair. But in the 18th century it was nearly impossible not to invent something. "What if we put this refuse in a receptacle?" "Oh my God, you just invented a sanitation system!" We lived in primitive times. Hell, I shit in a bucket and I was the president."
(This is followed by call-back that is totally off-topic--even more so than usual!--but I feel compelled to include it:

"But I digress. My point is composing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was hard work. God didn't dictate it for us to transcribe from some sort of dictation-transcribing machine. Hey, did I just invent something? Do you have anything like that? You do. Hmm.")
Fun Facts: (1) became President despite losing the popular vote and the electoral college vote, which, I'll confess, is not something I thought possible (admittedly early 18th century U.S. history was never my forte). In a four-man race (the other two candidates were Henry Clay and someone named William Harris Crawford, who I can honestly say I've never heard of), Andrew Jackson received 41% of the popular vote to Adams' 30%...and 99 electoral votes to Adams' 84. However, since neither man had a majority in the electoral college, it went to a run-off in the House of Representatives, whereupon Clay--whose hatred of Jackson knew know bounds--threw his support to Adams (the so-called "corrupt bargain"--not to be confused with Nixon's deal with Ford...or the Compromise of 1877, both also, somewhat annoyingly, known as the "corrupt bargain"...let's try to be more original, historians!)

(2) Met Lincoln during his (Lincoln's) only term in the House of Representatives, in 1847. This makes JQA the "only major figure in American history who knew both the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln" (h/t Wikipedia).

(3) Had one of the rockier presidential marriages on record (with the possible exception of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, whom I'm fairly certain never slept together, and, from what I can gather, may not have spoken for several years. Also: Bill and Hillary), with Mrs. Adams once openly lamenting marrying into the Adams Family (ha!), as the men were "cold and insensitive to women."

(4) Maybe the most impressive pedigree of any President in history: Minister to the Netherlands, Minister to Prussia, State Senator (slumming!), U.S. Senator, Minister to Russia, Chief Negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent (ending the War of 1812), Minister to Great Britain, Secretary of State. And, in what can only be viewed as a giant "screw you" from the universe, the most accomplished foreign policy President in history was forced to deal with precisely zero foreign policy issues.

(5) He's the only ex-President to serve in the House of Representative (possibly in the hopes of throwing another election to someone else? Discuss.)

(6) Had one of the weirder presidential hobbies on record, mainly: skinny-dipping in the Potomac like a filthy hippie.

(7) First President to be photographed (the previous five having been vampires).

(8) Argued successfully (in 1841) before the Supreme Court for the release of slave muniteers aboard the slave ship Amistad. Very cool. Is also partly responsible for securing funds for the establishment of the Smithsonian (which I went to in 2004 and is still, totally awesomely, completely free).

In Writing: Personally, no. Try the unimaginatively titled John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life (1999) by Paul C. Nagel.

In Popular Culture: played by Anthony Hopkins in Amistad, which is a feather in his cap. In the HBO miniseries John Adams, he's played (as a boy), by Steven Hinkle (aka "the kid who drowned in the pool in Syriana") and Ebon Moss-Bachrach (as an adult), whose biggest role prior to this Evening? Good grief!

Test of Time:
Total afterthought. My best guess is that he'll always be a middle (to late-middle) of the pack guy.

21. William Howard Taft (1909 - 1913)

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) appointed six (six!) Supreme Court justices during his four years in office (a record...except for Washington, who appointed ten...but that's hardly a fair comparison). (2) A vigorous enforcer of anti-trust laws. (3) Ratified the Sixteenth Amendment (income tax). Joke away but it was needed. (4) Dollar Diplomacy. Although...

Low Points: (1) Dollar Diplomacy (since I'm still not sure if it should be described as a good thing. Lafeber's Inevitable Revolutions is a great jumping off point.) (2) DeGregorio says that the election of 1908 centered around a single theme: "which candidate could most effectively carry on the popular policies of [Republican] President Theodore Roosevelt." Now, given that Taft was (at the time), TR's closest friend in the known world and that he narrowly defeated William Jennings Bryan (a, you'll note, Democrat) we could probably draw some fairly obvious conclusions about Taft's political skill.

Fun Facts: (1) Was fat...and I mean like legendarily fat. Like "he lost 75 pounds" and was still well on the high side of two bills fat. Due to his heft, White House officials had to bring in a special circus-issued bathtub to accommodate him. OK, I made up the part about the circus, but the custom bathtub part is true.

(2) Was quite a good baseball player in his youth, though was said to be a horrific baserunner (I recommend showing all Taft clips at triple-speed--this always works for Babe Ruth).

In Writing: A Taft-centric bio? No. But the stuff about Taft and TR (they were best friends, but had a falling out when Taft was President, only to reconcile years later) in H.W. Brands' T.R.: The Last Romantic (a great, great book) is absolutely heart-breaking, with TR--dickish--routinely dropping bombs like

"Taft, who is such an admirable fellow, has shown himself such an utterly commonplace leader, good-natured, feebly well-meaning, but with plenty of small motive; and totally unable to grasp or put into execution and great policy."
while a bewildered and wounded Taft would read about them in the paper.

In Popular Culture: (1) Had an affair with Mr. Burns's mom (from "Homer the Smithers"). Wow...can that really be it?

Test of Time: the thing about Taft is that, had he been President before TR, or, say, twenty years after TR, his presidency would look much better, but since he immediately followed Roosevelt, he looked extremely passive. But here's where it gets really weird: in terms of breaking up monopolies, he was far more active than his "trust busting" predecessor. I suppose that's really neither here nor there, just thought I'd point out that Taft gets a bad rap (even from me), and probably wasn't all that bad of a President. 21st--that is: smack dab in the middle--sounds about right.

Going to try something a little different for the last two here (Bill Clinton and George Bush), since I think the two were more or less equally mediocre. To figure out who is better (or, to be more accurate, less bad), I bring you: Bush I v. Clinton. Head to head. Bush will be in red, Clinton blue (for obvious--I hope!--reasons). To up the stakes, the loser gets labelled the last of the "still pretty lousy" Presidents, while the winner gets the highly coveted "worst of the average Presidents" designation.

High Points/Accomplishments: (1) Defense of Kuwait; (2) passed the Americans with Disabilities Act; (3) Communism collapsed on his watch (though it's not like he took a sledgehammer to the Wall or anything...); (4) Implemented Third World Debt relief (yes, he's tight with Bono).

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) Booming economy (though standard caveat is in place: not sure how much credit the President deserves for this). (2) Somewhat miraculously re-elected. I remember re-reading Bob Woodward's The Choice a few years ago and, halfway through, thinking, "there's really just no way he wins. How in the world does he win this?" A masterful campaigner, to be sure...but that's not the same thing as being a good politician. (2) The Brady Bill. (3) NAFTA (I guess...assuming you're Mexican.) (4) His handling of the situation in Yugoslavia. (5) Balanced the budget (again, kind of a mixed bag--is this really why Democrats are elected? I'm not saying a balanced budget isn't a worthy goal, but his single-minded pursuit of it always struck me as a bit wrong-headed).

Edge: Bush.

Low Points:
(1) one of the biggest political collapses in recent memory ever. If you have an 88% approval rating (and the polling sample is not your immediate family) sixteen months before the election, you really shouldn't lose.

(2) His one win came against Michael Dukakis, who headed up one of the poorer presidential campaigns of the 20th century (yes, worse than Kerry).

(3) "Read my lips: no new taxes." I recall him saying this once and living to regret it, but, actually, it turns out it was practically his campaign mantra, which makes it far worse. (3) Didn't finish the job in Iraq (would've saved everyone a lot of grief a dozen years later--though, who knows, maybe the U.S. would be at war with Iran now).

(4) Openly checking his watch during the second debate with Clinton. One of the all-time great debate gaffes. The glance at the watch happens at the three second mark, but the whole clip is worth watching (pay particular attention around the 40 second mark, where the questioner interrupts a confused Bush and he shoots her a glare that basically says "bitch, if you ever do that again, you will disappear off the face of the earth so quickly..." Also of note is Bill Clinton suggesting that he knows every Arkansan--a state of roughly 2.5 million, then--by name.)

(5) Responsible, I believe, for the trend towards ridiculous names for military actions (see the 1989 invasion of Panama, aka Operation Just Cause). Whatever.

Low Points:
(1) the Lewinsky thing, clearly (the less said about which the better--except to say, with apologies to Misha's mom--against all odds, the world's biggest Nixon fan--Clinton getting blown by an intern and then lying about is not even in the same realm of seriousness as what went down post-Watergate. It just isn't).

(2) Became ensorcelled by world-class prick Dick Morris in his second term and (though he'd never admit it) was almost totally reliant on polls for a time.

(3) "Don't Ask, Don't Tell": totally gutless.

(4) Bricked the whole health care reform thing.

(5) Basically didn't accomplish anything in his second term (or all that much in his first). And, yeah, you can blame Gingrich if you want and, more generally, partisan politics for the gridlock, but the fact remains that, despite his popularity among the genpop, he was forever embattled in Washington, and a lot of the responsibility for that lies squarely with him.

(6) Pardoned Marc Rich.

Edge (i.e. higher lows): Bush.

Fun Facts:
(1) Met Babe Ruth. (2) Had one of the most unintentionally filthy campaign slogans ("Elect Bush and Watch the Action") when he ran for Congress in 1967. (3) A big fan of Murder, She Wrote. (4) His son became President. (Were you aware?)

Fun Facts:
(1) Met JFK. (2) Liked the ladies. (3) Is allergic to Socks the cat (which strikes me as kind of tragic). (4) Was endorsed in 1992 by the newspaper (The Phillipian) from Bush's boyhood prep school (now that's a kick to the junk--ouch). (5) Apparently he can read (but not speak) German (which really sounds made up). (6) His 32-minute nominating speech for Dukakis at the 1988 DNC was so poorly received that delegates actually chanted "get off, get off" (too many jokes...) and applauded when he said "In conclusion..." This begs the question: what do you, as a Democrat, have to say to get booed at the DNC? Read a poem about Reagan? Fire your concealed weapon at the ceiling? Have a threesome with the Bush twins? I'm floored...

Slight Edge:
Clinton. (Very quickly: do you realize that the certifiably insane Ross Perot managed to get 19.7 million people to vote for him in 1992? Obviously, this reflects badly on both Bush and Clinton...)

In Writing:
haven't read anything about Bush Sr., actually. At this point, I should point out that I'm kind of opposed to reading anything about an ex-President within 20-25 years of them being in office, partly because, in most cases, it's too soon to fully assess his impact (Truman is a great example of this) and partly because official documents (a vital resource) tend to be sealed for several years anyway.

In Writing: For pre-presidency stuff, David Mariniss's First in His Class is terrific. For, the presidential years, Halberstam's War in a Time of Peace is solid, albeit narrowly focused on foreign policy. I have not (nor will I ever) read My Life, which I'm told is excruciatingly dull...though I do own a(n unopened) copy of George Stephanopoulos' All Too Human, so make of that what you will.


In Popular Culture:
(1) signature Simpsons ep: "Two Bad Neighbors," referenced roughly 40 times by me already...and probably one of the five best eps in the show's history. My favorite scene (which loses a little bit in translation):

George: [at the Elk's club] And that's why I will continue to oppose teen alcoholism in all its forms.

[everyone claps]

George: Now, are there any questions? [everyone puts their hand up] keeping in mind that I already explained about my hair. [pan out to reveal a multi-colored wig glued on by Bart and Homer]
Everyone: Oh yeah, that's right...[putting hands down]
(2) For Halloween in (I believe) 1991, Misha, by virtue of his spot-on impression, went out for Halloween as President Bush. I, in turn, went out as Barbara. (There is, regrettably, photographic evidence of this somewhere.) What makes it weird(er) is, if I recall correctly, I didn't need much coaxing to do this, and may have actually been looking forward to it. Dark days.

In Popular Culture: (1) signature Simpsons ep: the one where he hits on Marge ("Homer to the Max"):

Clinton: I know you don't think you're good enough for me. But believe me, you are. Hell, I done it with pigs. [laughs] Real, no-foolin' pigs!
Marge: Are you sure it's a federal law that I have to dance with you?
Clinton: You know, I'd change that law if I could, Marge. But, I can't.
Aide: [whispers in Clintons' ear]
Clinton: Aw, shoot. Quebec's got the bomb! Well, I gotta go, but...look, if you're ever near the White House, there's a tool shed out back. I'm in there most of the day..
Funny, but not in the same league as "TBN." (Bonus obscure Simpsons trivia: the theme song used by the Edna, Agnes Skinner, Milhouse's Mom et al. run Fleet-a-Pita franchise is Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," the same tune used by Clinton in 1992.)

(2) Chappelle's stuff on Clinton in "Killing Them Softly" is great (particular the part about kissing babies), but unprintable (yes, even here!).


Test of Time: too soon to tell.

Test of Time:
too soon to tell.

Push. (Cop-out!)

Final verdict: Not nearly as close as I thought. For doing more with the less (time), I rank them as follows:

20. Bill Clinton (1993 - 2001)

19. George Bush (1989 - 1993)

Next: #18 - #15


Question Mark said...

Bono is way tighter with Clinton than with Bush....the original Zoo TV tour started with a mock video of Bush allegedly singing 'We Will Rock You.' Clinton is a big U2 fan and met up with the band several times on the campaign trail in 1992.

So really, that's one down from Bush and one extra for Clinton, giving WJC the win. Frankly, I can't believe that you're even rating the two together this closely. I thought Clinton would be at least 3-4 spots higher.

Question Mark said...

Also in the pop culture slot.....the Clinton episode of Family Guy, where Bill sleeps with both Lois and Peter.

Jesse said...

Yeah... I'm pretty sure balancing the budget was a pretty big deal, especially given what came before/after. He had to deal with the steaming pile of crap voodoo economics left on his door- YOU RANKED HIM BEHIND REAGAN?

Also, I've read both the Clinton and the Stephanopolous (not the CBC one) autobiographies.

Hal Incandenza said...

Shuk: the Bush-Bono thing was meant to be facetious. I didn't think they were friends at all. Are they?

FG is dead to me, but I do recall seeing this episode.

Jesse: it's not that I don't think that balancing the budget is important, it's just: what did he forego as a result...and was it entirely necessary? It's also not, if I recall correctly, what he ran on at all (his big point re: the economy was trying to bridge the widening gap between the rich and the poor).

Both of you: again, everyone seems to remember the Clinton administration fondly, but he really didn't do much of anything. This is especially disappointing the potential he put on display in '92.

I'll get to the Reagan thing shortly, but, suffice to say, I'm not thrilled that he's in the Top 20 either...

Question Mark said...

Ohhh, that 'sarcasm' thing I've heard so much about. I get it now.