Thursday, October 9, 2008

"And since I'd achieved all my goals as President in one term, there was no need for a second. The end."

Ranking the Presidents, Part One: The Absolute Bums

Aha! I could sense by your John McCain-esque avoidance of eye-contact and by the way you said "you'll never start this project," that you thought I'd never start this project. This must be thoroughly embarrassing for you. It's OK, I won't gloat.

Just a refresher on what I'll be covering:

High Points/Accomplishments:
does not apply to all Presidents (I'm looking at you, Franklin Pierce!)

Low Points:
always more fun to talk about, anyway...

Allowances for Instability (or lack thereof) of Time Period:
TR's contemporary lament--that he would always be underrated as a President because he didn't govern during a turbulent enough time (though Lord knows he tried to spice things up!)--has always fascinated me. Accordingly, I'll look at what was going on in America during each's tenure. Essentially, this can be viewed as a degree of difficulty component.

Fun Facts:
some of which may not even be cribbed from books written by hosts or correspondents from
The Daily Show (no promises).

In Writing:
as part of a longstanding goal to read a biography about every President, I've covered roughly half of these guys...and counting (presently, I'm reading Grant--or rather was, until I foolishly left the book in the dentist's office, never to retrieve it; what is it with me losing books in such unlikely places?--by Jean Edward Smith). This will be a brief review of those books, along with any recommendations.

In Popular Culture:
fairly self-explanatory.

Test of Time:
kind of nebulous...but, basically, this boils down to: does their Presidency look better or worse now than it did then? Given the potential overlap with AfI(oLT)oTP, I may fold these two categories into one where appropriate.

Please also note that, at the bottom of each of these posts, I'm going to provide a color-coded timeline of the Presidents, using the Terror Alert scale to indicate their level of competency (red = awful, blue = brilliant), if for no other reason than I think it looks pretty.

The original plan was for me to rank six or seven Presidents at a time, but since I'm having trouble churning out these longer posts, I'm going with four for the foreseeable future.

OK, off we go...

42. James Buchanan (1857-1861)

High Points/Accomplishments:
was not in the country when some of the worst shit hit the fan (the passage of the The Kansas-Nebraska Act and "Bleeding Kansas.") And when "not being in the country" propels you to the top of the ticket, I think we can all agree this does not bode well for your Administration.

Low Points:
(1) believed slavery to be wrong, but was absolutely fatalistic about it, holding that it was so entrenched in the constitution that nothing could be done about it--as a result, he doesn't even flinch when the Supreme Court hands down the Dred Scott decision (aka, the single worst decision in the history of the Supreme Court--Google it if ye doubt the claim...) days after he's sworn in. (2) This one's from my truly indispensable The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents (2002) by William A. DeGregorio:
"Buchanan took the position that although secession was illegal, the federal government lacked the constitutional authority to force any state to remain in the Union (p. 220)."
Oh, good, that straightens everything out then. (Just so you know, future murderers, I'm totally against murder, but what's a lowly Attorney-General to do?) Accordingly, Buchanan did absolutely nothing in the months leading up to Lincoln's election and the outbreak of hostilities in 1861--not that that was a particularly crucial period in American history or anything...

Allowances for Instability of Time Period: There's no denying that Buchanan was President during an exceedingly volatile time in American history, so we really should cut him some slack. (Remember, just four months before Buchanan was elected, tensions ran so high on the Senate floor that Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a day after delivering an anti-Southern invective-laced speech, was savagely beaten with a cane by Kentucky Congressman Preston Brooks. By way of comparison, it is now quite rare to read "Senate floor" and "blinded by his own blood" in the same sentence.) At the same time, one must also be aware of the fact that Buchanan was altogether helpless during this crisis and, in many ways, exacerbated the situation.

Fun Facts:
(1) The only President never to marry, Buchanan is known as "The Bachelor President." Interestingly, some of his contemporaries thought he was gay, perhaps in part because he lived with his good friend, Alabama Senator Rufus King, for the fifteen years prior to becoming president, prompting some to refer to the two as "Buchanan and his wife." Ah, 19th century politics! (Two middle-aged men living together wasn't terribly uncommon at the time (or now, assuming you live in a TV sitcom) so the rumors are probably just that, but, intriguingly, King and Buchanan's daughters destroyed their love letters correspondence after their deaths, which is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.)

(2) A 2006 AP poll concluded that Buchanan's failure to avert the Civil War was the biggest error in Presidential history. A couple of things: I'm not really sure if it's totally fair to accuse Buchanan of failing to avert the war (which might well have been inevitable), so I don't totally agree with the wording there. My problem is with him failing to do anything as the crisis deepened. The second thing is that the article I've linked to insists on referring to the list as the "top 10 blunders" in Presidential history, which really seems to diminish the severity of some of these decisions. To be clear: Clinton getting blown in the Oval Office is a blunder, LBJ intensifying U.S. involvement (#3 on the list) in Vietnam (sample bit of dialogue never uttered in the White House: "Whoops! I'm responsible for tens of thousands of casualties! My bad!")--#or FDR making the decision to intern Japanese-Americans (astoundingly, not in the top ten at all)? Not so much. More like: grievous, cataclysmic mistakes.

In Writing:
I've yet to read a full-scale bio on Buchanan, but there is lots of good stuff about him (most of it focusing--hilariously/tragically--on a bewildered Buchanan wandering around the White House, absolutely paralyzed by fear) in David Potter's The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (the best book ever written--I refuse to argue about this---on the lead-up to the Civil War).

In Popular Culture: (1) does not even rate a mention in The Simpsons' "Bad Presidents' Pageant" (in the classic episode "I Love Lisa"). According to research done on the Simpsons Archive, he's one of the 7 Presidents never to be referenced on the show. (2) Will be portrayed by Clay Aiken in Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln project (2010).

Test of Time: Despite his deathbed assertion that "history will vindicate my memory," Buchanan's presidency looks worse with each passing year. Wrong again, Buchanan. Wrong again.

41. Warren G. Harding (1921 - 1923)
(Parenthetically, I'll note: how embarrassing for Buchanan to lose to this poor schlub...who had the following things happen to him...)

High Points/Accomplishments: [twiddles thumbs]

Low Points:
...ah, that's more like it. How about Teapot Dome, where Harding's Secretary of the Interior (Albert Fall) sold national oil reserves in Wyoming for personal profit? (Fall took $385,000 in bribes--roughly $4.3 million in today's dollars--and the inglorious distinction of being the first sitting Cabinet member in history to be sent to prison. Unfortunately, he's also, apparently, the inspiration for Daniel Plainview's "I drink your milkshake" bit in There Will Be Blood (a bit, I'll add, that was tiresome even before it was parodied 400 different ways). Minus 1,000 cool points, Fall.) Or Charles Cramer, a higher up in the Veterans Bureau, who skimmed proceeds from the sale of surplus war goods...and also funneled booze and drugs from military hospitals to bootleggers?
Alas, Harding dying in office (officially: of a stroke...though there's been speculation over the years that he was poisoned by his long-suffering wife) kind of put a damper on all the corruption.

Allowances for Instability of Time Period: an emphatic no. It was the Jazz Age, baby! Harding could've walked around the West Wing drinking moonshine out of a barrel with a ladel all day long and no one would've batted an eye. (Indeed, despite being almost laughably incompetent as President, Harding was wildly popular among the people.)

Fun Facts: (1) was an inveterate womanizer...and carried on one affair (with Nan Britton, 30 years his junior, who gave birth to his illegitimate child) in a 5' by 5' White House broom closet? (2) was JFK's idol. (3) was rumored--during the heated 1920 Presidential campaign--to have secretly been black, most notably in an incredibly racist pamphlet published by noted white supremacist William Estabrook Chancellor. This leads to a great quote from DeGregorio: "the campaign infuriated Harding, but he left it to his campaign manager Harry Daugherty to issue a denial that was itself racist." (4) loved to play poker...though it's unclear if he was any good, since all the anecdotes about his weekly card games with his "Poker Cabinet" invariably start with something like "once he gambled away in a single hand an entire set of White House china dating back to the administration of Benjamin Harrison."

In Writing: I highly recommend Francis Russell's pulpy The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren G. Harding and His Times (1968), which I believe I described in an undergraduate presentation as "the Melrose Place of presidential biographies." In it, Harding comes across as altogether harmless, with his biggest failing being that he was completely oblivious (or, conceivably, willfully blind) to the (what must have been) almost impossibly blatant corruption within his Administration. Of particular note is the riveting fifty page epilogue, which is best viewed as an extra long "price of glory" Behind the Music segment, wherein (seemingly) every single one of Harding's cronies gets his comeuppance.

In Popular Culture: Courtesy of America: The Book:
Warren G. Harding: Our Worst President by Stephen Colbert

Historians debate feverishly over who is the best president in American history. However, there is little disagreement over who was the worst. His name was Warren G. Harding (1921-1923), and he sucked.

The reasons why he sucked are many and, to be truthful, have been widely catalogued in the annals of presidential history. So, with your indulgence, I'd like to
focus instead on the intensity of his sucking.

Warren G. Harding was a worthless piece of shit. Fuck him. His presidency was a taint, no just in the sense of a "stain on the office," but literally a taint--the anatomical area between the anus and the testicles. I hate Warren G. Harding.

Stephen Colbert is the Arthur Schlesinger Professor of American Studies at Harvard University (p. 39).
Test of Time: Worse.

40. William Henry Harrison

High Points/Accomplishments:
Managed not to die in just over a month from complications stemming directly from his decision to deliver, at 68 years of age (roughly 190 in 2008 years) his marathon Inaugural Address (at 100 minutes, still the longest by far) sans hat, coat or gloves.

Low Points:
Well, I mean, obviously the whole dying part.

Allowances for Instability (or lack thereof) of Time Period:
not applicable. And, yes, the fact that he died after a mere 32 days in office is the main reason he's ranked 40th and not 42nd on my list, in that it's probably best to view his Administration, not as a failure, but rather as something that never actually existed.

Fun Fact:
Harrison's Inaugural Address, which eventually clocked in at 8,444 words, was actually edited for length by Harrison's friend and his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster. Though, given Webster's great oratorical flourishes, and his tendency to go on (and on and on) on the Senate floor, this does seem a bit like hiring Pynchon to edit for clarity.

In Writing:
Haven't read anything about W.H. Harrison, but Meg Green's William Henry Harrison, published last year, is the most recent WHH bio by nearly a century...and is available to read online for free, so I may have to do that. Let's assume that it includes moree Presidential hijinx, including Harrison fighting a rabid bear, Harrison frolicking in standing water, Harrison eating extremely rare hamburger meat, and Harrison attempting to make toast in the bathtub.

In Popular Culture:
(1) his Presidential campaign button appears in John's collectibles store (along with "I Fell for Dole," "Can't Fayle With Quayle," and "Click with Dick") in the awesome eighth season ep "Homer's Phobia" ("why did you take me to a gay steel mill, dad?" "I...don't...know.")

Test of Time:
Worse....shocking absolutely no one. I mean, what can really be said about a month-long Presidency? Literally the only thing he did was call Congress in for a special session in May, and even that was against his will. And while his death was clearly tragic, this is surely somewhat mitigated by the fact that it was all his fault. (Or does that just make me a bastard?)

39. Franklin Pierce (1853 - 1857): And, in maybe the biggest upset of this entire project, Dubya somehow doesn't manage to crack the bottom four--stay tuned.

High Points/Accomplishments: said to be quite the looker (and, if you look at his portrait--bottom right--he's got a bit of a "Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You" thing going on, so I don't totally disagree). This leads to the gayest quote one President has directed at another: "Pierce was the best looking President the White House ever had--but as President he ranks with Buchanan and Calvin Coolidge." Thanks for weighing in there, Truman. Who else was in your top in five?

Low Points: nominated on the 50th ballot (and that had to be an ego blow, I don't care how handsome you are); wholeheartedly supported the wholly disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act; has the distinction of appointing the only Supreme Court justice--John A. Campbell--who would later serve time in prison (though as asterisk is probably required here, since Campbell became the SecWar for the Confederacy).

Pierce was apparently obsessed with acquiring Cuba (likely because of their first rate health care--just testing to see if you're reading, Kendra) to the point where he authorize his SecState (William L. Marcy) to negotiate its acquisition from Spain. Marcy staffed it out to the U.S. Minister to Spain (the improbably named Pierre Soule), hinting that, if Spain wasn't willing to sell, the U.S. would take Cuba by force (which is always a great negotiating tactic. I'll have to try that next time I buy a car...). Anyway, Soule, Buchanan (serving then as the Minister to Great Britain) and John Y. Mason (Minister to France) get together in Ostend, Belgium, and, presumably smashed on Stella, drafted a document which would come to be known as the Ostend Manifesto. In it, they advocated paying up to $120 million--roughly $3 billion today--for Cuba, but, should that fail, they'd be totally justified "in wrestingly it from Spain." Geniuses all, the Manifesto somehow ended up in the hands of an editor from the New York Herald, who promptly published it. Pierce was forced to repudiate the document, but this didn't stop him from looking like a wild-eyed fool for coveting Cuba so desperately. One war at a time, Frank.

Allowances for Instability of Time Period:
yes, a bit. Like with Buchanan's term, this was a volatile time in American history, but, again like Buchanan, Pierce clearly was not up to the task.

(Fun) Facts: (1) the only President from New Hampshire (no, Jesse, Bartlet doesn't count.) (2) was a raging alcoholic. (3) Read his entire Inaugural Address from memory, which sounds impressive until you discover that it was ninety seconds long, two-thirds of which consisted of Pierce cackling maniacally at everyone's misfortune.

In Writing: Nope. (Though he, too, is dealt with--unflatteringly--in The Impending Crisis). Larry Gara's The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (1991) sounds like the best.

In Popular Culture: Wow...I've got next to nothing here (he's a Simpsons snub, too). The guy that wrote "Tinkers to Evers to Chance" was named Franklin Pierce Adams (though--strangely--no relation.)

Test of Time: Worse.

next up: #38 - #35


Question Mark said...

* You know, if McCain actually does get elected and die in office, I could easily see it due to something stupid like not wearing a coat during a freezing cold inauguration day. Of course, Palin would be bundled up because doncha know, those Joe Sixpacks in Alaska sure know enough to dress warmly in the cold, you betcha.

* I bit, I actually checked Clay Aiken's IMDB page about the 'Lincoln' thing. It sounded just wild enough to be true.

* In high school I vaguely recall reading a W.P. Kinsella short story about the town of Franklin, Kansas that was named after Pierce. I think it was by Kinsella...I really am short on details here.

* Am very stoked to read the rest of this list, and am amused that it takes until #18 to even reach 'slightly competent.'

Jesse said...

Fun fact: On religious grounds, former Senator and Congressman Franklin Pierce chose "to affirm" rather than "to swear" the executive oath of office. He was the only President to use the choice offered by the Constitution.

However, more importantly, I don't really see how dying in office after just after a month is less-bad than Dubya. I await your explanation in next week's installment.

Anonymous said...

I would say dying in office just after a month is bad when it leads to the presidency of John Tyler