Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"That was a big mistake, Bart. No children have ever meddled with the Republican Party and lived to tell about it..."

Ranking the Presidents, Part Four: The Won't Be Having an International Airport Named After Them Anytime Soon Crowd

See also:
part one, part two, part three

So far:

42. James Buchanan
41. Warren Harding
40. William Henry Harrison
39. Franklin Pierce
38. George W. Bush (quick note: somehow I failed to include "Mission Accomplished" among the low points of his administration--whoops).
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 (1929 - 1933): put it this way, the fact that there are twelve Presidents worse than Hoover is abjectly terrifying.

High Points/Accomplishments: (1) From DeGrogorio (at 466): "as commerce secretary during Prohibition, he reportedly stopped off at the Belgian Embassy for drinks on his way home; because embassies technically are foreign territory, the practice was legal."--say what you want about his presidency (and I will!): that's kind of awesome. (2) Through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was created in 1932, Hoover lent some $2 billion to ailing banks, insurance companies, and state governments. Laudable, yes, but given that he dawdled until the third year of the Depression, very much too little too late. (3) Indirectly responsible for my favorite Onion headline ever. (4) Deserves, at the very least, 5% of the credit for The Grapes of Wrath.

Low Points: [rubs hands together] Now, even I, a bona fide Hoover hater, cannot, in good conscience, blame him for the Great Depression. I can, however, rake him over the coals for exacerbating the situation. Take, for instance, the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929, which created farm cooperatives to manage crop surpluses and was run on a shoestring budget. Basically, it's how FDR would've fought the Depression in '29...if FDR were a huge pussy. How about the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which he signed (admittedly, with some trepidation, in 1930)? This protectionist tariff (the highest in the nation's history) set off a chain reaction of protectionist tariffs in other countries. I wish I could Quantum Leap into Hoover's SecTreas's body just so I could punch Hoover right in his stupid face (that's right, I'm calling you out, Andrew Mellon) for that one. Or the fact that Hoover kept reassuring people that the "worst was over" (in March 1930 and then again in May) despite it being obvious that the reverse was plainly true? Or the fact that he twiddled his thumbs for his first two years in office as more than a quarter of U.S. banks failed? Or the fact that he refused to provide direct federal aid to the unemployed, believing--against all reason--that trickle down measures would suffice? Or the events of the Bonus March?

And who can forget Hoovervilles (one of the rare occasions--like Mr. Madison's War, the Bush Doctrine, and Lou Gehrig's disease--where you don't want something named after you). There's more, too! Newspapers? Hoover blankets. That thing Mr. Monopoly does when he doesn't have any money is his pockets? Hoover flags.

(btw, file this under "and you thought things in 2008 were bad": during the Crash of '29, the Dow-Jones bottomed out at...41. That's forty-one.)

Fun Facts: (1) through what I can only assume was some sort of deal with the devil (although, in that case, wouldn't he have been a good President then?) Hoover got more powerful with age and, for a time (much to everyone's dismay) must have appeared immortal, destined to roam the earth vociferously denouncing whoever the current president happened to be--except for Truman, whom he was tight with. (Imagine a super-centenarian Dubya publicly blasting the Galactic President in 2056 and you're on the right track.) He eventually died in 1964 at the age of 90.

(2) In retrospect, delivered the most unfortunate nomination acceptance speech in history, as it included the following line:
"We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us...we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation."
Yeah, about that...

In Writing: since I went through a "bad politicians" phase in grad school (see also my paper on R.B. Bennett's lamentable tenure as PM--appended here in case you're ever having trouble sleeping), I've actually read dozens of books (most of them fairly poor) on Hoover. As it happens, David Kennedy's Freedom From Fear (#10 on my best books of the 90s list), provides some great insight into Hoover in its first 150 pages. FFF also contains a terrific (albeit almost certainly apocryphal) story involving an embattled Hoover asking an aide for a nickel, so that he could phone a friend. The aide casually flipped him a dime, observing "here, phone them both." (Zing!) And where else could you learn that they needed to hire seventy full-time staff members for the White House mailroom once FDR to took over, despite the fact that, during Hoover's term, all correspondence was handled by one person?

As for a full-fledged bio, I'd recommend David Burner's Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (1979), which is a bit too apologetic, but is still more even-handed than most accounts. (Here's a working draft of the first half of that Hoover paper--infuriatingly, I no longer have the final copy in my possession. Probably only worth reading for my epic 1,100 word footnote #3, which summarizes Hoover's time in office and the different historical factions looking at his work....which I assume contradicts what I've written about Hoover above in several places. Screw it.

In Popular Culture: Sherbert Hoover. That is all. Oh...and the guy that played Harold in the Harold and Kumar movies went to Herbert Hoover High in Glendale, California. According to Wikipedia, it's the only high school in the country named after a sitting president. (Him? Really??) I'm also 90% certain that the shocked guy with the monocle in the horse racing episode of The Simpsons is inspired by HH.

Come to think of it, it's pretty surprising that he hasn't been more of a target. Rich President who was tragically inept during the country's worst financial crisis? That's a slam dunk! He's ripe for the picking, folks. Fire away!

Test of Time: faring worse...and will continue to fare worse, largely because his presidency is forever destined to be contrasted with his successor (FDR). True, Roosevelt didn't "end" the Great Depression either, but, my God, did he ever try, writing cheques for virtually any half-baked proposal that found its way onto his desk.

29. Benjamin Harrison (1889 - 1893)

High Points/Accomplishments:
(1) signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act into law in 1890 (though, given that it passed near unanimously--a combined 293-1 in Congress--he didn't really have much choice). Sure, it wasn't terribly strong (and was even further watered down by a Supreme Court decision in 1895--E.C. Knight Co.--that it, inexplicably, didn't apply to manufacturers) it was an indication that the government wouldn't totally roll over for big business.

(2) admitted a near-record six states (North and South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Wyoming, and Montana). Hey, one out of six isn't bad...

Low Points: (1) looks exactly like the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded. Minus a thousand cool points, Harrison.

(2) Dullest. Inaugural. Address. Ever. Seriously.

(3) Signed the McKinley Tariff Act into law in 1890, described in pretty much every source I've ever looked at on the subject as "severely protectionist" (48%, a then--and I believe: still--peacetime high). Though he smartly chose not to name the tariff after himself, it was more or less universally reviled and contributed to his defeat in 1892 at the hands of Grover Cleveland. Somewhere, the ghost of Herbert Hoover is nodding in approval.

(4) That 1892 election, btw, was probably the most uninspired in American history, with neither candidate seeing fit to actually campaign--the first (and, unless you count the 2004 election, the only [rimshot]) time that's ever happened.

Fun Facts: (1) c/o Wikipedia:
"Harrison had electricity installed in the White House for the first time by Edison Electric Company, but he and his wife reportedly would not touch the light switches for fear of electrocution and would often go to sleep with the lights on."

(2) William Henry Harrison's grandson.

(3) Received 90,000 fewer votes than Cleveland, but carried the Electoral College 233 to 168. Congress immediately enacted legislation closing this loophole, and, so far as I remember, it was never an issue again...

(4) The earliest President to have his voice preserved (1889, by way of a phonograph), albeit in a form that makes it sound as if he is on horseback in a monsoon. Asked for comment, a dejected Thomas Edison groaned "it would've been so much better if I'd invented this in time for the Gettysburg Address. Harrison? Really?? He couldn't find his ass with both hands, a sextant, and this incandescent lightbulb I just invented."

In Writing: Hey Guys, Remember Me? Can You Believe I Was President for Four Whole Years?: The Memoirs of Benjamin Harrison by Benjamin Harrison The only thing of interest I could find was his volume in Arthur Schlesinger's President Series (the review deemed most helpful by Amazon goes with the following as a subject heading "Benjamin Harrison--decent but obscure"). It clocks in at a modest 224 pages, which still strikes me as at least 190 pages too long.

In Popular Culture:
Nothing. You see?

Test of Time: Sandwiched in between the two Cleveland admins, Harrison is, arguably, the most anonymous President on record. Think about it--there's a zero per cent chance you knew he was from Indiana....or that he was a Brigadier General in the Civil War.

28. Jimmy Carter (1977 - 1981)

High Points/Accomplishments:
Camp David Accords and amnesty for draft dodgers. I'm sure there's plenty more, but these are the two that jumped out at me.

Low Points: At the risk of conflating problems in America with problems during the administration in question--something I've been guilty of a bit thus far--the U.S. kinda went in the tank on Carter's watch. Certainly, it's unfair to blame for all of it, but, let's face facts, a lot of shit went down on his watch, including: stagflation, the energy crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis, and the supposed-to-be-inspiring-but-was-actually-horribly-depressing "malaise" speech in 1979. (Did you know that, in a particular feckless moment, he asked his entire Cabinet to step down the night of this speech? I did not. This strikes me as amazing. Was he drunk? Did his wife break-up with him? This is probably the #1 reason Americans don't let 17-year-olds run for President.)

And, in one of the most ill-advised moves in campaigning history (#1, always and forever, remains "allowing yourself to be swiftboated") Carter was interviewed by Playboy in the lead-up to the 1976 election (presumably, he was hoping to corner both the coveted "filthy pervert" and "horny kids under 16" demographic). This is the interview that yielded that famously stupid quote ("I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times."). Dude, you're running for President! Keep that creepy shit to yourself. Perhaps not surprisingly, Carter nearly squandered a whopping 30 point lead in the summer, winning (largely because Ford, in turn, couldn't keep his foot anywhere but squarely in his own mouth; notably: in firmly denying that Eastern Europeans were under Soviet rule in the second of three national debates) the popular vote by just over 1.5 million (out of over 80 million cast).

Fun Facts: (1) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, the third President to do so. Guesses for the other two? At least one of them is surprising. Highlight the blank space for the answer. Woodrow Wilson (for his--failed, it goes without saying--efforts to form the League of Nations) and Theodore Roosevelt (for negotiating a "truce" between his smoking rifle and all the big game animals he killed on his post-presidency safari Actually, for his work on the incredibly obscure Portsmouth Treaty. Go on, guess which war it ended.)

(2) (this is true) Was so unknown that he nearly managed to stump the panel on a 1974 (note: two years before he was elected President) appearance on What's My Line?

(3) a speed-reader (he read four books a week on the job). Also screened two movies a week in the White House, which is pretty cool.

In Writing: Again, swing and a miss for me. Tentatively, I'll recommend the arrogantly titled Jimmy Carter: A Comprehensive Biography From Plains to Post-Presidency by Peter G. Bourne. The Unfinished Presidency (by one of my favorites, Douglas Brinkley) is supposed to be quite good.

In Popular Culture: his comedy routine ("Habitat for Hilarity") followed by his riot preventing break-dancing ("Got a brother named Billy / and my teeth look silly / Break it down, now...") in the outstanding "Behind the Laughter" episode of The Simpsons. ("It was an evening that none of them would ever forget ... or would they? No."). Classic stuff.

Test of Time:
Tricky one. I don't see his presidency ever looking any better (see: Miracle), yet his post-presidency approval rating continues to soar. When he dies, I envision lavish tributes for everything after 1981 and then, almost as an afterthought, attention turning to his presidency, with speculation that he was a great man undermined by events beyond his control.

27. Chester A. Arthur (1881 - 1885)

High Points/Accomplishments:
signed the Pendelton Act of 1883, which ushered in the modern era of civil service. Hence the rather prosaic nickname "The Father of Civil Service." This becomes ten times funnier when you discover that Arthur, prior to being President, slavishly adhered to the spoil system (and was, in many ways, a product of it).

Low Points: (1) Denied renomination (the last time this happened), with the Republicans going with Senator James G. Blaine (immortalized in Waiting for Guffman) instead. To turn the knife just a little bit more, Blaine had served as Arthur's SecState. Some have noted that Arthur (in a twist right out of The West Wing) had recently become aware that he had Bright's Disease (a then-fatal kidney ailment) and thus did not vigorously pursue renomination.

(2) Passed something called the Mongrel Tariff. I don't even know what the hell that is, but it sounds awful.

(3) Shares the same first name as the loser best friend of the Hardy Boys. Seriously dude, your superpower was having lots of new hobbies? Weak. (If you're in the mood to laugh, click here for the--allegedly real--proposed titles for never realized Chet Morton spin-off series.)

Fun Facts: (1) I just love this quote: "Chet Arthur, President of the U.S.! Good God!"--A New York political associate (seconded by...everyone in America).

(2) had never run for office prior to being nominated for the Vice Presidency (not even a mayoralty in small-town Alaska).

(3) Has the second shortest post-presidency tenure (just over eight months) on record (1st is Polk--the best one-term President in U.S. history*--who died a mere 104 days after leaving office).

* = which I'm somewhat narrowly defining as "serving only one term and no portion of another."

(4) A night owl, he rarely went to bed before 2 a.m. (that's my kind of President!)

In Writing: Chet Arthur and the Mystery of the Mongrel Tariff (hint: it's about smugglers) OK, I've actually got nothing here. Let's go with Thomas Reeves' Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester A. Arthur (1975), which is said to be quite good.

In Popular Culture (soon to be renamed: "Presidential references in The Simpsons"): Ah, but you knew this one was coming. From "Lisa the Iconoclast":
Mr. Hurlbut (voiced by Donald Sutherland): Here's jonnycakes. Is everything okay? You look a bit flushed.
Lisa: It's just the excitement from studying Jebediah.
Mr. Hurlbut: Looks like you've come down with a serious case of Jebeditis.
Lisa: Just as I was getting over my Chester A. Arthritis.
Mr. Hurlbut: [beat] [uncomfortable laughter] You had arthritis?
Lisa: [chuckles nervously] No.
Test of Time: You know what? That was all kind of harsh. In fairness, Arthur wasn't a terrible president (bonus fun fact: as recently as 1962, he was rated by historians as a better president than Eisenhower, who most now place in the top ten). Very much an afterthought now, if discussed at all, people would likely say that he was a decent President, but, in running away from the people that got him on the ticket (Republicans, political bosses, pirates--in that order) to pass civil service legislation, he blew all his political capital, and foreclosed any chance of doing something meaningful beyond that one (important) reform.

But, hell, that still makes him better than Hoover.

Next: #26 - #23.


Fernando said...

I started reading the list yesterday, waitin for Chester A. Arthur to come up just so I could get a "Die Hard with a Vengeance" reference and BUBKISS!. so hurt.

Kyle Wasko said...

Man...I don't even know what the line is. Do tell.

TR Yphrum said...

Hahah, I remember that line. He's just so flabbergasted that someone actually bought into his throwaway reference, too.

That said, I think the Simpsons reference for Chet was better, just because Donald totally crushed that guest appearance.

Fernando said...

The name of the school in "Die Hard 3" was Chester A Arthur. The riddle he has to solve is what is 21 of 42. He somehow figures out the 42 is number of presidents. And throw the help of a truck driver finds out its Chester A. Arthur.

Normal I'd feel like a dork for knowing such a trivial piece of film "history", but seeing as you specialize in obscure pop culture quotes, I don't feel so bad.

P.S. As a somewhat bleeding heart liberal, and someone not that into presidential history before 1985, I hope Clinton is the highest ranking president of my life time on this list aka ahead of Reagan in Bush 1. Keep up the good work.