OUR WORST PRESIDENT
When I was a lad, from time to time I would be sitting in a classroom with a chart on the wall displaying the rankings of all of the presidents. I assume that these were the rankings which one of the Schlesinger dynasty of historians established during the World War II era and which seem to still be done from time to time, though the administration and genealogy of the newer manifestations is unclear to me.
The chart of presidential greatness was nicely delineated into “Great”, “Near Great”, “Above Average”, “Average”, “Below Average”, and the two “Failures”, Grant and Harding. As for the greats, in my memory those were FDR, Lincoln, and Jefferson. Near greats were ones such as Old Hickory, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ike Eisenhower. I was quite surprised that George Washington not only didn’t make the greats, he didn’t make the near greats, and I believe he had actually slipped down into the average group, I am sure to the chagrin of my elementary teachers. Finally, about the time I applied for Medicare, I read a book which explained the phenomenon to me, so I’m hip to the jive now, but at the time America’s great myth had not been punctured to me.
From what I hear, those newer lists have expanded the greats quite a bit, though at the expense of such personal favorites as Grover Cleveland and Young Hickory, who once were solidly listed as near greats but seem to have slipped badly, how far I’m a little afraid to look and see. But the greatest churn has come at the bottom, where revisionists are trying their damndest to rehabilitate history’s two great chumps, Grant and Harding.
The arguments in favor of these two are very much products of our own age’s political correctness and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentalities. Grant wasn’t a failure because he disliked the Indian and the black man marginally less than his contemporaries, Harding because he didn’t really mess policy up and it was a pretty good time to be an American; Babe Ruth, Bix Beiderbecke, some good movies, the Harlem Renaissance, and all that. That the two presided over a great deal of venality and out-and-out crime is explained away either by ignorance or apathy, as if those were somehow qualities which did not equate to a fairly good chance of failure in life or any of its subsets.
So who do the twentieth-century historians deem a failure now? For one, James Buchanan, who dithered his way through the secession crisis, thus leading the nation to a disastrous civil war. It seems to me, though, that, since infamy, like misery, loves company, or ought to, someone else needs to be down there in the basement with him if we absolutely must start paying homage to the traditional duds, and I’m not sure that the historians have come up with anybody.
I suppose the most obvious candidate for failure infamy is the incumbent, but since presentism in ‘Best of’ lists, be they serious or silly, is my pet peeve, and I’ve often told the world that presidents can’t be evaluated fairly until they’ve been out of office for at least twenty-five years, Trump is simply off my radar, lest I indulge in intellectual hypocrisy, as is Bush 43, another prime candidate. Personally, I’ve always thought the worst president was LBJ, but with the currently ubiquitous buyin to Robert Caro’s nauseating hagiographies, well, Bigly Covfefe knows how to accept defeat gracefully. I once pretty much broke up a party by expressing this opinion, once I had clarified my answer for the breathless throng who informed me that surely I meant Andrew Johnson, yes? I guess it doesn’t sound like much of a party, and it wasn’t, so no harm done. So who shall it be? Old Buck, a lonely bachelor in life, deserves a housemate in the cellar of American presidents: Who shall it be? Who shall it be?