Monday, March 24, 2008

Worst presidents in U.S. history

This utterly predictable list challenges no orthodoxies; the American History class you slept through in high school taught you that Buchanan, Harding, and Hoover were three of our most incompetent Chief Executives. But textbook history, so fond of the soundbite and the generalization, gets awfully fuzzy. Sure, Andrew Johnson was a jackass, and was in the singularly unenviable position of succeeding our greatest president and one of our best writers, but my high school teacher said he sucked because he almost got impeached, as if creating this causal relationship was enough. Reality is, of course, more complicated: he was served articles of impeachment for violation of the wholly un-Constitutional Tenure of Office Act (that Andy got hammered on corn whiskey and railed at crowds helped his case not a whit).

The real villains are the ones praised for idealism or revitalized by contemporaneous notions of "strength" and, as that wily schemer and too-easy scapegoat Richard Nixon used to say, "making decisions from the gut." With the exception of Eisenhower, I find every Chief Executive of the last 50 years appalling or worse, unable to extricate themselves from covert foreign policy shenanigans begun by their predecessors or beholden to cadres of loyalists for whom the goldleafed paens of Peggy Noonan and the triangulations of dedicated toe-suckers like Dick Morris substituted for Washington's Farewell Address or Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Gore Vidal's boogieman is Harry Truman, the Republican Party's favorite Democrat. My own pick for worst is Woodrow Wilson, who always ranked high but was recently rediscovered by neoconservatives; they never took Nixon seriously, otherwise they'd have known that the Trickster used the former Princeton president's desk as the perch from which he barked orders to Erlichmann and Haldemann, et al, a tribute to the man he considered one of our greatest presidents (Garry Wills' Nixon Agonistes posits the notion that Nixon was a secret liberal, who suffered pangs as closeted gay men do when they see Congressional pages). We're taught that Wilson got the U.S. into World War I to make The World Safe For Democracy. What we're not told about is what an insufferable prig this man was, who for a time thought he was Jesus Christ. His record, as shown on this thread:

* getting us involved in a rather sordid quasi-war with Mexican guerrillas;

* personally assuring that black Republicans were purged from the federal payroll. When challenged about segregation, he wrote, "It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I think if you were hereon the ground you would see, as I seem to see, that it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves."

* maneuvering, with considerable subtlety, to bring the U.S. into World War I while looking aggrieved. Violating our loudly professed neutrality, we essentially entered the war to assert our right to travel on belligerent ships (i.e. England) and trade with belligerent nations (i.e. England);

* signing the Espionage Act of 1917, which grievously curtailed the reach of the First Amendment during wartime and was a handy precursor to a certain something passed by our current president;

* pointedly refusing to pardon onetime presidential rival Eugene V. Debs, arrested for violating the Espionage Act (and Wilson was not one to ever forget a perceived blow to his divine right);

* the invisible hand behind the priggish, quixotic idealism that's defined American foreign policy since 1945;

* the Fourteen Points.

The pluses are real too: Federal Trade Commission, Federal Reserve, eight-hour work day, supporting women's suffrage (after vehemently opposing it). History, unlike politics, resists untoward arbitration.


Josh said...

man, I would so read a book of your presidential rankings. this needs to happen like yesterday.

Alfred Soto said...

I'll commision you to write the Reagan entry.

Anonymous said...

Another person that sees Wilson for the insufferable egotist bigot he truly was. Why is this man constantly ranked as a "great' president. Tell that to the 116,000 Americans that died thanks to Wilson getting us involved in Europe's war. The Fourteen Points my&&&.