This week’s issue of U.S. News & World Report is dedicated to America’s Worst Presidents, which is taken from an average of five recent major polls. Presidential rankings, both good and bad, have been around since 1948, when Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. first conducted a survey for Life magazine of academic historians specializing in American history. Such polls, depending on the leanings of the group being surveyed, can differ widely. So, as an up and coming historian, I decided to study the U.S. News poll in depth and construct my own rankings.
The list provided by U.S. News & World Report is as follows: 1. James Buchanan 2. Warren G. Harding 3. Andrew Johnson 4. Franklin Pierce 5. Millard Fillmore 6. John Tyler 7. Ulysses S. Grant 8. William Henry Harrison 9. (tie) Herbert Hoover 9. (tie) Richard Nixon 10. Zachary Taylor.
My rankings, the Walters List, is as follows: 1. Abraham Lincoln 2. Jimmy Carter 3. Woodrow Wilson 4. Franklin Delano Roosevelt 5. Lyndon Baines Johnson 6. Ulysses S. Grant 7. Herbert Hoover 8. Bill Clinton 9. Richard Nixon 10. Gerald Ford.
Both the Walters list and the U.S. News list have just three duplications – Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon, so I will not take the time or space to list the reasons why these are considered failed presidencies. For some the reasons should be obvious. As for the ones that differ, some might come as a shock but I will offer my explanations here in some detail. However, please note that I point out a few of the major weaknesses and faults of these presidents from my vantage point but that is not to say that they did not have some positive accomplishments, for most of them did.
At the top of my list is Abraham Lincoln, who would probably not occupy the list of any professional historian. Lincoln stretched the Constitution past its bounds, trampled the rights of the Southern states, and made a mockery of the cherished American principle of self-determination. The Left, who praises Lincoln, scolds Bush for violating the civil liberties of the American people but let’s consider “Honest” Abe’s actions. He waged war without congressional consent, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, imprisoned thousands of American citizens without charges or trial, seized and censored telegraph offices, shut down hundreds of newspapers while arresting and imprisoning editors, attacked civilians, interfered with the electoral process, and destroyed the voluntary Union of our Founders to replace it with a centralized state. How could anyone praise these actions is beyond me!
Also missing the cut for the U.S. News poll, but ranked second on my list, is Jimmy Carter. Let’s be honest with ourselves here – just what did this man get right? How he stayed off the U.S. News list is beyond me. As I often like to joke about Carter, it’s really not fair to criticize him because he only had two failures during his presidency – foreign policy and domestic policy. But seriously this is not too far from the truth. When Carter left the White House in 1981, the United States was not only considerably weaker on the world stage, but downright humiliated. With a U.S. embassy seized and hostages held in Tehran, Carter looked as inept, incompetent and as pathetically weak as he actually was. There was no facade to cover his yellow streak. And we paid the price for it, and according to some, are still paying it. The economy was in shambles as well, with inflation, unemployment, and interest rates all in double-digits; the country nearly fell into a depression, and viewing the situation in the everyday lives of the American people, we were in one. And as one scholar has noted, Jimmy Carter proved that the presidency is not the place for on-the-job training. There are some, however, who would point to Carter’s negotiation of the Camp David Accords in 1978, but, it must be noted that the foundation of this agreement was laid in the Nixon Administration, as Carter simply picked up the pieces from what Kissinger had begun but had not been able to complete. And given the fact that both Israel and Egypt are the two largest recipients of American foreign aid, isn’t it highly probable that we are actually paying them not to fight?
Woodrow Wilson receives my third ranking. Though this might be a bit of a surprise to some, particularly those left of center, Wilson did cause irreparable damage to our republic in my opinion, and according to one scholar, brought on World War II. Wilson was a Progressive, and he, like FDR later, sought to change the nation’s fundamental institutions. During this Progressive Era, two new amendments were added to the Constitution that radically altered it, as much as did the Fourteenth. The first, though passed before Wilson entered office but with his support, was the Sixteenth, which gave the federal government the right to impose and collect direct taxes on the people without those taxes being apportioned. This simply means the government could levy an income tax. This tax was only supposed to be imposed on the rich and on corporations, but as with all other government promises, it too was broken. By the time Wilson left office the top rate skyrocketed from two percent in 1913 to seventy percent in 1921. The Seventeenth Amendment also met Wilson’s approval and is much more damaging than many people realize. This amendment took away the representatives of the states – United States Senators. We now popularly elect our senators, but this is not what the Founders intended. And with the states losing proper representation in Washington, state’s rights and state sovereignty endured a crippling blow.
Wilson’s other faults: He created the Federal Reserve System, which is a private entity for which Congress has no direct control that runs our banking system and much of our economy, and he, like FDR, lied us into World War I, a war we easily could have stayed out of. Cato senior fellow Jim Powell theorizes that had we stayed out of World War I, then the result would have been much different, with no rise of any Nazi State in Germany and no World War II.
The biggest shocker of all, and holder of my fourth spot, is FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This president set out to deliberately change the nation’s fundamental economic system of capitalism to a more socialist-based economy. FDR made repeated statements that the Great Depression was caused by a failure of capitalism and the free enterprise system, and needed to be overhauled. This was the greatest expansion and power grab in our history. And as scholar Jim Powell has pointed out, the New Deal failed miserably as an economic recovery program and actually made the Depression worse. With FDR, the nature of our federal government was altered permanently, as now more and more of our citizens look to Washington for help and solutions, rather than looking to ourselves as individuals. FDR began what LBJ finished. Among FDR’s other shortcomings: He lied us into World War II, rather than lead us, and, using the phrase “concentration camp,” imprisoned, by executive order and without trial, thousands of American citizens solely based on their race. And this is the man we built a multi-million dollar monument to in Washington, D.C. A few of the typical “worst presidents” never would have done anything so abhorrent to constitutional government.
Only one word needs to be uttered to describe the disastrous presidency of the next member of my list – Vietnam. Lyndon Baines Johnson generally receives a middle-of-the-road rating because his domestic policy was good, according to the left, but his foreign policy was a disaster. The latter I buy and I don’t believe there are any serious scholars who would disagree but the former is another story. Beginning with domestic policy, LBJ’s Great Society was a monstrous addition to the New Deal. But, where the New Deal at least required work, in the form of works projects, to receive aid, the Great Society took from the American worker and gave to the non-worker, making direct cash payments to those who will not do a thing, and are not required to. Johnson believed poverty could be wiped out by spending $10 billion, but now we have roughly the same percentage of poor people as we did in 1964, when the “war on poverty” was announced, and the population is much larger now than it was then, so in real terms there’s a lot more poverty today. As for public expenditures, the last numbers I saw, in welfare and welfare-related spending since 1964, was over $6 trillion! I believe we can chalk this one up as a failure and the greatest robbery of American taxpayers in our history. As for foreign policy, I will let it speak for itself. Vietnam taught us how not to fight a war. I wonder if we have really learned from this lesson?
To be fair, unlike the many liberal scholars today, I did not include, or even consider, George W. Bush in this list, for it is simply much too early to give him a final grade, although at this point I would not rank him very high. But I did include Bill Clinton, who bumbled and fumbled his way through a mostly “do-nothing” presidency. But Clinton’s failures were numerous and disastrous. Aside from a sex scandal in which he lied under oath and was impeached, some of Clinton’s policies could very well be construed as treasonous. He illegally raised foreign funds for his re-election campaign in 1996, exchanging cash for technology to the Communist Chinese, which boosted their ballistic missile program by decades, putting America at greater risk to Chinese nuclear attack. Clinton further weakened the United States by cutting the U.S. military in half, then failed to capture Osama Bin Laden when he was offered by the Sudanese. He also demonstrated to Al Qaeda American impotence by not responding to persistent terror attacks against the World Trade Center in 1993, the Kobar Towers in 1996, U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000, for which he did absolutely nothing! No wonder Bin Laden believed he could launch the 9/11 attack in 2001. September 11, 2001 can be laid at the feet of President William Jefferson Clinton!
Gerald Ford rounds out my list simply because he, like Carter, was way out of his league in the Oval Office. He pardoned Nixon before he was even indicted for crimes he may have committed (and probably did commit) during the Watergate Scandal, rather than let justice take its course. His foreign policy was utterly incompetent, as he allowed North Vietnam to overrun the South, thereby instantly transferring more than 58,000 American deaths in Southeast Asia to the category of “Died in Vain.” In a debate with Carter in 1976 he infamously stated that the Soviets did not dominate Eastern Europe! I’m sure the Pols would have agreed with that one! And finally he appointed John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court, causing Pat Buchanan to bolt to Reagan.
Let me also say a few words about a president who makes every list without fail but did not make mine, Warren G. Harding, who, along with Calvin Coolidge, will be the subject of a future book of mine. Harding, in my opinion, has been treated unfairly by historians. His presidency, though well below average in some respects, should receive enough credit in other areas to get him out of the historical gutter. So let us compare scholarly treatment of Harding and Clinton.
Clinton receives ratings as high as he does (usually somewhere in the middle) for his handling of the economy and maintaining a peaceful nation, while his many scandals are pushed to the rear. Historians generally cite the fact that he was never really implicated in any scandal as the reason he is given somewhat of a pass. But Harding falls into exactly the same category – his administration pulled the nation out of its worse recession and led it into the most robust economic growth in American history, a rate of more than seven percent a year during the Roaring ‘20s. Harding’s many scandals also stayed away from him personally, and the worst ones, such as Teapot Dome, were not revealed until after his death and many of his contemporaries believe history would judge him well. The nation was also at peace under Harding, a “return to normalcy.” The Washington Naval Conference was held during his administration, an attempt to reduce the most fearsome weapon system of the day.
Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, who generally makes most lists, was conspicuously absent from the U.S. News rankings, and rightfully so. Coolidge successfully managed the Harding-Mellon economic turnaround, continuing a program that saw four major tax cuts, a reduction of the national debt by one-third, a budget surplus every year he was in office, and a drop in unemployment from 12 percent to just 3 percent in 1929! Why such a record does not rank in the top 10 or 15 is a travesty of judgment in my opinion.