The Worst Presidents?

Athena is learning about the presidents these days, not through school, but via the Animaniacs, whose “President’s Song” she is memorizing much in the same way she memorized their “50 states and their capitals” song (clearly, Animaniacs are her Schoolhouse Rock). While she was running down the presidents in the songs, and because she is into quantifying stuff as only a nine-year-old can be, she asked me which presidents I thought were the worst ever. Here are my top bottom five:

1. James Buchanan: Broke the country. Worst ever until someone else breaks the country, so let’s hope he’s not seriously challenged. I’ve written about him before.

2. George W. Bush: Provisional ranking, both because of my own personal biases and because the judgment of history takes a while. That said, there’s no doubt he’s a bad president by any account that doesn’t have “we haven’t been attacked since 9/11!” as the sole relevant justification for an entire administration. Massive deficits, torture, housing crisis, “unitary executive,” politicization of the Justice Department, so on and so forth. Won’t be missed; best Dubya can hope for is that everybody agrees never to speak of him again after January 20, 2009.

3. Richard Nixon: Who I think was actually a decent president overall, policywise, but then there was that whole Watergate thing, and that’s really hard to get around. A shame about the paranoia.

4. Warren G. Harding: Look, the dude himself knew he was bad, saying: “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.” Looking at the scandals or his administration, notably the Teapot Dome affair, it’s hard to argue the point. The reason I personally don’t rank him higher than Nixon: He had the decency to die before his term was done, forestalling more damage.

5. Ulysses S. Grant: Great general, lame president. Black Friday, Panic of ’73, inability to pass legislation, and scandals all over the administration, etc; really, just a mess. Decent ex-president, however, and wrote what are generally considered the best memoirs of any president (mostly about the Civil War, however).

If I had to drop Bush from the list, I’d bump the three below him up a notch and then the anchorman spot would be held probably by either Franklin Pierce or Andrew Johnson, neither of whom was any great prize.

It probably hasn’t escaped notice that four of my five worst presidents are Republicans; sorry about that, GOPers. If it’s any consolation, the lone Democrat, James Buchanan, really is the winner by a wide margin. And there’s the fact that Abe Lincoln gets my vote for best president, and he’s a Republican (I’m quite fond of Theodore Roosevelt, too).

I don’t really have an extensive ranking system for worst vice presidents, but I will note that the two vice presidents I consider to be the worst, Aaron Burr and Dick Cheney, both shot people while in office. Coincidence?

Your picks for the worst presidents?

109 Comments on “The Worst Presidents?”

  1. The trouble with Grant is that he seems to have been a decent person who was a bad judge of others because he had so much trouble spotting people who were not decent. He assumed people were like him, not a good trait in a POTUS.

  2. Andrew Jackson. Used the terms “Indian removal” and “Final Solution” in exactly the way you fear he used them. Result: at least 4,000 Cherokee dead, and that’s just the Cherokees.

  3. Well I can’t say that Clinton was one of the worst ever…but I will say that it really disturbed me to see the private goings on in the Whitehouse have so much in common with the Jerry Springer show.I will have to agree with you on Grant and Jackson.

  4. Man, not only was Franklin Pierce a hottie, he got frequently got drunk and ran over old ladies with his carriage. Sounds like a catch!

    Thanks for filling my daily, ‘learn something new everyday’ quota.

    In all seriousness though, what a tragic human. Although he was known to be a heavy drinker, they still elected him into office. I guess it says a lot about how good looks can win you anything in this world.

    You’d think holding the office of President was enough to keep him sober every so often, despite the misfortunes going on in his personal life.

  5. I’m with Subspace on this one . . . Jackson is my pick for worst. Genocide combined with disempowering the Supreme Court by ignoring them completely. Not even his stand against a national bank pulls him out of that hole.

  6. Which is worse — a mostly ineffective president like Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover, or an all-too effective demagogue like Andrew Jackson or George W Bush?

    I’ll buy the argument for Buchanan as worst president — everything he did (or didn’t do) seemed to make matters worse leading up to the Civil War. George Bush has the double-damnation of being both demagogic and incompetent, so I’d say he’s a lot closer to Buchanan than you think.

  7. I’ll agree with you on the first two, drop Nixon out of the worst 5, slide Harding into 3rd place, put Franklin Pierce in 4th place, and Rutherford B. Hayes in 5th. Hayes doesn’t get near as much vituperation as he deserved for letting the civil service system become so corrupt. Nor does Chester A. Arthur get near enough credit for cleaning up the mess.

  8. I’m with you on this and have been from the beginning. No one’s ever going to top Buchanan. Dubya still isn’t even close. I definitely think Dubya’s the worst president in living memory, though — way worse than Nixon, who at least managed to accomplish some worthwhile things when he wasn’t working on his enemies list and so on.

  9. Millard Fillmore. His support the Compromise of 1850 temporarily staved off the Civil War, but at a morally reprehensible price. The compromise included the Fugitive Slave Law, which compelled the federal government to return fugitive slaves to their masters.

  10. Jimmy Carter. Pole smoking liberal. took a real man like Reagan to go after the communists, cutting their heads off in foreign countries.

  11. Here’s my idiosyncratic list of “least-known Presidential disasters”, in no particular order:

    Wilson — not only was the “he kept us out of war” slogan a flat-out lie (Wilson’s policies violated virtually every norm that international law assigned to nonbelligerants at the time), but his hostility to organized labor and dissent made the Palmer Raids inevitable. Then there’s that whole Edith-Wilson-running-the-country thing.

    Jackson — forget about genocide for a moment; his hostility toward the Bank of the United States also played a critical role in making slavery economically viable, and thereby helped set up Dred Scott. And let’s not forget who appointed the largest number of the justices who decided Dred Scott. On top of those issues, Jackson’s attitude about the executive’s right/ability to ignore the other branches of government is the closest match for George III (the current resident) of any US President.

    Reagan — Iran-Contra. Ed Meese. The evangelization of the service academies. PATCO. The evisceration of antitrust law. Achieved “balance” on the Supreme Court by appointing two justices who later would not speak to each other. Had the good luck to preside over the nation at a time that the rest of the world — and, in particular, Europe and the Soviet Union — was in such a severe cyclical economic trough that the US looked good, and the even greater luck to be opposed by the least-competent opposition in the 20th century. On top of all that, his only qualification as commander-in-chief is that he knew how to salute; his record of appointment to senior civilian and uniformed military posts is probably the worst since the Civil War. For all his charm, a poor judge of character disturbingly similar to Grant.

  12. Woodrow Wilson is high on the list. Created the Committee on Public Information, which basically pumped out propaganda, and suppressed information that would prevent the US from entering WWI. Example: Lusitania was a RN auxiliary carrying munitions. That information didn’t come out until after the war ended. Gave government officials free reign to reestablish segregation in many federal agencies. Dragged the US into a war with the only effect of killing 117k US citizens.

    Someone else has said of him: “You think Gitmo is bad, when we’re putting foreign terrorists in it?

    If Woodrow Wilson was in charge, he would be putting Amish there. For refusing to carry rifles in his war effort. Even when they offer to do non-combatant work instead. “

  13. Well, they all kind of suck. I think we’re closer to a Principate than a Republic, now (and that’s more the accrual of the last seventy years than a grand plot on Bush II’s part). The president can practically make war at his or her sole discretion. No one should have the kind of power the president possesses, because no one can have that kind of power and not make a mess of things, go insane, turn into a monster, or actively make things worse. Presidential elections shouldn’t matter as much as they do. The personal idiosyncrasies of an Obama or a Clinton I or Clinton II or a McCain should not be able to define national policy…but yet, they do.

    I think we’d be better off if the presidency’s powers underwent an extreme curtailment, or the president should be limited to a single two-year term or something.

  14. TCO: Jimmy Carter. Pole smoking liberal…

    Hmmm — I don’t recall him ever having shot a person of Polish descent. In fact, his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was born in Poland. So it’s not like he had something against Poles.

  15. Tania beat me to suggesting Jonathan Coulton’s song.
    I want to point out that Clinton was by no means the first president to be unfaithful. I think it was a function of the current culture that made it so public. There has been some speculation about JFK and Marilyn Monroe and other women. The people who knew about JFK’s private life for sure would not have revealed it at the time because our culture was different then.
    Due to the nature of the office (I’m talking about things done that are highly classified and will not be revealed for decades), it will be quite a long time before we fully understand the impact some of the most recent presidential office holders have had.

  16. Okay, so, most overrated President poll:


    I’m gonna hafta go with Reagan.

    And another poll: person who should’ve most been President but wasn’t:

    Benjamin Franklin
    Thomas Dewey
    Gary Hart
    John Anderson
    Bill Bradley
    John Kerry
    Al Gore
    Pat Buchanan
    Dennis Kucinich
    Michael Dukakis
    John McCain (2000)

    Clearly, I don’t know enough historical possibilities to fill out this list. My pick: Benjamin Franklin. We clearly need a President who Farts Proudly.

  17. I hate Andrew Johnson with the burning passion of 10,000 lions in heat. And he’s dead and gone a long time ago. Genocide is the one that really pisses me off.

    (Although, yes, I hate Dubya Jr. much more. Exponentially so.)

  18. SIGH Jackson Jackson Jackson. I really need my caffeine. And to sleep more on the weekends. I can’t remember the names of those I hate, although in a way that is very me.

  19. I always feel somewhat sorry for Andrew Johnson when he ends up on lists like this. I can’t really argue against any of his incompetencies, but he was at best a mediocre president when our nation needed greatness.

  20. Off the top of my head, in chronological order: Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ, and GWB. Yes, the reason being what they all most obviously have in common. No, I’d rather not argue about it today.

    (I’d put them in numerical (brrrr) order, but I don’t know enough of the exact numbers.)

  21. Robert @22, Republican used to mean a whole different thing back in Lincoln’s time. I’d have called them modern Democrats.

    Judge by the acts, not the party. Although the parties seem rather static in their behavior right now, so the party line split is more common.

  22. jim @ 14

    It isn’t that there isn’t anyone who can handle that kind of power responsibly, it’s that even one person who can’t can mess things up royally.

  23. Worst: Buchanon, Carter, Clinton
    Best: Lincoln, Teddy (read ‘River of Doubt’, by the way), Reagan

    And some of the most interesting historical presidential tidbits often comes from their own presidential campaigns. To wit, here are some actual presidential campaign slogans from past presidents and wanna-be challengers:

    1844 Henry Clay: Who is James K. Polk?

    Well, Henry he became 11th President of The United States.

    1860 Abraham Lincoln: Vote Yourself a Farm.

    It was always about the farmers. Even way back then.

    1884 Grover Cleveland: Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine.
    1884 James Blaine: Ma, Ma, Where?s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.

    Wow. And we thought the last few elections were bitter. 1884 sounds like it was a hoot!

    1900 William McKinley: A Full Dinner Pail.

    He was standing in a receiving line at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition when a deranged anarchist shot him twice. He died eight days later.

    1916 Woodrow Wilson: He kept us out of war.

    In 1917 he proclaimed American entrance into World War I a crusade to make the world “safe for democracy.”

    1928 Herbert Hoover: A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.

    His election seemed to ensure prosperity. Yet within months the stock market crashed, and the Nation spiraled downward into depression.

    1976 Jimmy Carter: Not Just Peanuts.

    I’m not going there.

    1988 George Bush: Kinder, Gentler Nation.


    1992 Bill Clinton: Putting People First.

    Especially female interns.

  24. Let us pile a little more shame on Woodrow – Truman gets credit for integrating the armed forces during WWII – yet Wilson never gets blamed for segregating them? Fact is for 50 years from the War between the States till Wilson’s election (Thanks Teddy) the nation had integrated armed forces. Truman didn’t need to integrate them, he needed to de-segregate them.

    On a tangent, check out this link

  25. Don’t you think pre-Election of 1800 running mates should be exempt from the “worst VP” contest? It’s not like they were VP candidates in the modern sense.

    Plus, Burr’s acts as VP are actually quite laudable, given the small nature of the VP role at the time. He didn’t actively seek the office of president during the election of 1800 tie. While VP, his presiding over the impeachment trail of Justice Samuel Chase earned him praise from both Republicans and Federalists.

    And the whole duel thing, well… Burr did shoot Hamilton, yes. But nobody forced Hamilton to insult Burr, provoke the duel, and get himself shot in the first place. Sorry, but Hamilton knew what he was doing and took a stupid risk.

  26. It’d be hard to judge worst, but here are some who would be on the list. Wilson, Carter, Buchanan, and Jackson.

    For best would be Lincon, Theodore Roosevelt, Washington, Reagan.

    Note Neither Clinton or Bush II qualify for consideration to me because they’re just too recent.

  27. Bill G. Says:
    Nor does Chester A. Arthur get near enough credit for cleaning up the mess.

    I love Chester A. Arthur. Almost as much as James K. Polk.

    John H Says:
    Which is worse — a mostly ineffective president like Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover, or an all-too effective demagogue like Andrew Jackson or George W Bush?

    If you’re going for ineffective, you can’t top William Henry Harrison. The man lasted a month, because he refused to wear a coat while giving his inaugural address. In the rain. For two hours. Followed by a parade. It was the longest inaugural and the shortest presidency ever. His only official act was to call a special session of Congress at Henry Clay’s urging, despite the fact that he didn’t want to do so. You see, Henry Clay, as leader of the Whig party, had more political power than Harrison. As the President of the United States. Carter or Hoover don’t even come close to this level of ineffectiveness.

    Tumbleweed Says:
    And another poll: person who should’ve most been President but wasn’t:

    Alexander Hamilton. He was not born in the US, but since he was one of the authors of the Constitution, he managed to slip in a clause that still allowed him to be president:

    No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President… (emphasis mine)

    That was probably our one shot to get a non-natural born Citizen as president, an avenue that is now closed forever.

  28. My worst list (no order, 20th century only):

    Shrub, Carter, Johnson, Wilson.

    Yeah Clinton is not on there. I think he’s a slime-ball who enriched himself and I think there’s a pattern of technocrat liberals like him doing that. But he really didn’t screw that much up.

  29. Yeah. I still include him on my list. My point was to leave out the older stuff as I really have no feel for what Hayes was like or the like.

  30. Arachne Jericho @ 23, in line with what you say:

    I think there needs to be acknowledgment of the difference between the old Republican and Democrat parties and the current incarnations of them. Not that the actual party has changed, but the philosophies pushing them forward and the demographics voting for them have shifted since the late 1800’s. I have a hard time considering Lincoln a contemporary Republican. That might come with my personal bias of not wanting to offer any consolation to Republicans…

    I’m bringing this up because of one quote in particular that I saw today:

    “The Northwestern and New England states have usually tended to go Republican; while nearly all of the Southern states have, since 1877, been pretty certain to go Democratic.”
    — Chapter 8: Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents – Viscount James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, vol. 1 [1888]

  31. TCO, OK sorry for the nitpick.

    New topic:
    Can we get some hate for JFK here? Stole the election, screwed up Cuba, punked by the Russians, escalated Vietnam (admittedly begun by Eisenhower and exploded by LBJ but still, he didn’t help) cronyism (RFK for AG) and marital hijinks that make Clinton look like a eunuch.

  32. Can we play with French Presidents too ?

    I’d say :

    1/ Adolphe Thiers (1871—1873) : A murderer, who drowned the Commune of Paris in her own blood. This was actually shortly before his presidency, but — still !

    2/ General Patrice de Mac Mahon (1873—1879) : His big idea as a President of the Republic was to reinstate monarchy… Fortunately, too stupid for it to matter. Many declarations of his remain known as “MacMahonisms”; typically :
    Thyphoid fever is something terrible : you either die from it, or survive only as an idiot. I should know : I’ve had it !

    3/ Jean Casimir-Perier (1894—1895) : Inexistent. Resigned from office because, he whined : None of my ministers ever listens to me !

    4/ Jacques Chirac (1995—2007). Very good at running for office, never interested in actual governing.

    5/ Paul Deschanel (1920). Incapacited for psychatric reasons after falling from his own official train… As Clemenceau said :
    Deschanel ? He always had a bright future behind him !

  33. I read Theodore Rex not too long ago, and it’s an interesting perspective of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, if you’re into that sort of thing.

  34. derf @ 31: I always read that qualification clause as meaning those born before the revolution could still run for president as long as they were citizens when the Constitution was adopted. At the time of adoption anyone old enough to be president would have been born when the states were still British colonies…

  35. A shame about the paranoia.

    Oh John, you slay me. Always.

    Amen. When I think back on Nixon, more often than not, I get a visual of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg. Dem was scary times.

    Reagan was scary too. I was never sure if I was going to wake up in the morning and find out someone had been playing with the red button during the night and the planet was toast.

  36. What’s the verdict on Andrew Jackson? Only interested ‘cos his folks came from 5 miles up the road from where I live in Northern Ireland.

  37. Bush is worst. Buchanan, for all his incompetence, had to deal with a situation that had been festering for decades under other equally incompetent presidents. Bush did it all on his own.

  38. My picks are James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, LBJ and Jimmy Carter (George W. Bush would have been 6th, I am for equal opportunity criticizing).

  39. Let me be another voice for [i]Jackson, oh my god JACKSON[/i]. How can you miss the president who said “they have made their decision, now let them enforce it” about the Supreme Court telling him he couldn’t march indigenous people to their death so whites could have their land?

  40. I can’t disagree with you about George W. Bush. Whether you are a conservative or a liberal (or something in between), George W. Bush has simply been incompetent. He has also perhaps permanently associated conservatism with the religious right….something that pains those of us in the socially libertarian wing of the Republican Party.

    Two possible Democrats for the list: Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson.

    Jimmy Carter:

    (Disclaimer: no one can deny that Jimmy Carter is a decent human being; the following applies to his results while in office.)

    >The economy under Jimmy Carter was perhaps the worst it ever was in living memory. Not all his fault, of course, but he wasn’t able to turn it around either.
    >Jimmy Carter was also an uninspiring leader. I was eleven at the time, but I still remember his “malaise speech.” Not a good way to rally the troops. America was a depressing place in 1980.
    >Jimmy Carter lacked the resolve that was needed to deal with Soviet expansionism at the time.
    >I would give him a pass on the Iran Hostage Crisis. That was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation.

    Lyndon Johnson:

    >Although Eisenhower and Kennedy began our involvement in Vietnam, Johnson escalated it.

    Most unappreciated President while in office: Bill Clinton.

    I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton either time, but it is hard to argue with his results….America was mostly prosperous and peaceful under his watch. And I never cared about his shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky.

  41. LBJ is definitely worse than Nixon, Harding, or Grant. I think LBJ is a candidate for being worse than Dubya, too, although Dubya is essentially the “Republican LBJ” (Texas, check, went to war based on a lie, check, tried to go for butter as well as guns, check… the parallels are endless). The difference is that getting bogged down in a long pointless catastrophic guerrilla war mattered more during the Cold War than it does now.

  42. James @ 53: Don’t forget, tore apart his party in that checklist. The Republican bench is now empty. Look at the Veep-stakes.

    For me:
    1. Buchanan – I think he’s at the top of pretty much everyone’s list. You can’t even excuse it.
    2. Wilson – I’m with the other guy who mentioned the CPI, and you know, the Secret Police. Oh, and using all of those fun things we associate with Orwell’s 1984. Like encouraging Boy Scouts to inform on anyone of German descent.
    3. Carter – I believe, the only President in US history to give away US territory. Also, the Iran thing. And the Misery Index. And the rabbit.
    4. Hoover – Didn’t he sign Smoot-Hawley?
    5. Pierce – someone up above put it better than I could.

  43. As to #55 — there’s a fair number of the Pacific islands that could be considered “US territory given away”, most notably the Philippines. I don’t consider it a bad thing that they’re no longer “ours”.

  44. Carter & the Iranian Hostage Crisis: George Bush Sr was reported to have gone to several meetings to convince the Iranians to keep the hostages until after the election, thus swaying the vote to Reagan. Don’t know if this was ever proved, or if it was the only reason Carter lost, but I have read in the past Bush, Sr. was documented to have attended something like 17 meetings which he “couldn’t recall.” Carter did attempt to get them back militarily, but the operation was a failure, due to, IIRC, helicopters that weren’t meant for desert operations being used. Hardly Carter’s fault, and one of the U.S. military’s most embarrassing operations, IMHO, though one you don’t hear much about.

    Carter and the Economy: The economy was already bad. There’s very little a President can do on his own to improve the economy, especially in the length of one term of office. There’s very little a President can do about the economy at all except get out of the way when it’s doing well, which leads me to:

    Clinton and the Economy: Clinton freaking LUCKED OUT on the economy in the beginning. The perfectly-timed twin forces of the looming Y2K upgrade and the rise of the Internet, and upgrades needed for that, helped the tech sector bloom in an unprecedented way. Nothing to do with Clinton at all. But, Clinton didn’t screw it up until the end. Keep in mind the economy was failing before W took power. When Clinton & UK-whatsisname announced that they wouldn’t allow companies to patent genes from the human genome project, all the day traders heard was, “Don’t invest in tech stocks,” and misinterpreted it (because day traders are generally kinda stupid), and started the selloff of ALL tech stocks, thus triggering the dot-com collapse. So that was sorta Clinton’s fault, though many think it was inevitable.

    We then come to:

    W: Certainly my vote for worst President EVAR. Among the many things he’s done was drive the economy into the red on a scale even Reagan couldn’t dream of, and that’s really something. And the even scarier part is, we don’t know how bad it is because so much of it is unreported. You think the official debt numbers are scary – wait till he’s out of office and the real calculations come out. Remember the trillion dollar surplus we had when Clinton left office? It was gone BEFORE 9/11, so don’t believe the propaganda that all the economic woes are a result of the War; it has merely helped them hide it better and explain it away. How Republicans who claim to be for smaller government and less government spending could’ve possibly voted for W a second time is quite beyond me, but I guess P.T. Barnum really did have it right. And even after everything that’s known about Reagan, Republicans still think he won the Cold War, and that his likeness should be carved into Mount Rushmore. (!)

    People are scary.

  45. I am surprised to see no mention of William Henry Harrison (1841). He gave the longest inaugural address in history, in the rain, with no hat or coat because he wanted to look manly. This piece of idiocy put him in a sick bed, where he developed pneumonia and died. In is one month in office, all he did was take his oath of office and give one speech.

  46. I lot of the stuff I read all from people who are supporters of W’s military misadventure all seem to admire Jackson’s foreign policy.

    Granted that does not balance out Jackson’s negatives.

  47. JJS @ 57 — read derf @ 31…

    I would say that Harrison may have been dumb to stand out in the rain for two hours, but it’s kind of harsh to scold a man for being ineffective when he died one month into his term…

  48. Since you asked:

    1. Abraham Lincoln
    a. Slaughtered thousands upon thousands of his countrymen for “freedom” and so that the grand American experiment would not fail. (See a disconnect?) This belief of killing for freedom later evolved into a politico-religious rationale, and still tops the charts today. Picked up the anti-slavery rationale halfway through, though he wanted to ship all blacks back to Africa.
    b. Suspended Habeas Corpus, Arrested supreme court justices and newspaper publishers.

    2. Woodrow WIlson
    a. Sent Americans in the charnel house of WWI so that the US could have a seat at the peace table and form the League of Nations. Worked out great. Did such a great job that the dance would begin to repeat about 20 years later.

    3. FDR
    a. Founded Uncle Sugar, Inc.- the modern welfare state.
    b. Actively, though surreptitiously, angled to get the US involved in WWII (FDR knew Hitler was about to invade Long Island). Leading to hundreds of thousands of US dead to make the world safe for Communism.
    c. Gave Poland, Eastern Europe and half of Germany to Stalin, thereby “liberating” them- and making any sane individual thereby wonder what the point of the war was in the first place.
    d. When he could not get his unconstitutional, overreaching bills to pass constitutional muster, threatened to expand the size of the court to handpick some of his own hacks. (I can only imagine the screams if this were attempted today.)
    e. Interned thousands of Japanese, Italians and German-Americans with no due process.

    4. Dubya.
    A. You’ve already made a pretty exhaustive list, though I’d say the housing bubble isnt his fault- any more than the Nasdaq bubble was.

    5. LBJ
    a. As corrupt as any small town sheriff cliche- manufactured the Gulf of Tonkin incident, leading to 100k US casualties, stole votes, launched the “Great Society” which essentially sent cheques to the poor, and so thoroughly f***ed up the national economy through Guns n Butter (see Dubya) that it took over a decade to get back to some semblance of a stable, growing economy. Amazingly, his Great Society did not work and poor people still exist.

  49. @Tumbleweed:

    The “October Surprise” conspiracy theory has been pretty comprehensively debunked. As wiki says, “after 12 years of news reports looking into the alleged conspiracy, both houses of the US Congress held separate inquiries into the issue, and journalists from sources such as Newsweek and The New Republic looked into the charges. Both Congressional inquires, as well as the majority of investigative reports, found the charges to be groundless.”

    Carter did attempt to get them back militarily, but the operation was a failure, due to, IIRC, helicopters that weren’t meant for desert operations being used. Hardly Carter’s fault, and one of the U.S. military’s most embarrassing operations, IMHO, though one you don’t hear much about.

    A botched military operation is ultimately the Commander in Chief’s fault. More importantly, they could have pressed ahead successfully even with five helicopters, but both Beckwith and Carter lost their nerve. Carter made the decision to abort very quickly, and it’s hard to believe his heart was really in it. Bottom line, the blame is his – and let’s keep in mind he would have gleefully accepted all the political credit if the operation had succeeded.

  50. @ Tumbleweed

    I’m all for giving Bush all the credit he deserves for spending way too much and dumping so much money into Iraq, but do you have any real reason for saying that he’s somehow manipulating the debt numbers? I don’t think you have to wrap the numbers with shaky speculation in order to make them sound bad. They’re bad enough.

    I don’t think we ever had a trillion dollar surplus. Then again maybe you were just exaggerating? Again, the numbers are good enough without them ;-)

    I don’t know why people are so insistent on playing the extremes with Reagan’s role in the collapse of the USSR. To give Reagan all the credit is as foolish as denying him any. He played his part in how and when it fell, but so did many other people.

  51. When talking of the Veep’s, how can we not mention Agnew as one the worst. If it were not for that “Watergate” thingie, he would have brought Nixon down on his own!

  52. THe thing about the Republican and Democratic parties is they’ve switched roles. Lincoln area Republicans fought to persrve the Union and federal supremacy while Democrats of the same era favored states rights and federalism. In theory, they’ve switched.

    So, John Scalzi, your lone Democrat would actually have more in common with Republicans, under modern standards.

    As bad as George Bush might be, Carter was worse. Well intentioned, yes, but all around incompetent. Bush is better, at least in some limited aspects.

    Andrew Jackson was a rascist who killed thousands through his policies. Of course, this would cover a dozen or more presidents, so he hardly stands out there. On the other hand, he also opened up the democratic process and further the march toward a truer form of representative democracy. So he deserves some credit.

  53. The thing with Nixon is that Watergate was hardly the worst thing he ever did. Everyone forgets about that whole lovely thing where Nixon illegally bombed Cambodia after Congress told him not to, markedly contributing to the destabilization of Cambodia that allowed the Khmer Rouge to overrun the country after Sianhouk’s ouster (which may or may not have involved Nixon’s CIA).

    So you can make the case that Nixon was a sort of contributing editor to genocide.

    And how bad is it when your Secretary Of Defense tells the military to disregard the President’s orders unless they’re confirmed by the Secretary? I’m honestly not sure what’s scarier–the President being that far out of it or the unconstitutional power grab that had to occur to keep the country running without, say, a nuclear war occurring.

    Nixon was bad. G.W. Bush may be worse–John Dean thinks so, and Dean isn’t exactly a Nixon fan. But Nixon was one scary dude, and we shouldn’t forget it just because he made nice after he was forced to resign and managed to position himself as some kind of elder statesman.

  54. I’m going to throw in another vote for Andrew Jackson. I think he should have W’s spot on the list, because he was what Shrub would be if he were as effective as he is morally bankrupt. Both are all about consolidating power in the executive, and both used said consolidated power to violate international law in rather atrocious ways. But shrub’s crimes have yet to amount to genocide quite yet.

    The Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland are quite proud of having ties to a past American president. They even painted a portrait of Jackson to donate to the Smithsonian while they were in DC for the FolkLife festival last summer. When they brought it up to me while I was studying there (“Oh, you’re an American! Your president Andrew Jackson was an Ulster Scot, you know!”), I always had to find a diplomatic way to say “I wouldn’t brag about having ties to a genocidal maniac if I were you.” I usually started with “Well, you might not know this about Jackson, but…” and ended with “…so he’s actually quite a bit like President Bush, only worse in some respects.” Some people just wrote me off as partisan (or a Sinner (as in Sinn Fein-er), which I just thought was hilarious), but a lot of people were genuinely shocked–Jackson’s actions just aren’t part of their stories about him.

  55. You forgot Jimmy Carter. Inept to the point of treason while in office, and an international embarassment since. The “peanut president” ranks as the single worst we’ve ever had.

  56. George W. Bush is at the top of my list, of course, as a Canadian, I don’t really know the history of the states as well as some, but GWB’s tendency to claim thet we’re “fighting for freedom” and then passing bills allowing the deportation and torture of Citizens and foregners, or the tapping of phone lines without warrant, or the holding of prisoners without Just cause seems just a mite hypocritical. Plus I’m a Canadian, and we just don’t like him anyways. And then, second on my list, partly because he’s just about the only other Prez that I know, would be Woodrow Wilson. Don’t get me wrong, he did some decent stuff. But the results of the Paris Peace conference were disasterous, and his inability to bring the US into the League of Nations was likewise a bad historical event. Plus, he refused to place in the charter for the League, a section about “all men, of all races being equal.”. Between him and Neville Chamberlan, he pretty much paved the way for Hitler and Mussolini.

  57. Personally, Woordrow Wilson and FDR top my list of worst presidents. Admittedly, I don’t know much about Buchanan, so that could change.

    Wilson for his trodding on the Bill of Rights. “To stop defeatism at home, Wilson pushed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 through Congress to suppress anti-British, pro-German, or anti-war opinions. Over 170,000 US citizens were arrested during this period, essentially for not being sufficiently patriotic. In some cases individuals were jailed for things they said about the president in their own homes. Wilson established the first western propaganda office in The Committee For Public Information, unleashing 75,000 plainclothes propaganda agents who gave speeches exhorting people to support the war, and to support Woodrow Wilson.” from Wikipedia

    FDR is my choice for his strong arming of business men. For example: “In a controversial move, Roosevelt gave executive order No. 6102 which made all privately held gold of American citizens property of the US Treasury. This gold confiscation by executive order was argued to be Unconstitutional, but Roosevelt’s executive order asserts authority to do so based on the “War Time Powers Act” of 1917. Gold bullion remained illegal for Americans to own until President Ford rescinded the order in 1974. [5] [6] [7] [8] ” – Wikipedia, again.

    Sorry for the Wiki references, my books are at home or sold back to school. Thanks for the forum.

    BTW, G.W. Bush might be up there, but I think that you need the distance of history to judge a President. Just look at Truman. I believe he also had low approval ratings, but isn’t looked back on as the monster of history that people of his time saw him as.


  58. markedly contributing to the destabilization of Cambodia that allowed the Khmer Rouge to overrun the country after Sianhouk’s ouster (which may or may not have involved Nixon’s CIA).

    Um, yeah, and the presence of tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops didn’t “markedly destabilize” Cambodia at all. Just innocent right of passage on our way to kill the imperialists, no need to bomb us or anything!

  59. Andrew Jackson, hands down. I don’t think Bush has yet even TOUCHED Jackson’s suckiness.

    “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it!”

  60. I now have that Simpson’s episode in my head where they did the school musical number on the less well known presidents.
    Also trying to see what traits all these leaders have in common besides being totally wrong for the job. It would seem that being useless, corrupt or or an asshole gives you more lasting fame than just being good at your job or am I being to cynical again?

  61. You missed FDR. That man single handedly put us on the course to socialism. Before him, citizens were expected to be responsible for their own lives. Since he began the whole social welfare movement, we have increasingly turned to the government to take care of us. That has set us up for both parties to see the American public as a source of funds as they line their pockets while providing us bread and circuses.

    It has gone beyond repair. I just hope that the last semblance of personal freedom from the government lasts until one of my girlfriends accidently pinches the oxygen tube and lets me pass via anoxia during a huge final geriatric orgy. But you know it won’t happen. By then the government run health care screwups will have killed me.

  62. Taisto Witt #69- When has Bush advocated the torture of citizens? I know they’ve insisted on the right to waterboard, which I concede may be a form of torture. But when has Bush stated that citizens would be subject to waterboarding, as opposed to foriegn terrorists?

    As to the denial of due process, I don’t think that’s accurate. Even the Gitmo detainees have lawyers, and those lawyers have won some court victories. And so far as I am aware, Bush has abided by the Court’s decisions, even those adverse to his interpretation of the Constitution.

    Also, so far as I am aware, American born terrorists, such as Walker and Padilla, have all been tried in American courts, not the Gitmo military tribunals.

    As to the Patriot Act, at least Bush gives lip service to the Constitution, in that they are, in theory, listening without warrants on calls coming into the U.S. from foriegn soil, not calls originating in the U.S. Even there, however, there is an oversight process, though not as extensive as some libertarians would like.

    People who rank Bush in the top 5 aren’t reading their history or, if they have, are letting their emotions cloud their judgment. Jackson’s actions resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans (as the Cherokee were), FDR detained thousands of Americans (of Japanese descent) without trial, and Wilson trampled on the Constitution to criminilize the conduct of tens of thousands of Americans.

    By contrast, Bush has went after a half dozen or so Americans, and used the legal process to achieve his aims, with only marginal success. Which shows the system, however, creaky, is still working.

  63. James @71: Not so much, at least not until Sianhouk was deposed and Lon Nol abandoned Sianhouk’s policy of ignoring the NVA forces (at our assistance) and our attempts to bomb NVA camps in Cambodian territory (in direct violation of the Cooper-Church Amendment) resulted in the NVA troops arming and training the Khmer Rouge, turning them from a fringe movement to a force capable of overwhelming the overextended and undersupplied Cambodian regulars that Lon Nol’s administration sent north to drive out the NVA forces that had previously been ignored under Sianhouk’s policies….

    Nice try at snark, though. You might try reading Sideshow or a history of Cambodia before you play again.

  64. Grover Cleveland. Because sometimes he’s counted once, and sometimes twice. (Not being an American it took me ages to figure out why chronological lists and just-plain-lists didn’t match up).

  65. Buchanan’s very likely a lock, as you say. After a weekend of grading exams covering Reconstruction, I’m having a very hard time ranking Grant as worse than Andrew Johnson. I believe that Johnson (like Grant) was a decent man, but he let his personal rigidity spoil his administration. He had every means at his disposal to make a success of the early, crucial days of Reconstruction — and he blew it. A gigantic missed opportunity, and one worse, in my opinion, than the corruptions of the Grant and Harding regimes.

  66. Eric @78:

    Not so much what? Not so much there weren’t any North Vietnamese in Cambodia? Or “not so much” the North Vietnamese troops had nothing to do with destabilizing Cambodia? Wrong on both counts. North Vietnamese troops had been in Cambodia since 1959. North Vietnamese presence significantly escalated (from 40,000 troops to 60,000 troops) in 1969, because the Sino-Soviet conflict meant that Soviet supplies to North Vietnam, which had previously moved primarily by rail across China, now had to go primarily by sea via Haiphong and Sihanoukville. The increased presence of North Vietnamese troops provoked seething discontent among the Cambodian political elite (in short, the North Vietnamese presence destabilized Cambodia), as many members of this elite were furious that Sihanouk was powerless to preserve Cambodia’s neutrality.

    our attempts to bomb NVA camps in Cambodian territory (in direct violation of the Cooper-Church Amendment)

    The bombing of Cambodia was not a violation of the Cooper-Church Amendment, because that amendment was passed in June 1970, but the Menu Bombings began in March 1969 and ended in May 1970. Be nice if you actually got your facts straight and read some history books yourself before snarkily accusing me of a factless snark.

    Bombing Cambodia was a sound and necessary military response to enemy action that made the very idea of “neutral Cambodia” absurd and farcical. I put the bombing of Cambodia on the “credit” side of Nixon’s ledger, not the “debit” side.

  67. The Desert One fiasco was inevitable, although largely not Carter’s fault. It was, instead, Truman’s and Wilson’s fault, because they are the ones who pushed through various structure-of-the-military bills that resulted in the nasty budgetary and doctrinal infighting of the 1950s to today.

    Desert One failed as much because the different elements of the force couldn’t even talk to each other as anything else. Perhaps Carter was a bit quick to press the abort button, but the probability of failure later on was so high that I’m not certain it made a difference (whether one is relying on the unclassified or the classified after-action reports).

    And if you really want to point a finger, blame Eisenhower for failing to control the CIA and allowing it to put the Pahlevis on the Peacock Throne in the first place. Contrary to what the CIA/”anticommunists” would have had everyone believe, it was not a choice between a nutcase, arrogant little dictator and Soviet domination.

  68. This all reminds me of something I read once about mayors. People will tolerate an incompetent mayor who is squeaky clean. People will tolerate a corrupt mayor who delivers the goods. (Marion Berry of Washington, DC was noteworthy for being both incompetent and corrupt. Or rather, the voters who returned him to office were.)

    I think that applies to Presidents, but their scope is so much wider we can add an “evil” axis, too. Genocide, sport and “my dick is biggest” wars, all that would live on that axis. What trait balances out evil for voters, though?

  69. Any list of the best presidents ought to include George Washington. He set many of the presidential precedents (notably the two-term limit…which eventually got codified in an amendment). Getting a country started is hard! In our case, we had a do-over from the Articles of Confederation.

  70. 75 Tired–could be worse. You could be one of the 18,000 Americans who dies every year because they don*t have health insurance. (Sorry for the lack of apostrophe…Firefox is being a little odd.)

    RMD, 3b–“b. Actively, though surreptitiously, angled to get the US involved in WWII”–are you referring to Lend-Lease, when FDR angled to help the British fight Hitler in 1940, when the Isolationist Republicans were opposed to battling Hitler? If that’s not what you’re referring to, could you clarify? Because any suggestion that Roosevelt had advance knowledge of Pearl Harbor has also been debunked.

    Ghostwriter Mickey Herskowitz, who had more than 20 private meetings with Bush in 1999 (he was chosen to ghostwrite Bush’s book), has stated that Bush was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999.
    “He said to me: ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.’ He said, ‘If I have a chance to invade·.if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”

    So, yeah, starting the Iraq war to “gain political capital”? Getting thousands of U.S. soldiers killed so you can pass domestic bills in the House and Senate? That’s close to treason, in my book, which I don’t believe James Buchanan committed. #1 for Bush.

  71. Never mind, I take it back. I’d forgotten my history–just read the wikipedia. Buchanan’s still the worst.

  72. BTW, can we please stop parroting the “we haven’t been attacked since 9/11” bit? Or has everyone forgotten a little thing called Anthrax?

  73. I see an inverse correlation of commenter party affiliation with identification of worst presidents by party.

  74. Seem to have covered the conventional bases here – I agree that Andrew “The only good indian is a dead indian” Jackson needs to move up the list of bad presidents.

    Some other possibilities: The John Adams presidency was marred by the Alien and Sedition acts – which make gitmo seem pretty tame. JA made great contributions to America, but his presidential tenure was antithetic to his earlier patriotism.

    Another nomination for one-of-the-worst: Harry Truman. It is really hard to make up for being the only person in history to intentionally drop a nuclear bomb on a city. (not to mention doing it twice.)

  75. Extremely late reply, but I just remember that I contributed to this topic a week ago.

    Arachne Jericho @ 23: I’m not sure of your point there. My list had nothing to do with party–George W. Bush was on it as well as Lincoln. And, given a week to let more history knowledge percolate in my brain + some of the later comments to be posted, I would add Jackson and McKinley.

    (Since I was so coy before, I’ll be blunt now: I’m trying to name the presidents responsible for the most egregious losses of life, American and otherwise.)

    I did get a chuckle out of the list of things wrong with JFK that someone posted. I read all that, and agree with all of it–but in the context of presidents, I think it still leaves him being a decent one. Somewhere close to the median, at any rate.

  76. Partrick and Robert: you sound like pacifists. You live free at home instead of having men sawing your head off because of others who fight.

  77. It’s probably not worth it, but I’ll clarify further: most egregious losses of innocent lives.

    And, at least as far as my own head goes, I attribute its still being attached to my body extremely little to the “others who fight” that you’re speaking of.

  78. Andrew Jackson definitely one of the worst presidents with trying to get rid of the national bank and the genocide of the Indians. Bad men don’t make good presidents, as unfortunately is the case right now with George Bush Jr.

  79. Andrew Jackson gets my vote for worst President EVER! When we learned about him for the first time in history class, I hated him. When we went more in detail, my feelings rapidly worked up to despise. He exacerbated a war that wasn’t successfully completed until 1973. He vetoed the national bank. He signed off on what was basically a Nazi-style death march. How can anyone look back on him and say “he deserves to be on our money”???

  80. Woodrow Wilson- Espionage Act of 1917. Sedition Act of 1918. The associated censorship and police state. Segregated the federal government. Disdained the constitution. Income tax, need I say more?

    “a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle.”

    “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen.”

  81. I have to think Reagan needs to be somewhere on the list, despite his enduring popularity. His economic war against paper tiger Russia and obsession with stockpiling weapons gave rise to the crippling national debt that this nation will likely never get out from under. His political style raised the bar for negative campaigning and overt racist attacks in ways John McCain could only dream of. His championing of “supply side” economic philosophies have decimated the middle class. He had his share of scandals, not the least of which was Iran-Contra. His policies in the middle east have created much of modern terrorism. And, indirectly at least, he is somewhat responsible for the Bush presidencies. It is likely that he suffered from Alzheimers for a significant portion of his presidency, which would explain an awful lot. Absolutely awful presidency, and quite possibly the beginning of the end for the United States, unless Obama can right the ship in the next eight years…

  82. There is only one unforgivable sin in a President, and that’s incompetence. Ideology, prejudice, mistaken assumptions, and much of the rest are much harder to judge at the time, and tend to get evaluated by history based largely on results that are not under the President’s control.

    Take Andrew Jackson. He rose to prominence based on his own personal capabilities, a flair for flamboyance and personal appeal, and a huge chip on his shoulder. No one should have been surprised that he ran the Presidency with those same qualities, and because he was a competent man, things did get done.

    Of course the native American experiences are horrific. There’s even a case to be made that it was known to be wrong at the time, and that people should have known better … but take a look at the Indian policies of every Presidential candidate at the time, and if you can find me one who was against Indian resettlement, I’ll show you one who couldn’t have gotten elected as Mayor of Podunk.

    Damning Jackson for those acts is largely scapegoating him for the insanity of the entire country at the time. Yeah, he signed off on it, but who let him?


    Anyway, all of this is largely to say that my list of the worst Presidents is largely a list of the incompetent ones. For example, although I think that Reagan was not a good President (and that the country has ended up worse off than if he wasn’t elected), he was a competent man who kept to a single, simple vision, and doesn’t make my list. (The fact that applying a single, simple vision to a wide variety of complex problems is a recipe for disaster escaped him.)

    Bush has incompetence “going” for him, although not to the degree of Buchanan, Harding or Pierce. Mostly I’m just glad he’s done.

  83. I would have to say George W Bush was the worst president of all. He could have stopped 9/11 but didn’t, a lot of people died on that day.

  84. I really can’t agree with you on G.W. Bush. I think for what the challenges facing him were when he accepted this presidency he did as good as anyone else could’ve done. It really pisses me off to see so many people look at his presidency and think he failed the country like Grant or Nixon, or any of the others listed here. Some day America is going to look back on his presidency and respect the man for the job he did so well, regarding the country’s state at the time. Sure, he may have done a few things wrong, or screwed up a little, but i’d like to see you try and do better. Being president is not a picnic for anyone. We are all people and we would have all screwed up at least once, standing in his shoes.

  85. If you really want to make this list good, you could replace Bush with Carter.

  86. my list:George W. Bush, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson. Nixon was actually pretty good besides Watergate. Harding and Grant were not good presidents, but they weren’t aware of their administration’s scandals.

  87. 1. Franklin Pierce- Let slave states expand bringing on the future civil war and the loss of tens of thousands of Americans.

    2. Herbert Hoover started the great depression. Totally incompetent and did nothing to prevent the Great Depression. Lesson learned.

    3. George W. Bush- Regardless if you liked him or not he forever changed the way America is looked at in the world. And not in a good way. Pre-emptive war over false information. Left office with the economy in shambles. Let the worst foreighn attack on the continental US happen with prior information he recieved in August 2001 (Bin Laden determined to stike using civilian airlines in the US)

    4. Millard Filmore/James Bucanan (TIE)- helped slavery to spread big timehousands of Americans.

  88. [deleted for being a personal attack adding nothing to the conversation — not to mention being a couple of years late — JS]

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