bigwarrCategory: Well-Meaning Bumblers

Term in Office: 29th president, 1921-1923

Party: Republican

Home State: Ohio

Ever since the practice of ranking presidents began, we have been led to see the Harding administration as an essay in failure.  For most of the early rankings, he held the very bottom place, until supplanted by James Buchanan on a more or less permanent basis in the 1980s.  The case seems clear cut- he appointed the crooks responsible for Teapot Dome, one of the greatest scandals in the history of the presidency.  He was unable to grasp the particulars of his office, and lacked even a rudimentary  working knowledge of the economy and foreign affairs.  He did not understand his office and lacked the capability of being a strong, decisive president and was summarily unfit for office by both temperament and capability.

All of these conclusions are true, but they are not quite in the proper perspective.  Philip Payne explores our poor treatment of Harding in his book “Dead Last”.  He takes note of how Harding’s life has been surrounded by legend and myth in the ninety years since his death: the shrewish wife, his string of mistresses, his small-town naiveté.  If you are a cosmopolitan or bon vivant who can’t stand provincialism, Harding is a neat target.  If you are a purist who cannot stand corruption, Harding is there as a punching bag.  Even if you are a racist, there are those persistent rumors of “Negro blood” that dogged the Harding family for generations.

Because many of these criticisms do not hold up intact under scrutiny, and because many other presidents have done greater damage to our country’s reputation, I am, on principle, keeping Harding just outside of the bottom 10.  He may have been out of his depth in the presidency.   He may have made many foolish appointments.  But consider for  a moment that he did not initiate an unjust war, his human rights record is better than many presidents.  He did not hold any segment of the public in contempt, and while influenced unduly by corporatists, he was not their toady, which cannot be said of his successor, Coolidge.  You can look for a single instance of Harding behaving in a petty or vindictive manner, and you will come up short.  In other words, stubborn, ideologically committed presidents with a set agenda are high-risk/high-reward; there’s a limit to the amount of damage someone like Harding could do.  If Harding is “dead last,” and our Platonic image of presidential failure, we need to rethink our terms.

Few presidents were more closely linked to small-town America than Harding.  He worked as a journalist before becoming the publisher of the Marion Star.  He caught the attention of a political Svengali; his own Karl Rove, his own Mark Hanna.  This one was named Harry Daugherty, who promoted his political career relentlessly, which included uninspiring stints as state senator, lieutenant governor of Ohio, and finally U.S. Senator from Ohio.  Daugherty’s crafty maneuvering took Harding from an obscure congress-critter whose name even politics buffs would not recognize today into the U.S. presidency. With the public weary of Woodrow Wilson’s American messianism and adventurism abroad, the Republicans were almost assured of victory.  But they strongly disagreed over whom to nominate, and the sundry factions battled against one another so fiercely that all contenders were irreparably damaged.  Clearly, a compromise candidate would be necessary, and in the proverbial “smoke-filled room” in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, Daugherty submitted Harding’s name.  He had the fewest enemies and the fewest immediately obvious liabilities, “the best of the second-raters” as one delegate remembered, and he was nominated shortly thereafter.  While Harding’s handlers tried to shut him up and keep him off the record as much as possible, the Ohio senator pledged that he would pursue a course of “normalcy.”  In 1920, that was not a word; Harding flubbed when he meant to say “normality.”  But the public didn’t care; they knew what he meant, and were enamored of this unpretentious Rotarian and Shriner from the small-town midwest.  Daugherty’s man and strategy carried the day– Harding won 61% of the vote, at that time, a record since the two-party system began in its present form.  The Republicans swept the races down-ballot, including 303 seats in the House of Representatives, just about the highest number plausible in the days of the Dixiecrat South.

One of my favorite political history books that I encountered in graduate school was Robert K. Murray’s The Politics of Normalcy.  In it, Murray argues that normalcy was not just a fractured and meaningless phrase; it was a coherent philosophy of government.  Harding deliberately moved to executive delegation after the imperious Wilson years, picking talented men to do most of the heavy lifting, with Harding serving as a congenial mediator and facilitator.  And to an extent, it worked.  Charles Evan Hughes was a slam dunk as Secretary of State, Henry C. Wallace was a very fine Secretary of Agriculture (as was his son), and Herbert Hoover was an inspired pick for Secretary of Commerce.  I have problems with Andrew Mellon, his plutocratic pick for Secretary of Treasury, but let’s wait until we get to Coolidge, where his worst offenses took place.  He generously granted William Howard Taft his lifelong dream of serving as Chief Justice, and though Taft’s jurisprudence is several notches more conservative than I would prefer, he was a wise, learned, and diligent head of the Supreme Court.

Harding, if you think about it, did a remarkable job uniting a Republican Party that was perilously in danger of permanent fracture eight years earlier, divided between regulars and progressive Bull Moosers.  (Arguably, however, Theodore Roosevelt helped the cause of unity even more by dying prior to the 1920 election.)  While Wilson viewed Congress as an ancillary limb of the presidency at best, or a craven group of obstructionists at worse, Harding tried to work more constructively with the body, although his tentative results on farm bills and foreign policy points to limited success.

While we underrate Harding’s ability to find good men to serve his administration, there is no denying that he made several very serious blunders.   Harding’s sloppy style had consequences, and too many scandals went undetected until it was too late.   Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall wrested control of oil reserves from the Navy Department, and sold drilling rights to his friends in exchange for kickbacks in six-digit figures.  Charles Forbes, a deserter from the army whom Harding puzzlingly put in charge of the Veterans’ Bureau, embezzled millions of dollars while denying legitimate claims from injured veterans who needed the money.  Over in the Justice Department, Harding’s old patron Harry Daugherty, now the Attorney General, took numerous payoffs to dismiss cases of fraud and war profiteering.  While there is no evidence that Harding ever personally stole from the public purse, his appointees clearly did.  Here, we see the downside of Harding’s lackadaisical hands-off management style– it promoted an atmosphere where such shameless graft could thrive and go unnoticed for months, even years.  As Nathan Miller puts it in Star-Spangled Men, “he drifted lazily over the bubbling morass of corruption like a hot-air balloon in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”

Similarly, we have to take into account Harding’s failings as a husband.  As I stated in my write-ups on Kennedy and Clinton, this is not out of Victorian prudery, but rather, out of recognition that a president so compromised creates opportunities for blackmail and manipulation, and this is not in the national interest.  More than that, a president has an obligation that to serve as a role model, an while this is an extraconstitutional responsibility, this cannot be abrogated lightly.  So, Harding’s White House dalliances with Nan Britton and other mistresses can’t be dismissed, especially when you consider Harding’s history of paying them off to keep them quiet.

This is why my rehabilitation of the Harding presidency only goes so far.  And yet, there are a number of commendable tics in Harding’s administration that get lost in the historical shuffle and amidst the scandals that brought down the reputation of his presidency.  I love that he unpretentiously signed the treaty that formally ended our involvement in World War I in between holes while playing a round of golf.  He called for civil rights for black Americans on Southern soil, although he did little to back up his lofty words.  He scaled down American imperialism and Latin American bullying, withdrawing troops from Cuba and Santo Domingo, and even signed a treaty which gave Colombia some well-deserved reparations for our role in Panama’s revolution.  He freed Eugene Debs, who had been wrongfully imprisoned during the World War I-era crackdown on civil liberties.  His dealings with congress show a willingness to compromise and an instinct for knowing when he was pushing too hard for a futile cause.

Eventually, Harding became dimly aware of how badly he had been swindled by members of his “Ohio Gang,” the cronies and good-time Charlies he brought with him and appointed to high offices.  His already precarious health took a turn for the worse as he slowly realized the gravity and breadth of the scandals rocking his administration, and he died on a cross-country trip in 1923. While some have alleged that foul play was involved, including, most strikingly, the charge that his wife had poisoned him, all available eyewitness accounts and doctors’ reports suggest that Harding was a sick man with a severe cardiovascular problem.  At the very least, Harding had the posthumous mercy of of being mourned before the litany of graft that took place under his watch became public knowledge.

Warren Harding gave the nation what it wanted in 1920, and perhaps what it needed as well: a retreat from intervention, idealism, and mucking up affairs abroad, a period of simplicity and calm after an era of tumultuous, if gravely necessary, reform.  In a way, Harding’s campaign was a McGovernesque “Come Home, America” sort of moment, with small-town parochialism and mythology, of course, replacing McGovern’s emphasis on social justice.  Unfortunately, like many myths, it was built on a faulty foundation.  To quote Nathan Miller again, Harding “clung to a vision of a small-town America that had never existed, a utopia of the mid-Victorian dream.”  His election and his bad appointments gave a number of two-bit, small-market, corner-store crooks and swindlers the chance to pillage on a larger, national scale.  Harding was a careless president, and perhaps he should have been self-aware enough to decline a presidency that was beyond his meager talents.  But he was not an evil man, or a catastrophic failure as president.  With some costly, but in the grand scheme of things petty theft happening under his nose, I just can’t put him in a bottom 10 filled with imperialists, incurable racists, megalomaniacs, borderline-treason cases, and warmongers.  Warren Harding might have been a poor judge of character, but the company he kept in life wasn’t quite that bad.

~Incidentally, a number of letters between Harding and his mistresses are scheduled to be released to the public this year, so keep your eyes on the news pages.  They are bound to be interesting.

#11: Dwight Eisenhower

469px-Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_Presidential_portraitCategory: Flawed Giant

Term in Office: 34th president, 1953-1961

Political Party: Republican

Home State: Kansas

Dwight Eisenhower is proof that while there may not be second acts in American lives, you can, if you are lucky, enjoy a second act in American posterity.  When Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s presidential rankings were published in 1962, the 75 historians that he surveyed put Ike at a pitiful 22nd out of 31.  Some of this is surely contextual; in the mid-60s, the Eisenhower administration must have seemed very drab and very torpid in the youthful, exciting, and dynamic Camelot era.  However, the Harvard-grade historians that Schlesinger polled brought their own set of conclusions- I won’t say “biases” because they were largely learned and well-reasoned conclusions- to the table.  Most of the Schlesinger crew consisted of academics who publicly pulled for Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in both the 1952 and 1956 presidential races.  Small wonder; Stevenson had, for a brief moment, made wit, eloquence, and intellectual savvy seem sexy and powerful.  These traits, combined with his progressivism, endeared him to the country’s brain trust.  But as a consequence, that means those historians would not be kindly disposed toward the man whose popularity and success twice denied their hero the presidency.  Since that era, Eisenhower’s reputation has strongly improved, thanks to some excellent work on his presidency, the opening of his records and archives, and input from younger historians less immediately invested in his time.  I am as glad as anyone to see Eisenhower rise out of the bottom ten, but I also worry that perhaps too sharp a reversal has taken place, that we’ve reappraised his presidency a little too highly.  We remember Ike’s moderation on domestic issues, and his skillful mastery over American foreign policy, but we forget some of the more sinister qualities he brought to the table, particularly in respecting democracy in other nations during the Cold War.

The public image of Dwight Eisenhower has not quite caught up.  We still see him as the old war hero, the genial dolt, the benign grandfather of the stable, square 1950s, an “empty carriage” with a vacuous grin.  8 years ago, The Onion had a funny piece that pokes fun at this view set in 1957, where Eisenhower addresses America’s biggest problem: overdue library books.  Truth be known, a clever, sharp, and even Machiavellian mind was behind that grin.

Eisenhower’s narrative importance, though, is really the first place to begin.    Remember, he was the first Republican elected president since 1928; the Democrats had won five consecutive elections going back to 1932 before Eisenhower took office.  It was only a matter of time until the GOP won again.  Having a relative moderate be the victor was nearly an act of providence.  It meant that the banking reforms of the New Deal, social security, the G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, and the Containment Policy were all here to stay.  They would not become “Democratic policies”, but part of the accepted American political consensus, one that validated the mandate voters made, that the government had a role in making sure that no one got left behind.  Even the 91% percent top tax rate on America’s wealthiest earners was left intact– it was Kennedy, not Eisenhower, who lowered it.  I cannot understate the value of all this.  This is all the more remarkable because, privately, Eisenhower was far more conservative in his preferences than his actual record suggests- but he was the consummate student of political realism.

In earlier essays, I used the “Value Over Replacement Player” idea to show how good a president was with respect to the other political talent that existed at that time.  Well, Eisenhower’s VORP is through the roof.  Ironically, the general who had never held elected office knew the political game better than almost anybody in Congress, than any governor, at that time.  Consider what would have happened if we elected a dinosaur like Robert A. Taft in 1952, a man who wished to roll back the New Deal, kneecap organized labor, and possibly reverse our commitments to NATO.  Indeed, it was the prospect of Taft becoming president that finally convinced a reluctant Eisenhower to run for office.  At the 1952 GOP convention, when neither candidate was a clear first-ballot winner, Eisenhower’s popularity among delegates and some tactical “dirty pool” in challenging Taft’s Southern delegates both gave him the nomination and presaged how his administration would run: an apolitical and aloof veneer masking a sharp chessmaster.

When looking back on his successes in his retirement, Eisenhower reflected: “The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration.  We kept the peace.  People asked how it happened- by God, it didn’t just happen.  I’ll tell you that.”  Eisenhower’s penchant for organization often made the difference between success and failure, and one could argue it was the single greatest trait he brought to the presidency.  When you look at other former generals who were president, like Zachary Taylor or Ulysses Grant, they were fundamentally battlefield guys.  They gave orders from the field, and they were carried out.  Eisenhower was, in a very sharp contrast, an “office general.”  He wasn’t physically present for a single major WWII battle, but he understood bureaucracies and power, how giving an order does not automatically mean it will be carried out, even in the military.  So, he developed a keen mind for making sure those orders were carried out, choosing good subordinates, and gathering as much information as he could.  He learned to coordinate agencies, and not foster rivalries between them.  Eisenhower brought this sensibility to the Oval Office.  He formalized the offices of Chief of Staff, indispensable to the complex federal bureaucracy the modern presidency must manage, and National Security Advisor.   Looking back at his presidency, which began by skillfully ending the era of open warfare in Korea, and there is an astonishing absence of rookie mistakes, or novices’ flubs.  Eisenhower knew, through his experiences, how to act and maneuver as president, an extremely rare gift.

Beyond his organizational prowess, Eisenhower, was also a cunning political actor, as Fred Greenstein’s book, The Hidden-Hand Presidency aptly demonstrated back in 1982.  He let his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, be seen as the partisan hatchet man, leaving Ike room to maneuver as the “good cop”, the leader who was above all this partisan nonsense, someone every American, Republican or Democrat, could trust.   This is a very sharp contrast indeed from Harry Truman’s scrappy, and often deeply partisan and confrontational style.  Greenstein believes that Eisenhower intentionally played the doofus on the public stage, uttering banalities in speeches and vague generalities at press conferences, giving himself a veneer of dull neutrality.

This strategy was crucial to Eisenhower’s sense of crisis management.  Eisenhower’s public silence but private maneuvering gave him leverage against someone like Joseph McCarthy.  In public, Ike avoided any personal reference to McCarthy whatsoever, and never once publicly railed against him.  Instead, he worked exhaustively behind the scenes to discredit him, and even line up conservative Republican votes for his eventual censure.  This tactic took time, and McCarthy and others like him ruined plenty of lives and tarnished hundreds of innocent reputations in the interim.  Whether he could have been brought down in a hastier, and more forthright way, remains to be seen.

Eisenhower was able to pull off this act in large part because of his overwhelmingly strong and reassuring reputation.  Remember, the Gallup Poll average approval rating for Eisenhower throughout his administration was a staggering 62%.  Again, that is not the high point, it is the average.  Eisenhower’s status as a war hero was part of this, as was his Obamaesque “no drama” approach to the presidency.  But the ace in Ike’s sleeve was, in some ways, his use of religion.  Eisenhower himself was on the fuzzy side of theology (he once said, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded on some deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”)  In a manner of speaking though, the United States of America was Eisenhower’s religion, and he was instrumental in making the presidency more priestlike in its role in American life.  He was the first president to routinize the words that conclude nearly every speech every president makes: “God Bless America.”  He instituted the banal “putting on the pious” that is the Presidential Prayer Breakfast.  He was the first of many presidents to cultivate a symbiotic relationship with Billy Graham, America’s most trusted man.  Through all this, he made America’s common religiosity, no matter how vague it was, a rampart against communism.*

Eisenhower largely succeeded in his goal of keeping the United States committed to NATO and limiting communist expansion in Europe, with the important exception of Hungary.  In this sense, Eisenhower’s approach was a continuation of Truman’s Containment Doctrine and his general approach to the Cold War.  There was, however, one crucial difference, and that difference is what persuaded me to kick Eisenhower out of the top ten.  The difference is subtle.  Consider that when Greece and Turkey were both trying to put down internal communist threats, Truman supported these administrations with money and arms to defend themselves, a policy that became known as “The Truman Doctrine.”  Eisenhower’s policy shared the larger goal of checking the spread of communism, but it crossed a red line.  Namely, he used the CIA for an array of covert activity across the world, and often this amounted to deposing democratically elected rulers in favor of someone more suitable to U.S. interests.  This included aiding a coup against Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran after he nationalized the oil wells, training insurgents in Guatemala who overthrew Jacobo Arbenz after his land reform measures confiscated land from the United Fruit Company, and leading a revolt in the Republic of Congo that ended in the assassination of its premier, Patrice Lumumba.  Under Eisenhower, the CIA became a kind of shadow government unto itself with limited accountability before the public. In his zeal to win the Cold War, Eisenhower also compromised civil liberties at home, broadening the FBI’s ability to spy on potentially subversive groups unconnected to communism, supported removing citizenship of those convicted of conspiring against the government, and removed J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance, although he privately thought there was scarcely any real evidence against him.

There was also the enduring question of who had access to power.  Eisenhower is famous for declaring, “what is good for General Motors is good for the United States of America.”  Eisenhower’s modus operandi was a government run by business leaders and friendly to business leaders.   Charles Faber writes in his book, The American Presidents Ranked by Performance, that Eisenhower’s vision, such as it was, posited “the United States as a self-disciplined, cooperative society marked by enlightened corporate leadership.”  Eisenhower’s pro-business governance included National Steel Corporation chair George Humphrey as Secretary of Treasury, and General Motors CEO Charles Wilson as Secretary of Defense.  In fact, out of his entire cabinet, only one person was not a millionaire.  This is problematic, and highlights my belief that the government should not be run as a business.  The purpose of a business is to make a profit.  The purpose of a government is to secure justice, and the two are often at cross-ends.  Small wonder, then, that this was the era of military buildup and brinksmanship.  Plenty of people, many of them tied to the industries represented among Eisenhower’s advisors, made a great deal of money off of the Cold War.  While ordinary Americans may have loved Ike, they did not always have a voice at his table.

This effective and efficient, but morally agnostic, worldview also spilled over into one of the biggest “values” questions of Eisenhower’s day: the civil rights movement.  Throughout his career, Ike viewed civil rights activists as a “special interest,” the same way he viewed labor, women’s issues, and frankly, nearly everything besides business.  Eisenhower inadvertently moved the country closer to a just resolution on the color line through his Supreme Court appointments, several of which turned out to be far more liberal than he could have ever imagined, most notably his choice for Chief Justice, Earl Warren.  A year and a half into Eisenhower’s presidency, the court unanimously (!!) passed the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ruled that racially separate schools were inherently unequal, and declared that such schools should integrate with “all deliberate speed.”  Eisenhower was, to say the least, annoyed at the court for forcing his hand on such a delicate issue.    The decision invariably led to entrenched opposition in Dixie (and beyond Dixie, but don’t worry, we aren’t at Nixon yet.)  When Arkansas’s governor, Orval Faubus, defied the ruling, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne (or rather, the white guys in the 101st Airborne) to enforce it.  This made Eisenhower the first president since Ulysses Grant to use federal troops to enforce civil rights for black Americans in Dixie– an important laurel, but one Eisenhower carried out not out of any passion of equal opportunity, or any anger at justice denied, but simply because Faubus defied the courts.

In the end, sorry Ike.  I just can’t put you in the Top Ten.  It is a shame, though.  I look at someone like Jimmy Carter, who did not know how to use power well or instill public confidence.  Yet, his decisions- whether pivoting to a human rights foreign policy, appointing Volcker to the Fed, or even installing solar panels on the White House, created short-term pain and frustration and sacrifice for long-term gain.  A lot of the problems that Ike addressed were quite the opposite: short-term, but popular, solutions that would bear bad fruit in the decades to come.  His use of the CIA has ramifications we are still dealing with in the Obama years with respect to domestic and foreign surveillance.  His attempts to depose unfriendly regimes may have given a temporary leg up to the U.S. side of the Cold War, but created a reservoir of ill will against the United States.  Come to think of it, this included the pent up rage against the Shah that triggered the Iranian Revolution in ’79 and torpedoed Carter’s presidency.  Even the interstate highway system, his most trumpeted domestic accomplishment, contributed to suburban sprawl, the pitifully low use of public transportation, and our lamentably high carbon footprint.  Good for General Motors, indeed.

My review is full of criticisms, but their purpose is to show that Eisenhower’s presidency was able and effective, but cannot be called “great” without some heavy qualifiers along the way.  John McCain used the phrase “a steady hand at the tiller” during the 2008 presidential debates to describe himself, and there is no question that Eisenhower had a steady, calming hand in tumultuous times.  He may have prioritized internal order over justice, and he may have been slow and obfuscating on urgent matters where others might have been more forthright.  In the end, it amounts to a masterful handling of the presidency, and the very important retention and continuity of the New Deal, commingled with a reluctance to side with the less fortunate.  Eisenhower’s farewell address is the only one we remember aside from Washington’s, and in it, he warns his countrymen of “the military-industrial complex.”  After eight years of doing everything in his power to embolden and enrich said complex, his warning may be seen as facetious, but I see it as tragic, as if, at the very end, Eisenhower had realized that the U.S. was winning the Cold War at the loss of its soul.

*To be sure, though, Eisenhower’s vagueness on “religious faith” helped to make room for Catholic and Jewish voices in public discourse.  In a way, he helped pave the way for Bishop Sheen, John Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel, Michael Novak, and plenty of others.

#30: Chester A. Arthur

bigchestCategory: Empty Carriage

Term in Office: 21st president, 1881-1885

Political Party: Republican

Home State: New York

“Chet Arthur?  President of the United States?  Good God!” This was the reaction, even among his fellow Republicans, when Chester Alan Arthur became president after James Garfield succumbed, after weeks of agony, to a gunshot wound compounded by multiple infections from his doctors’ unsterile fingers.  Their incredulity over President Arthur is quite understandable.

Early in his career, Chester Arthur attached himself to one of the greatest practitioners of machine politics in the Gilded Age, becoming a disciple of the powerful Roscoe Conkling, leader of the faction of Republicans called the Stalwarts.  As Conkling’s fortunes rose, so did Arthur’s, and by the 1870s, he was the Collector of the Port of New York, the most lucrative job on the federal payroll, earning more money than even the president.  But the collection of duties and the dispensing of jobs lent themselves to wholesale corruption, and the Port of New York was virtually synonymous with all manners of sordid and unsavory practices.   Machine politics and graft were the lifeblood of politics at this time– you got ahead by aligning yourself to a machine, serving loyally, getting perhaps a good job at the post office or something, and you were expected to give some money back to the people who put you there, as an act of good faith, and as a way of funding future elections.  There is no smoking gun establishing that Arthur himself took part in bribery or kickbacks, but it is a near-certainty that he tolerated or winked at or facilitated these practices in some other way.  The Port of New York became such a public embarrassment that honest old Rutherford Hayes fired Arthur, a bold move that nonetheless made a dangerous enemy of Conkling.

When the Republicans met to nominate a president in 1880, Hayes was not a serious contender even if he had wanted to be.  The various factions between Conkling, Blaine, and even Ulysses Grant, cancelled each other out before the convention settled on dark-horse candidate James Garfield, a Ohio congressman offensive to no one.  To thumb their nose at the departing President Hayes, and to appease Roscoe Conkling, his lieutenant, Arthur, was chosen to balance the ticket.  Conkling begged Arthur to refuse the honor, but the sidewhiskered politician rebuffed his benefactor and accepted the nomination.  Garfield and Arthur won, but tragedy soon struck.  Garfield was shot by a deluded office-seeker and unsuccessful theologian named Charles Guiteau who thought he would be rewarded with a plumb diplomatic posting if a Stalwart like Arthur was president.  When Garfield died, Arthur became president.

To put this state of affairs in perspective, consider that Arthur had no meaningful executive experience (he was never a governor or a cabinet member), nor had he ever served in Congress.  You can make a case that Chester Arthur was the least qualified president in American history.  Add to this, Arthur’s close links with graft, sleaze, and machine politics.  If you knew nothing about any of the presidents, looked over each one of their resumés before assuming office, and were asked: “pick out which guy you think would be the worst one,” chances are, you would say Arthur.  Chester Arthur exceeded the public’s very low expectations, but that is like being slightly more sober than Charlie Sheen.

Nevertheless, the manner in which James Garfield died made one matter especially pressing: civil service reform, clamping down on the spoils system, and making at least some attempt to make sure qualified people were given federal jobs.  Arthur surprised the country by slowly coming around to civil service reform despite graft and bossism placing him in his present position.  No major scandal touched his administration, and while he may have given a larger-than-average share of Cabinet positions to Stalwarts, they were all qualified individuals who served ably.  Congress, too, got on the civil service reform bandwagon after Garfield’s demise.  The result was the Pendleton Act, which Arthur signed into law.  It allowed for competitive exams to determine the truly qualified for all jobs in federal departments, as well as larger customs houses and post offices which employed more than fifty people.  It was a modest half-measure, but nonetheless a step forward in supplying the machinery of government with competent workers.

But good heavens– the spoils system?  If we step back for a moment and consider the larger picture, this is silly, even if we take Garfield’s death into account.  That was the major issue of the day that roused the national dander?  That was what caught the attention of prominent men and moral reformers?  Men, women and children were working twelve hours a day in fetid conditions, monopolies were beginning to coalesce, farmers were being robbed blind by collusion among the railroads, the South was by now a cruel mockery of an egalitarian society, and the spoils system was what made people angry?  This is decadent bourgeois morality.  I say this not to put down Arthur– Arthur’s priorities are but a symptom of a lopsided worldview that was upset by small, petty, and in some ways ultimately harmless one-hand-washes-the-other politics, but ignored more pressing problems that did not affect the well-to-do class of federal officeholders.  How sad that the Republican Party, a genuinely radical force in American politics during its first decade, calcified into a morally disingenuous racket within twenty years.

At any rate, one decent law does not a good presidency make.  Arthur’s problem isn’t corruption; he was far cleaner than the public would have ever predicted.  The presidency can, at times, make the man in office better, and the weight of the office turned Arthur from a crook into something much closer to the honest end of the spectrum.  However, the majesty of the presidency was not enough to turn a sluggard into a worker.  See, the biggest drawback with Arthur is the paucity of any kind of work ethic, and his reluctance to do any more than the bare minimum to execute the law of the land.  It is hard to think of a president who put in fewer hours-per-day on the job than Chester A. Arthur.  He often retired early in the afternoon, and lazed about.  There are a few reasons for his lack of energy, one of which is quite justified: unbeknownst to the public, Arthur was battling Bright’s Disease, a fatal kidney ailment that took his life a mere 18 months into his retirement.

But even taking the disease into account, Arthur had a history as a serial delegator who gave most of the spadework to his subordinates and cabinet and kept precious little in his own portfolio.   If you go back and read the Federalist Papers, you’ll see an expectation by Hamilton and Madison that the presidency would be held by ambitious and energetic men.  Arthur is, in his way, an antithesis of that vision.   He was placed in his office by accident, showed little gumption, and was only on a presidential ticket in the first place because he was tickled pink at being so honored.  Even in an age where the president was not expected to do very much and the momentum was with Congress (or rather, the industrialist stooges who really controlled Congress), you just hate to see a president who wasn’t interested in carrying out the job to the fullest.

Instead, Arthur dedicated what energy he had to his wardrobe and a life of luxury.  Called “Elegant Arthur” he combed his side whiskers carefully, and wore the finest of tailored clothes.  His alma mater, Union College of Schenectady, New York, has on exhibition some of the eighty pairs of trousers Arthur owned.  To compound this, Arthur was a middle-class man with aristocratic diffidence.  He did not enjoy meeting ordinary Americans, and he rarely met with the press.  Unlike the best presidents– for that matter, unlike several average ones– Chester Arthur did not care to spend time with the public, or take the slightest effort to communicate with them beyond a few routine audiences every now and then.

Back when we discussed Herbert Hoover, I listed my Mount Rushmore of Hard Workers.  Arthur earns a place on the Mount Rushmore of Slothful, Nap-Taking, Stop-Working-at-Five-to-Play-Canasta Presidents, alongside William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan.  (Speaking of Sloth, maybe I should come up with a Mount Rushmore for each of the Seven Deadly Sins….).

The only other major bill from this era does not reflect well on Arthur: it became known to history as the Chinese Exclusion Act.  The original version of the bill, put forth by nativist West-coast legislators fearful of “oriental hordes” undercutting white free labor, banned all immigration from China for 20 years.  Arthur rightly vetoed the bill, and Congress huddled, putting forward a bill that banned all immigration from China for only 10 years.  Somehow, this change was enough to meet Arthur’s standards; he signed it, the only bill in American history that specifically targeted a nation and prevented its people from immigrating.  This travesty was expanded for another ten years in 1892 and made permanent in 1902 before being repealed in the 1940s, but Arthur can scarcely be held accountable for that.

Arthur was not renominated for the presidency, the most recent sitting president to be denied this honor.  His erstwhile opponent, James G. Blaine, was chosen by the Republicans instead, and the Maine politician lost to Grover Cleveland, ending the Republicans’ string of presidential election victories (some more decisive than others) that stretched all the way back to 1860 and Lincoln’s first election.

To conclude, I need to address Arthur’s rather lower than average ranking, and in particular, why I put him below Millard Fillmore.  Both were lackluster upstate New Yorkers who were suddenly catapulted to the presidency by the death of their respective predecessors, but traditionally, Arthur ranks several spots ahead of Fillmore.  In my judgment, this is faulty; you have to rank the president, and not the times in which they served.  Fillmore, through no fault of his own, had to make a possibly no-win decision on the Compromise of 1850.  Arthur, in contrast, presided over relatively prosperous times and lived through a tranquil Pax Britannica with no major foreign policy crises.  If the two men switched terms, I have difficulty seeing Arthur being anything more than an unmotivated, even less effectual, version of Millard Fillmore.  Imagining President Arthur is difficult.  Imagining President Arthur during a crisis situation, though, is horrifying.  There was not any real conviction driving him, there was not any real devotion to public service.  He exceeded the country’s very low expectations of his presidency, and he did sign some important civil service reform into law, but, ever the procrastinator, he left a bevy of problems for future administrations to resolve.  A shame.  Arthur is a sartorial success, and his side-whiskers are a wonder to behold, but looking past these superficials, he is little more than empty carriage in refined decoration.

*Incidentally, Fillmore and Arthur share something else in common: we do not have access to many of their records; both men had their correspondence destroyed shortly after their deaths.  Perhaps as a consequence of this, they are probably our two most obscure presidents.  Zachary Taylor, too, suffers from this paucity of archival material, but this was not his fault: his Louisiana manse was sacked during the Civil War, and most of his written records met a fiery end.

#12: John Adams

imagesCategory: Brave but Impolitic

Term in Office: 2nd president, 1797-1801

Political Party: Federalist

Home State: Massachusetts

For a short, balding, toothless, pudgy, disagreeable Yankee, John Adams has become remarkably sexy during the last decade.  A bestselling book by David McCollough and an award-winning HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti have helped to put John Adams squarely in the limelight after having taken a cultural backseat to Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin since the 18th century.

And a good thing, too.  Adams brought a healthy dose of pessimism, realism, and even a dash of misanthropy and curmudgeonliness to American polity, which many of his revolutionary colleagues lacked.  Every time Jefferson tried to expound on ethereal notions of liberty and ascendant golden ages of mankind, Adams was there to burst his bubble and remind his erstwhile colleague about our capacity for evil, greed, and cruelty.  Perhaps that is why Adams was a B-list Founding Father for so long– he spent so little time and had so little interest flattering his contemporaries and posing for posterity.  Brilliant but sensitive to his reputation, accomplished but in perpetual self-doubt, easily hurt but never failing to eventually forgive, Adams is perhaps the most human and the most accessible of United States’ first generation of leaders.  He seems made not of marble, but of flesh.

On the balance, I am inclined to put Adams down as one of our most successful one-term presidents.  He served early enough to codify and legitimate good, healthy, small-r republican practices, and set plenty of useful precedents of his own.  Like my #13 choice, his presidency’s accomplishments fly under the radar because he spent his time in office averting crises and disasters, rather than ratcheting up legislative achievements.    Adams made a few key decisions, particularly in avoiding an all-out war with France, that allowed his infant country to survive its tumultuous early years.

Few presidents walked into the job with a more useful array of experience than Adams.  He played a pivotal role at multiple times during the American Revolution: as a key voice clamoring for independence.  He brought forth George Washington’s name as a potential leader of the Continental Army, he served on the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence, he secured timely military aid from France and timely financial loans from the Netherlands, and served as an early ambassador to Court of St. James.  Adams could have retired at 45 and still merited a place in the American pantheon, but his ambition drove him on, becoming a favorite of the New England delegation.  He twice placed second in the electoral college, thus earning the right to become vice-president under George Washington.  But as vice-president, Adams was discouraged by the lack of influence the position held.   “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” he once groused.  When Washington made it clear he would not serve a third term, Adams was his logical successor, and he won a narrow, three-vote electoral college victory over his friend and rival, Thomas Jefferson.

Although reliant on Federalist support, Adams was loathe, throughout his career, to view himself as a party man.  “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, concerting measures in opposition to each other.  This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constition.”  Adams said this in 1789, just as Washington was taking office, and his fears transpired during his own presidency.  A nascent two party system had formed by then (when earlier, statesmen had been characterized very loosely and very inchoately as pro- or anti-administration.)  By the time Adams took office, there was a coherent party called the Democrat-Republicans, headed by Jefferson, and the Federalists, headed not by Adams, but Alexander Hamilton.  Although Manning Dauer’s book The Adams Federalists demonstrates that Adams had a surprising number of loyal supporters in Congress, Adams insisted on an apolitical approach to public affairs.  He boasted late in life that he had never sought an office himself, but had always been put forward for the job by his fellow citizens.

This apolitical approach was both a blessing and a curse to the Adams administration.  In some ways, being the second president is a much harder task than being the first president, especially when you have to follow a man with a truly continental reputation such as George Washington.  Adams had no such reservoir of national goodwill to fall back on.  One early area of contention was the cabinet– it was loaded with party-line Federalists more loyal to Hamilton than Adams.  Adams gets a certain degree of flack for keeping this mediocre and disloyal lot in office, but in his defense, consider that no presidential succession had yet taken place.  It was not yet the custom for the incoming president to put his own men in, even if he was in broad agreement with the previous president.  Eventually, fed up with having his own subordinates thwarting him, he fired his Secretary of State and Secretary of War, allowing himself a greater measure of control over his administration.  This, too, set an important precedent of allowing the president near-absolute control over his cabinet once they were in office, allowing him to fire or request resignations as he chose.  The cabinet served at the president’s pleasure.

In terms of his comportment, Adams followed many elements from George Washington’s playbook, visiting nearly every state, delivering his State of the Union addresses in person to Congress (Jefferson would later reverse this practice, and it would not be revived until Woodrow Wilson’s term over a century later.)  In life, Adams was often wrongly accused of being a monarchist.  The fact of the matter is that he was more concerned about demagoguery and anarchy more than many of the other founders, and thought a strong executive branch and checks on absolute democracy the best way to avoid these unsavory outcomes of “mob rule.”  At times this made Adams appear petty and vain and aristocratic, but in hindsight, his views are, as always, a useful check on Jeffersonian optimism.

But, as I said earlier, the wisest thing Adams did as president was avoid a war with France.  After the Jay Treaty had been signed during the Washington administration, its favorable provisions toward the British angered France, who began seizing American ships.   He worked on solutions immediately; one very farsighted move Adams can claim credit for is the establishment of a Navy Department, and improving the Navy from “virtually non-existent” to “well below average” (actually a considerable improvement.)  The new frigates helped bolstered his hand in negotiations and let him argue from a position of strength.  Adams sent a team of diplomats to France to smooth things over, but when Talleyrand’s guys demanded bribes before the negotiations even started, war fever broke out, especially among the Federalists.   Adams allowed a large standing army to be mustered in preparation of a war, but made it clear that his first priority was peace, sending William Vans Murray of Maryland to France to secure a resolution to the conflict.

Any attempt to cover the Adams presidency, though, would be remiss without addressing the most conspicuous stain on his term in office, the set of laws that has gone down in history as the Alien and Sedition Acts.  Let’s talk about the section which has the most toxic reputation in the history books, the Sedition Act.  I am going to go against conventional wisdom, and I am going to make my libertarian friends irate for saying this, but I think the act was both constitutional and justifiable.  First of all, barely a dozen people were convicted under the act; this wasn’t some Stalinesque act of political oppression, so some sense of proportion is needed.  And most of the prosecuted were, in fact, legitimately guilty of defaming the Adams administration during a national crisis and spread provably wrong slanders against him.  Finally, in the court of law, the truth of the matter could be used as a defense; if you said something against the Adams administration that turned out to be true, you could not be found guilty.

This is a rather important distinction.  When I hear some jackass on the radio calling the president a “Muslim” who “wants to bring America down”, I don’t think “my goodness, isn’t it a wonderful thing that we have a First Amendment that protects that kind of talk, even if I disagree with it.”  No.  No no no.  Criticizing an administration is fine; libeling an administration is not.  On the contrary, I want to throw the bugger in jail- when one knowingly spreads information that is not true about the president, or any public official, one poisons the well of public discourse, and needs to be held accountable.   Although its sister, the Alien Act, which expanded the number of years someone had to wait before earning U.S. citizenship from 5 to 14 was, in its way, troublingly xenophobic, I see nothing unethical about the Sedition Act.  It sounds far worse on paper than in practice.  If you want to go after presidents with bad records on civil liberties, start with Woodrow Wilson, not Adams.

In his quest to avoid war with France, Adams was a success, and Napoleon, now in power in the metropole, was eager to strike a deal and end a distracting skirmish with the United States.  Unfortunately, Adams secured a tentative deal with France only after the election of 1800, where he was voted out of office.  The Federalists lost control of Congress as well, leading to a Democratic-Republican sweep, and the first change of party rule under the Constitution.

Like Fillmore, Adams contributed to the death of his political party.  But while Fillmore rent his Whig Party apart by being thickheaded and clueless, Adams self-destructed the Federalist Party out of principle and farsightedness.  (This is why Adams is #12 and Madison is at #25 and McKinley is at #28– one guy avoided an unnecessary war and two guys initiated an unnecessary war)  After Thomas Jefferson won in 1800, the Federalists never came within sniffing distance of the presidency, or control of Congress, again.  Adams’ is, perhaps, the most admirable of administrations: the “throw yourself at the grenade” presidency.  He could have revived Federalist fortunes and perhaps won re-election by saber-rattling and satisfying American honor by taking on France, but a large-scale war against a continental power would have been most unwise.  They don’t make medals big enough for guys like John Adams.  His ability to eschew what was popular and expedient for what was right secures his place among our top dozen presidents.

Here is what does not get said all that often: Adams gave up power he still wanted to have.  When Washington left office, he was ready to retire from public life; he was weary of the barbs thrown at him in derision, especially over the unpopular Jay Treaty.  Adams left office involuntarily; he was put on the ballot for a second term, he wanted to stay president, and the electorate chose Jefferson in his stead.  It is so very easy to forget that when this took place, Adams remained commander-in-chief.  He was head of the military, and he held a very proactive view of a president’s power.  If he wished, Adams could have challenged Jefferson’s claim to the presidency by force of bayonet. And yet, he stepped down.  He was not especially gracious about it– he skipped town in the middle of the night on the red-eye hackney coach back to Quincy, Massachusetts, and never saw Jefferson in person again in this life.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that he stepped down, establishing a virtuous precedent every bit as deep as Washington’s.  You step down not just when you are ready to retire, but when you are voted out of office.

Addendum: One of the interesting things about writing Adams’ piece immediately after Fillmore’s is that I have now covered two Unitarians in a row.  In fact, it is helpful to point out that three out of our fifteen antebellum presidents were Unitarians (John Quincy was the other), meaning that 20% of our presidents before the Civil War were doctrinally opposed to the idea of the Trinity and would have thought Christ a good man, but surely not God.  (Come to think of it, Jefferson and Lincoln also believed something along those lines as well, although neither was a Unitarian.)  Keep this in mind next time you end up in an argument with someone who perceives America as “a Christian nation.”

#29: Millard Fillmore

170px-MfillmoreCategory: Empty Carriage

Term in Office: 13th president, 1850-1853

Political Party: Whig

Home State: New York


Millard Fillmore seems to be obscurity personified.  So little does the public know about him, so inadequate the state of the scholarship on his life, that he becomes the empty man of the presidential pantheon, the sort of guy you put in the back corner of the Hall of Presidents.  Millard Fillmore seems to be such a cypher, such a bland placeholder president, that he has become a small national joke.  One recent book The Remarkable Life of Millard Fillmore, is an uproariously false take on his life, a comedic attempt to make Millard Fillmore’s life interesting.  Plot points include challenging Andrew Jackson to a duel, escaping the Alamo in women’s clothing, and living a double life as Zorro. And, of course, there is the not funny, not droll, strawman-ridden Mallard Fillmore comic strip by some guy named Bruce Tinsley. Nowadays, Fillmore’s name lights up the internet via the excellent news-and-history-and-science blog, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.  (The blog’s name comes from an amusing falsehood H.L. Mencken put forth, suggesting that the only accomplishment of Fillmore’s presidency was to put a bath tub in the presidential mansion.  Mencken made the whole thing up to make fun of Fillmore’s vacuousness, and later admitted as such. But that didn’t stop this factoid from being re-published in presidential trivia books and even some grade-school textbooks.  So, “Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub” becomes a shorthand for its author Ed Darrell’s laudable commitment to distinguish historical truth from historical myth.)

This obscurity has often seeped into the rankings.  In Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s 1962 survey, he is 26th out of 31.  In a 1996 update, he is at 31 out of 39.  And in 2009, C-SPAN’s survey put him at 37 out of 42.  I would venture to guess that Fillmore places so very, very low largely because so little is remembered and because he is smack in the middle of the litany of dull, ineffectual pre-Lincoln presidents.

Throughout all this, I feel the need to give Millard Fillmore a fair hearing.  I earned my Ph.D. from the University at Buffalo, where Fillmore once served as chancellor.  I attended a college in New York’s Southern Tier where the closest sit-down restaurant and grocery store were seven miles down the road in a town called Fillmore, named after the president.   I’ve seen his grave, and I’ve visited his home in East Aurora, New York.  Me and Millard go way back, and my argument for today is this: Fillmore was an uninspiring and unoriginal, but basically decent president, who nonetheless made some decisions that proved disastrous down the road and inflamed bloody sectional hatred.  In particular, he bares a measure of responsibility for the Compromise of 1850, which technically delayed a civil war for almost ten years, but actually made such an outcome far more likely.

To get to the bottom of this, we need to delve a bit into the background. Fillmore, an unsuccessful candidate for New York governor, and a four-term congressman from western New York, supplemented the Whig’s presidential ticket with Zachary Taylor in hopes of winning New York’s all-important electoral votes and securing the favor of Thurlow Weed, the state’s political raja with whom Fillmore worked closely.  Fillmore was a hack, and he probably knew it, a vestige of an age where vice-presidents were recklessly chosen to balance a presidential ticket, or provide a sop to one faction or other, rather than their capacity to administer and lead.  (This was also compounded by the Whigs’ belief in a president ought to be subordinate to the wishes of Congress, one reason why they tended to nominate uninspiring figures without clear opinions or agendas.)  Millard spent a year and a half as vice-president, ignored by Taylor (who deferred all questions involving New York appointments to William Seward, leader of a rival faction.)

Instead, Fillmore did the only thing he was allowed, as vice-president, to do– he presided over the Senate, his tenure coinciding with the contentious debates surrounding the 1850 Compromise.  In the end, the compromise passed, a series of measures which admitted California as a free state, ceded parts of Texas to New Mexico Territory, gave New Mexico Territory the option of adopting slavery (although its climate made it unsuitable for the plantation-style agriculture in which slavery thrived in the Americas), and most problematically of all, instituted a harsh Fugitive Slave Act.

Taylor had grave reservations about the compromise, especially the provisions expanding slavery to the southwest, at least in theory.  We’ll never know just what he would have done had he lived, but it is likely he would have vetoed at least part of the compromise.  Fillmore, a stalwart unionist who wanted to keep the country together, was more amenable to compromise.  Far from being passive, he leaned on “Cotton Whigs”, those willing to work with the South to vote for the bill, and encouraged anti-slavery “Conscience Whigs” to abstain.  The compromise measures passed, but they were a pyrrhic victory, a major legislative accomplishment that nonetheless doomed Fillmore’s presidency and sundered his own political party.

See, Fillmore’s problem was that he was using an antiquated playbook.  There is certainly an understandable logic behind signing a major compromise.  Compromises had been part of America’s political fabric from the very beginning.  They allowed small states and large states to agree to a Constitution.  Jefferson and Hamilton later compromised, agreeing to Hamilton’s ambition financial plan in exchange for putting the capital on the Potomac, away from the fiscal centers of New York and Philadelphia. Compromise allowed the question of Missouri’s entrance to the union to be resolved equitably, creating the state of Maine to counterbalance the new slave state.  You have to use history as a guide, and Fillmore likely assumed a hard-won, large-scale compromise would work just as it always had.

Unfortunately, Fillmore was dead wrong, and the compromise only exacerbated the feelings of distrust between slavery’s defenders in the South and its critics in New England.  The Fugitive Slave Law was the killing arrow.  It ordered federal marshals to seek out escaped slaves anywhere in the nation, and imposed a harsh $1,000 penalty on anyone who abetted or aided a slave in flight.  To New Englanders, this seemed like a law that demanded one violate one’s own conscience, and the North could no longer be considered a safe haven for refugee slaves.   Even more to the point, many in New England had seen very few slaves, or very few blacks for that matter; slavery was an abstraction, and unpleasant abstractions are easily forgotten or avoided.  The Fugitive Slave Act, though rarely enforced to the letter of law, made the “peculiar institution” much, much less of an abstraction, and much more of a reality.  It reminded the Yankee conscience that it was complicit in the “peculiar institution.”  The North would not forget this law, nor the party that pushed for its passage.  Indeed, Vermont and Wisconsin, ironically borrowing tactics first used in the South, attempted to nullify the law, and declare it unconstitutional.  In Syracuse and Pittsburgh apprehended slaves attracted mobs who beset the hapless federal marshals, and set the former slaves at liberty.

Fillmore’s problem was a failure to understand the consequences of his laws, and a lack of imagination to pursue, and work for, alternatives.  His want of vision, his inability to realize that his was truly a crisis presidency, was so profound that it may have dealt the killing blow to his own political party.  In 1852, the Whigs barely considered nominating Fillmore for a full term in his own right, although the president telegraphed signals that he was willing to accept if chosen.  Instead, the Whigs once again nominated a military hero, Winfield Scott.  Scott was vain and pompous, but he was also the keenest and most brilliant military mind the country had yet produced.  The general was a great candidate, but his bid was futile.  The Whigs, distrusted by the South and reviled in the North for a compromise that only increased distrust and suspicion, won only four states in the election, losing to an unknown alcoholic, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire.  Within two years of Fillmore leaving office, the Whig Party would no longer exist.

There were a few other loose ends to the Fillmore administration that I need to address here.  One of the only accomplishments that presidential trivia buffs remember about the man is that he commissioned Admiral Perry’s “Great White Fleet” to Japan.  Perry, in a maritime display that was one part shock-and-awe and one part tacit threat, opened reluctant Japan to American trade, continuing the forays into the Pacific begun by John Tyler.  Other presidents from his era spent their energies angering and invading Meso-America and the Caribbean; Fillmore took the time to cross an entire ocean to needle Japan.  And while seen as a doughface, do-nothing president, Fillmore twice took decisive military action to check Southern intransigence, once to keep Texas from illegally invading and annexing New Mexico, and once again to reinforce South Carolina forts during rumblings of secession.  We credit Andrew Jackson for putting down a secessionist threat, and we disavow James Buchanan for his squeamishness in doing the same.  But we forget Fillmore’s strength and decisiveness in emergency situations.

This is a presidential ranking that punishes malice and evil.  Fillmore demonstrated neither, and given some of the other presidents we have yet to exhume in this series, I cannot justify putting him in the bottom 10.  There are worse things in politics than to be a dull, doughy, dutiful time-server.  He wanted laudable ends– a country whose separate parts could work together in amity– but was unable to figure out a way to do it beyond the antiquated and flawed system of compromises that merely kicked the interconnected problems of slavery and expansion down the road, a road that led with mounting likelihood toward civil war.  Ultimately, Millard Fillmore saw the question of slavery as a political matter, and not a moral matter, and as long as slavery remained constitutional, he would continue to enforce unpopular measures such as the Fugitive Slave Act.  Fillmore’s political solution, in the form of the 1850 compromise, left the moral questions slavery raised unanswered, as Northern abolitionists and Southern firebrands addressed it with increasingly biblical intensity.

As for Fillmore’s post-presidential career, which included a run for president on the repugnant white Protestant nationalist American Party, or Know-Nothing Party, the less that is said, the better.  It doesn’t reflect his ranking, since I am only looking at his presidency.  But let’s just say it shows how Fillmore wasn’t very adept at perceiving his country beyond the immediate future, and his association with those nativist jackasses, those antebellum Sheriff Arpaios, does not help his historical reputation.

Incidentally, I had a very difficult time choosing who was #29 and who was #30 on this list.  Both contenders were vice-presidents elevated to the presidency by the death of their predecessor.  Both had funny names.  Both lived in upstate New York.  Both made a feeble attempt to be re-nominated and were rebuffed by their parties.  Maybe you’ve figured out who is immediately below Millard in the ranking, but if you haven’t yet, stay tuned…


#13: Barack Obama

o-OBAMA-PORTRAIT-570Category: Stonewalled Visionary

Term in Office: 44th president, 2009-

Political Party: Democratic

Home State: Illinois

Evaluating the sitting president is a challenging task.  For years, when doing rankings as facebook notes or for previous blogs I’ve written, I just didn’t do it.  It seemed self-evident: the presidency isn’t over- why bother evaluating it?  Isn’t it jumping the gun or succumbing to premature judgment?  Beyond that, there is a very real problem of myopia; we may be just too close to the incumbent’s time to be objective.  We read the news, absorb the commentary, and lose any sense of perspective.  Despite these qualms, we also have to recognize that history is never over, and there is a never-ending treadmill of a record that has to be absorbed.  At a certain point, you have a make a first draft of history, and that is what I will attempt here.

While we are speaking of presentism, let me begin with a personal anecdote.  When I saw my doctor last month, he was alarmed by a lump he found in my clavicle.  He referred me to an Ear, Nose and Throat guy whose gut reaction was that something was very wrong; that kind of lump is usually the first symptom of lymphoma to manifest itself.  For two agonizing weeks, I did not know whether or not I had a serious form of cancer, and my mind turned to grim possibilities.  What would it be like to spend the next two or three years, or longer, as a cancer patient?  What if I had to leave my job?  (Think chemo is expensive in the U.S.?  Try chemo in Singapore.)  What would happen if I lost my medical insurance because I was no longer employed?

Fortunately, I had a biopsy performed, it came up negative, and with a clean bill of health, I flew to Singapore to resume my teaching responsibilities.  Nevertheless, this health crisis brought home for me how important the much-criticized signature accomplishment of the Obama presidency, the Affordable Health Care Act, has become.  The law has its flaws, and I will discuss them, but most of my criticisms come from the left (it is too friendly and accommodating to existing drug companies and continues the wrongheaded scheme of tying one’s health insurance so closely to one’s employment).  Despite these drawbacks, I cannot say enough how relieved I was that the law was in place: if necessary, I would be able to purchase my own insurance if I could no longer work, and couldn’t be denied for a pre-existing condition (and believe me, lymphoma would have been a pretty serious pre-existing condition.)  If the question is, to paraphrase Reagan, would I have been better off now than I would have been eight years ago, the answer is a resounding and unmistakable ‘yes.’  My rankings prioritize helping the vulnerable, and there aren’t many who are more vulnerable than the seriously ill, and this law, for all its complexities and for all the issues still being ironed out, is a considerable boon to them.

So, despite the number of persistent criticisms Barack Obama has attracted, we need to step back, and take the larger view– remember all the persnickety armchair presidents who thought Truman and Eisenhower were rudderless in the 40s and 50s?  Now, both men are considered very successful.  So in the absence of time and cognitive distance, I will try, in my own meager way, to consider Obama’s larger place in history, even as that drama is still unfolding.  Andrew Sullivan (who, I may add, is a self-professed conservative so completely distraught by the state of modern conservatism, he became one of Barack Obama’s strongest supporters) wrote these words on the night of his re-election in 2012:


“But this president has never been a radical; he has always been a moderate; he has been immensely skilled at foreign policy, ended one war and won another, killed Osama bin Laden and saved the American auto industry, deflected a Second Great Depression and initiated universal access to healthcare. He has presided over a civil rights revolution and the beginning of the end of prohibition of marijuana. He has created the new and durable coalition that was once Karl Rove’s dream.

Americans saw this. They were not fooled. And they made the right call, as they usually do. What was defeated tonight was not just Romney, a hollow cynic, but a whole mountain of mendacity and delusion. That sound you hear is the cognitive dissonance ringing in the ears of ideologues and cynics. Any true conservative longs for that sound, the sound of reality arriving to pierce through fantasy and fanaticism.”

A great assessment from a man who is anything but a dyed-in-the-wool liberal.  Let’s look at how this began, though: the 2008 election through which Obama came to office was a singularly exciting moment– two strong candidates and excellent campaigners with very different visions of what they would do in office.  There was a sense that a sea change took place after the George W. Bush presidency; even committed Republicans were walking away from many of his decisions.  But those of us who expected the millennium in 2008 would be disappointed.   The overwhelmingly Democratic, almost filibuster-proof* Congress that was elected with Obama seemed poised to initiate a Great Society-like shift that would empower and enfranchise those left behind by the Bush years.  To our chagrin, Congress played it safe, probably believing the dreadfully misinformed hype that they would control the legislature for years to come.  The Bush tax cuts, even for unfathmobly wealthy earners, were kept in place.  Estate taxes, the fairest way to put more money in the coffers to begin reducing the deficit, were hardly even considered.  An ugly, but unfortunately necessary bailout for the automotive industry passed with Obama’s signature, but so too did the badly needed Dodd-Frank reforms of the financial  industry.  For a president running on widespread programmatic and temperamental change in the nation’s capital, change was there, but it seemed sluggish and slow and tentative in coming.

Obama then made a major tactical error in making health care the major cause in which he funneled most of his political capital.  As I said in my write-up, this was a badly needed bill, even in its present watered-down form without a public option or a Medicare-for-all approach.  Obama should have recalled that pushing health care reform as a first priority decimated the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency and helped cost the Democrats control of Congress in 1994.  In hindsight, he almost certainly should have used his political capital on a more widely popular and more easily marketed measure– a jobs bill, an infrastructure bill, something that would have been broadly supported and easily comprehended by the public,  and would have had a salutary effect on the economy, allowing for greater credibility to push further reforms.  Instead, Obama’s signature domestic achievement was a complex, overlong bill that easily fell prey to absurd talk about “death panels,” losing doctor choice, ruinously high taxes, and a vast array of misleading claims and outright lies.

Partly out of unhappiness with the Affordable Care Act, partly out of frustration over the still-sputtering economy, the Democrats endured the worst defeat a majority party endured in a couple generations, returning the GOP to control of the House and severely cutting into their lead in the Senate.  But the triumphant GOP was not Bob Dole’s Republican Party.  Instead, a movement that started out in the Ron Paul wing of the party, quickly diffused into a broader, more populist TEA Party, devoted to a kind-of mythic Jeffersonian limited government.  Adapting the Gasden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flag, it grew into a movement of sad sexagenarians playing dress-up and living out patriot fantasies without  a modicum of a patriot’s willingness to sacrifice.  All too often their mantra of “taking the country back” had, sometimes intended and sometimes not, strong racial overtones, and the movement was not unrelated to the demographic sinkhole white Americans have found themselves in.   At any rate, there is no accounting for poor behavior at the tea party, the bad feeling in the Darjeeling.  Basic cooperation and civility, hallmarks of any Congress, went out the window.  A litany of disgraceful conduct and bizarre claims, within and without the halls of Congress followed, from getting interrupted at the State of the Union (“you lie!”) to Dinesh D’Souza’s poorly substantiated movie claiming Obama is a relentless anticolonialist with an axe to grind against Western culture. And of course, there was the “Birtherism” questioning the president’s American citizenship with virtually no convincing proof, and did not relent even after his birth certificate was made public.  Lots of presidents had to wade through malicious enemies and weird-ass claims about their past, but no president had to deal with it so consistently and relentlessly as Barack Obama, as attempts to code him as “different from most Americans” became a backhanded way of protesting the first president of African descent.

All this is to say, Obama had to deal with some of the worst congresses in U.S. history– only a couple of the Gilded Age congresses and the class of 1946 even come close.  The leaders of our national legislature have refused give-and-take politics crucial to any fair discourse– the deficit must go down, but it’s always got to be revenue cuts, never any tax raises.  On three different occasions now, the House has played chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States, refusing to approve a raise to the debt ceiling- on spending Congress had already committed to- without concessions.  How can one accomplish anything within the boundaries of one’s power with such a group, willing at times to blow up the world economy just to make an ideological point?  Accordingly, a promising presidency became mired in gridlock where ineffectual half-measures became the best one could hope for.  Consider that as I write this, a Farm Bill is poised to show up on the presidents desk that cuts food stamps by nearly a billion dollars a year, while preserving most of the unnecessary farm subsidies that bolster agra-businesses like Monsanto.  Democrats reluctantly went along with the bill, and Obama is likely to sign it into law because it is probably the best that they can hope for given the partisan makeup of Congress at this time.  What all of this amounts to is something that might be called “the damage control presidency.”  That’s good- the backsliding must be contained- but it is such a pale shadow of what could have been during these years.

So far, however, I have avoided three elements I address in almost every write-up: temperament, administrative skill, and ethics.  How does Obama compare  by these metrics?  So…Temperament.  Obama, as Jonathan Alter put it, lacked “the schmooze gene” that came instinctively to Clinton, Bush 43, Reagan, and even, to an extent, compulsive thank-you note writer, Bush 41.  The most common metaphor involved household pets; most presidents are affable, gregarious dogs, while Obama has been compared to a cool and aloof cat, replete with an unwillingess to suffer fools and glad-handlers.  On the whole, this is a good thing, I would argue.  We’ve had too many shallow baby-kissers and impulsive “deciders”, and his careful, no-drama deliberation– very much a Picard to George W.’s Kirk, is a turn for the better.

Administrative skill.  Sigh.  He started out well, picking a very strong cabinet, including a gracious inclusion of a vanquished rival for Secretary of State, and recognizing Robert Gates as the indispensable man in Iraq.  But there was a stunning aloofness and a lack of fire in the belly, a condition that many have characterized as “leading from behind.”  While Clinton’s team drafted a health care plan, Obama let Congress figure it out.  Same with immigration, gun control, and every other plan that ended up stymied in congressional gridlock.  And yet, Obama could not be considered indecisive; even Robert Gates’ sometimes-critical memoir credits his second boss with taking to the presidency prodigiously, including the bold decision to technically invade Pakistan in hopes of taking out Osama bin Laden.  Still, Obama’s relative disinterest in the cabinet departments and his lack of executive experience prior to his presidency makes this one of his weaker areas.  A wider array and greater depth of experience would have served him well here.

As far as ethics?  The corrupt “Chicago style” politics some pundits predicted never really materialized (By the way, have you ever noticed how “Chicago-style politics” flawlessly transitioned from a polite way of saying “the Catholics are too corrupt to govern” to a polite way of saying “the blacks are too corrupt to govern” in the 60s and 70s?)  The small, petty, money-grubbing scandals that pockmarked the Clinton presidency, and the corporate cronyism (remember the no-bid contracts on war supplies?) that besmirched the Bush-43 presidency never materialized.  It is important in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, where every flaw and foible is overanalyzed by a panel of self-professing experts, how remarkably, though certainly not flawlessly, clean this administration has been.  Despite the vigilance of congressional Republicans, Fox, and dozens of right-leaning blogs, nothing really stuck.   The IRS scandal defused when it became clear that a rogue office overzealously looked at groups claiming non-profit status, and even then, liberal groups were questioned just about as often as conservative groups.  No convincing evidence has emerged, despite constant coverage on FOX, that Benghazi was anything more than a tragic flare-up of sectional violence.  The most recent red flag, “you can keep your plan” may well be the most damaging and the president needs to answer for it, but even then, Obamacare resulted in shockingly low numbers of Americans forced to buy into a plan inferior to what they already had.  Altogether, though, very little sticks, and the administration, for all the scrutiny it is under, has kept itself quite clean.

Let’s take a look, though, at where all this led.  His support for same sex marriage was a close and careful political calculation, but it was also a vital moment for the movement to have the president’s support, and history will remember that he was the first sitting president to support it.  The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation Obama signed, was an important step forward for the “equal pay for equal work” principle. Women’s access to contraception is greater than ever, thanks in part to the health care law.  Social justice and speaking up for marginalized communities is a big part of my rankings, and here, Obama clearly succeeded.

Due to his positioning in the presidential pantheon, Obama had the opportunity to depart from his predecessors’ choices or continue them, and the result is a mixed bag.  He fulfilled his campaign pledge to withdraw from Iraq, drew down our forces in Afghanistan, reversed the petty doctrinal ban on stem cell research, ended the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were little more than a smokescreen for torture — but on the other hand, NSA surveillance remains out of hand, Guantanamo remains open, and drones continue to develop, often at cost to civilian life.  In these instances, Obama may have erred by turning Bush-era decisions into something more intractable, that is, a precedent, by keeping, and in some cases escalating, their practice.

Unlucky #13 it is.  Not bad at all, but I expected Obama to be a top 7 president when he was inaugurated, the sort of guy we might mention in the same conversations as Harry Truman or Theodore Roosevelt as the best of the near-great presidents.  Maybe it was youthful naivety, maybe a truly progressive moment, but more importantly, a recommitment of our social contract toward good government, was actually possible during that short window.  Instead, we got a presidency that at times had a strong energy and commitment to restorative justice, but at other times, dawdled, fumbled, and spent too much time negotiating with a disloyal opposition that did not return the good faith.  And now, we return to the long view: when we talk about the Obama presidency 15 years from now, many of our perfectly valid frustrations and reservations will seem small and petty.  The disastrous and inexcusably slow rollout of the healthcare.gov website will be relegated to footnotes, but a bill that led to more Americans, especially the poor and the chronically sick, having access to health care will be remembered as a signature achievement.  Slow, steady piecemeal reform, while keeping the forces of plutocracy and banksterism at bay?  Perhaps that is the only change we can believe in these days.

*A number of discrete events conspired to keep the Democrats at 60 votes for only a very short period of time between 2009-2011, including the delay in certifying Al Franken’s very narrow win in Minnesota, Ted Kennedy’s death, Arlen Spector’s timely switch to the Democratic Party, and ultimately, Scott Brown’s election to Teddy’s seat.

#28: William McKinley

Official_White_House_portrait_of_William_McKinleyCategory:  Petty Imperialist

Term in Office: 25th president, 1897-1901

Political Party: Republican

Home State: Ohio

William McKinley was the president who ushered the United States into the 20th century, and appropriately so.  In some respects, McKinley was utterly, hopelessly Victorian, especially in his political views, personal mannerisms, and his private life.  But in his approach to the office, McKinley inaugurated an invigorated and modernized presidency.  On a more ominous note, McKinley ushered in an uncomfortable era in United States history, one of overt imperialism.  Much U.S. activity that took place before the Spanish-American War can be characterized as backdoor imperialism, but the Spanish-American conflict with a weakened European power, and its direct-to-video sequel, the Philippine War, turned the United States into Nova Roma, a new imperial republic.

One thing that stands out, even today, is McKinley’s exemplary character.  We have talked about presidential deportment and we will again.  This was, after all, one characteristic that kept Clinton at a lower-than-average #19 on my list.  I cannot think of any one, George Washington not excepted, who did a better job behaving as the president ought to than McKinley.  Without fail, the same set of personal remembrances come back at us: a warm man who could nonetheless identity fools and scoundrels.  He was an exemplary husband to his invalid wife.  McKinley was well-mannered and stately, but also sincere and personal, a rare combination.  He loved meeting ordinary Americans, even if his “front porch campaign” for the presidency kept him at his Ohio residence during the campaign season.  I think having a president you would want your children to emulate matters, and at least as decorum and behavior goes, I do not think you could find a better exemplar than McKinley.

William McKinley is also not recognized for his role in modernizing many aspects of the presidency.  Lewis Gould has shed more useful light on the McKinley years than any historian alive.  His Modern American Presidency stresses the institutional innovations McKinley inaugurated, with an assist from his secretary, George Cortelyou.  Cortelyou’s portfolio soon expanded to becoming McKinley’s liaison to the press.  For the first time, the executive branch worried about messaging, provided space and time for the president to talk with reporters on and off the record, and made the office one very concerned with public relations.  Earlier generations of presidents would have dismissed these maneuvers as rank demagoguery.  McKinley saw it as an opportunity to enhance the ability of his office to persuade.

So, McKinley’s personal qualities work in his favor, as does his approach to the presidency.  Conspicuously, we have not yet talked about what McKinley actually did as president.  And this is where the McKinley presidency kind of falls apart.   While often seen as a blindly pro-business dupe under Mark Hanna’s Svengali-like control, this is not quite the whole story.  He had, in 1899, commissioned a long-term study on monopolies, and was awaiting the results at the time of his death.  It is possible that, had he lived, he might have overseen a more mild version of the mild reforms his predecessors Roosevelt and Taft put into action.  This is tepid praise.  McKinley was a rather standard-issue, business-friendly, labor-hostile “sound money man.”  When we look at the problems that T. Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson addressed: labor laws, environmental protection, monopoly, food safety– aren’t these problems that McKinley left unresolved?

But the true elephant in the room is acquisitional war: first with Spain, and then with the Philippines.  It is well known today that the explosion of the Maine was more likely a mechanical failure and not, as alleged at the time, a sneak attack by Spain.  Nevertheless, any investigations conducted were short-lived and fraught with foregone conclusions.

Instead, the voices of war won out.  Part of the problem was that the question of Cuba and eventually the Philippines was often depicted in very gendered terms– the Caribbean islands depicted as virtuous virgins defiled by a swarthy Spain, and casting the U.S. as the righteous, square-jawed man that defends her honor.  Indeed, McKinley’s very masculinity was called into question while he debated the decision for war.  “McKinley” taunted his eventual successor Theodore Roosevelt, “has as much backbone as a chocolate eclair.”    War skeptics like Massachusetts senator George Hoar were portrayed as nagging matrons in bonnets, and in this manner, the “Antis,” as in the anti-war men, became “aunties.”  To a Victorian like McKinley, whose understanding of gender roles was so calcified, these barbs stung at him, clawed at him.  Go look at the political cartoons from this era; in nearly any one of them, Cuba begs for rescue, and the Philippines begs for civilization.  In his own mind, he must have justified the decision for war as a Christian act of defense for the weak.  The reality would become very different.


When we think of the Spanish-American War, we think of a “splendid little war”, the absurdly jingoist “Message to Garcia” and Teddy Roosevelt posing triumphantly on San Juan Hill.  What isn’t remembered is the raw level of devastation Cuba underwent during the conflict.  Houses destroyed, livestock slaughtered, 90% of the cattle gone, sugar mills and bridges burned, and 200 people each day dying from the squalid conditions in Santiago alone.  McKinley tried his best to alleviate some of the suffering with medical and infrastructure aid, but the damage was done.  Reagan would say in later years, “My opponents say I want to take us back to the days of McKinley.  Well, what’s wrong with that?  Under McKinley, we freed Cuba.”  We may have aided Cuba’s nascent independence movement, but we vanquished the island itself in the process, and inaugurated a period of Cuban rule by less-than-democratic toadies like Battista.  Come meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Walter Lafeber was correct when he said in The New Empire over fifty years ago that there was nothing accidental or absent-minded about the United States’ acquisition of the Philippines; they were vital in getting toeholds on the Asian markets.  Go back to John Tyler, go back to William Seward, go back to Alfred Mahan, and you will invariably observe thrusts forward toward Asia, the economic and military and philosophical and territorial groundwork for expansion being laid.  McKinley didn’t start that fire (although his predecessor Cleveland did a fine job of holding it off), and cannot fully be blamed for a force that was in some respects out of his control.  Honor, American visions of greatness, and the desire to spread liberty are powerful things, and it would have taken an exceptionally wise figure to resist them.

Nevertheless, he was at the helm during one of America’s least justifiable wars.  When the war moved to the Pacific theatre, the United States inherited an anti-colonial struggle in the Philippines from Spain.  Here, an ugly chapter in U.S. history needs to be aired out.  To pacify the region, a number of tactics used included concentration camps designed to separate guerrillas from civilians, and even, at times, the wholesale massacre of entire villages when battalions could not distinguish friend from foe.  Wikipedia lists the number of Philippine civilians who died directly or indirectly because of the conflict at between 200,000 and 1.5 million, a pretty wide swath, but the total number will never be known.  The lack of a body count echoes our collective amnesia about the Philippines; this is a war that we just don’t remember or talk about.  Small wonder we repeated many of the same mistakes in Southeast Asia sixty years later.

Still, how much of this is McKinley’s fault?  Much of the really bad stuff happened in an ad hoc fashion, as a panicked response to a guerrilla attack, or at the direction of generals improvising their own orders.  McKinley never meant for slaughter and chains, and any atrocities almost certainly took place without his knowing.  Chances are, any G.O.P. president would have made the same decisions McKinley had made.  Replace McKinley with, I don’t know, Matthew Quay or Levi Morton or something, and you still get a war.  But is this not why we have presidents?  Does not a truly great leader challenge groupthink, puncture bad arguments, and weigh the evidence carefully and conscientiously?  Lots of sensible voices were opposed to imperialism in the Philippines, ranking from Grover Cleveland to Andrew Carnegie to Mark Twain to Samuel Gompers to W.E.B. DuBois.  Not everyone opposed it for the right reasons–some feared foreign competition to American labor, while others did not want to entertain the possibility of a majority non-white state entering the union one day, but still- there was a perfectly cogent antiwar faction in the country, and this included some in his own party.  McKinley’s good heart, good manners and honest patriotism were not enough to steer clear of a war that was victorious in the short run, but marked a newer, bolder, and more aggressive chapter in American foreign policy.

As we have seen, McKinley was not, on a symbolic level, the last of the anonymous 19th century presidents.  Rather, he was the first of the new, dynamic 20th century presidents, eager to use modern technology to enhance the power, prestige, and persuasion of the chief executive.  In some respects, McKinley is an admirable man, and it is not difficult at all to see why the nation was so distraught when he was killed in 1901 by an anarchist.  (This sad event was, unfortunately, the chief contribution that my grad school city, Buffalo, has made to American politics.)  Nevertheless, when it mattered, McKinley made a bad, disastrous call, and forfeited any claim to wisdom in joining what was almost certainly an American war of aggression against weaker opponents.  Alas, this trait, too, signified that McKinley was the first of the twentieth-century presidents.  His acquiescence in the face of war and his indifference to reform makes him a substantively below average president.

*I never cited the book directly, but I need to give a special shoutout to Kristin Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars.


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