Sunday, August 6, 2017

How Do You Measure the Worst President Ever?

At least it pissed off liberals
When George W. Bush was President, I was dismissive of claims that he was our worst President.  James Buchanan, after all, left some very small shoes to fill, as did Andrew Johnson.  With Donald Trump, though, I am no longer so sure.

Here is how it is.  Our greatest Presidents are the ones who hold power under conditions of adversity and rise to the challenge.  The Big Three, Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, were all Presidents under conditions of extreme peril.  The near-greats -- Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, Truman, etc -- also presided over important and difficult transitions.  Charles Krauthammer once said that our only really distinguished President under conditions of peace and prosperity was Theodore Roosevelt.  Our worst Presidents, by contrast, were ones who faced conditions of adversity and did not rise to the occasion.  Think Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, etc.  Presidents under conditions of general peace and prosperity tend toward the middle of the pack, not having the opportunity for either greatness or ruin.  Trump has taken power, if not in the middle of the Eisenhower era, at least under reasonably peaceful, reasonably prosperous conditions.  For him to rank down there with Buchanan or Johnson, he would have to do something truly disastrous, like start a nuclear war.

But it seems to me there is another way of rating Presidents, one that at least tries to remove them from the historical accidents they encountered and and look at their personal characteristics.  What characteristics does this or that President have and how would they have played out in other circumstances.  Obviously there is a lot of speculation called for here, but there are some things in each President's tenure that look like something deeply ingrained in his (or, someday, her) character that would have been there under other circumstances as well.  We can change our "what if" evaluation of Presidents accordingly.

Take Eisenhower, for instance.  Dwight David Eisenhower presided over general peace and prosperity, as well as a relatively tranquil time in domestic politics.  He undertook no major initiative and therefore never really made his mark as outstanding, but he was certainly popular while in power, and many historian are suspect he may have been underrated.  Well, Eisenhower got us out of the Korean War, and he resisted pressure to intervene in Vietnam.  Truman despised him for truckling to the McCarthy wing of his party during the primary, but once in power he shut the McCarthy wing down pretty effectively and made peace with the New Deal.  It seems a reasonable assumption that Eisenhower deserves a good deal of credit for the peaceful times, both domestically and internationally, that occurred on his watch.

Rating disastrously in real time, but better under this metric is Herbert Hoover.  Although I have  come to understand how poor decisions by Hoover in the wake of the stock market crash mightily contributed to making the Great Depression as bad as it was, Hoover was the captive of a conventional wisdom that was intuitively satisfying but disastrously wrong -- one which said that if families have to cut back, then government should too, and that maintaining the value of the dollar when it came under pressure was vital.  Such harmful conventional wisdom proved too strong to resist even during the most recent economic crisis, despite an abundance of economic research and theory warning against it.  In Hoover's time, not only was such conventional wisdom intuitive satisfying, there was no framework of thought for going against it.  That framework would be invented precisely as a result of the disaster that came from leaders such as Hoover following conventional wisdom.  In other words, there is no reason to believe anyone else would have done any better in Hoover's place.

Hoover's predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, like Eisenhower, presided over general peace and prosperity and had no major achievements.  Many conservatives these days see Coolidge as an ideal President precisely because he never did anything.  Others fantasize that if only he had been President in 1929, he would have done nothing and saved us from the disaster of Hoover's (limited) intervention.  Many liberals suspect that Coolidge encouraged speculation on the stock market and thereby contributed to the crash.  I guess my ultimately evaluation would be that it is easy to imagine Coolidge and Hoover swapping places and everything turning out exactly the same as it did.  In that case, Hoover would preside over peace and prosperity and would get credit for it because of his administrative brilliance. Coolidge would preside over the crash that followed, and lead to countless counterfactual speculation that the Depression could have been avoided if only one with such first-rate administrative competence as Hoover had been in office.  Hoover was a Quaker, with a Quaker's opposition to war. He opposed our role in World War II, so he would have been disaster if he had been President during Hitler's rise.  On the other hand, he would have been useful to have on hand if there had been the need to stay out of a war.

James Buchanan, like Herbert Hoover, was President at a time that would have been challenging to even the best holder of that office.  Keep in mind that his inaction in the face of southern succession took place after he was a lame duck.  One can argue somewhat plausibly that it was reasonable for Buchanan to believe that he should not undertake any course of action that would lock in his successor and limit his freedom of action.  Can anyone honestly say that another President in his place would have acted differently?  Or that if some other lame duck had acted differently, the results would have been good, rather than to lock Lincoln in to some unwanted course of action?  On the other hand, Buchanan had a long-standing record as an appeaser of the South, to the extent of pushing for the admission of Kansas as a slave state against the wishes of its inhabitants (and of two territorial governors that he personally appointed).

On the other hand, some Presidents go badly, not because they are victims of circumstances beyond their control, but because of their own character.  Nixon comes to mind.  What is most striking about the Watergate scandal is how utterly stupid and unnecessary it was.  It is at least somewhat understandable for Nixon to have believed that McGovern was a dangerous radical, and that winning the election was not just a political issue, but an urgent matter of national security.  On the other hand, the American people obviously shared the view that McGovern was a dangerous radical, based on the nearly 2-1 margin of victory they gave Nixon.  Our least charismatic, least personally likeable President (at least till Trump came along) nonetheless won the election by a 65-35 popular vote and carried every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.  Resorting to dirty tricks under those circumstances was just plain nuts.  The resort to dirty tricks might have been understandable if Nixon was behind and running scared, convinced that a McGovern win could be a disaster to the nation.  But any normal politician with a 30-point lead would have recognized that he could afford to be magnanimous, and that if it cost him votes, then at worst he would get a landslide instead of a blow-out.  I have tried asking people old enough to remember Watergate why he did it and the most satisfactory answer I have gotten was that Nixon was not altogether normal.  He was simply not the sort of person who could rest on a 30-point lead and consider it enough.  This leads me to the conclusion that Watergate was not only incredibly stupid and self-inflicted, but was something innate in Nixon's character, and that he would have done something like it regardless of circumstances.

So, mark Nixon as at least one President whose failing was not just bad luck, but innate in his character.  Then there is Andrew Johnson.  Johnson showed up drunk at his inauguration as Vice President and gave an rambling and incoherent speech.  As President, he needlessly ruined relations with Congress by giving a Washington's birthday speech in which he referred to himself 200 times and denounced the Radical Republicans as enemies.  He then alienated the remaining moderate Republicans by vetoing their legislation.  During the mid-term elections, he managed to alienate both parties and campaigned on behalf of a third party he attempted unsuccessfully to create.  For the President to campaign openly went against the norms of the day; Johnson made further enemies in how he went about it.  He called for hanging of Radical Republicans and abolitionists, defended himself against non-existent accusations of being a tyrant, and even compared himself to Jesus Christ and the Radicals to his betrayers.  In this he succeeded in making enemies throughout the North and bringing about a strong swing in the the vote in favor of the Republicans, while even his supporters considered his actions beneath the dignity of his office. The rest of his term was devoted to fighting with Congress, culminating in his impeachment, although the Senate failed to convict.  He sought the Democratic nomination to run for President in 1868, but failed.

Clearly, Johnson was facing circumstances that would have proven challenging even to a much abler man.  But it is equally clear that he mishandled the job at all levels, and that an alternative with even minimal political or diplomatic skills could have handled it better.  It seems unlikely that Johnson would have been a successful President even under favorable conditions.

In this admittedly speculative evaluation of Presidents, going by their general character and ability to have handled the office under different conditions, I would dethrone Buchanan as worst President ever and replace him with Andrew Johnson.  Nixon would also have to rate very poorly on this scale.  And while it is hard to say yet how Trump compares to Johnson and Nixon, he can't possibly rank well.

No comments:

Post a Comment