Things to Learn from Rotten Presidents

Today is the day Americans celebrate our chief executive. This is a bizarre thing to do since William G. Harding or James Buchanan hardly seem worthy of a holiday. If we can celebrate the Buchanan White House, then we can party for anything. Still as our head of state, they are worthy of respect even if Andrew Jackson as a man was an immoral, murderous brute and Woodrow Wilson was a racist, Utopian fool.

Still if any excuse is good for a fun party, any president is worth study: you can always learn from the failings and successes of the Man in the Arena. My wise father always begins a discussion on a topic by saying what is not true about the topic. Here are ten things to learn from our failed chiefs whom we cannot hail, but we can vow never to reincarnate in office.

Let us vow as a nation: Never again an Andy Jackson!  No more Woodrow Wilsons! 

First, John Adams- Great men do not always make great presidents. 

John Adams was as well educated as anyone ever to hold office. He had a distinguished career as a Revolutionary leader, but he never should have been chief executive. He had a prickly personality, overreacted to opposition, and was unwilling to build political support.

Second, Andrew Jackson- Populist demagogues with power do bad things, particular if they are “heroes.”

Andrew Jackson’s illegal and immoral treatment of American Indians stinks to high heaven. It stank even by the standards of the time, but the “war hero” Jackson got away with it. Jackson is one of the first of many American examples where one shining moment, in this case Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans, covered up greater evils.

Republics should always fear giving a hero power.

Third, Martin Van Buren- The Political Wizard is not Enough

Van Buren could make the government “go,” but he was the opposite of the populist hero Jackson: he could not inspire. Adams could neither govern nor inspire, Van proves that governing is not enough.

Fourth, James Buchanan- Crisis Brings Forth Compromise Candidates Who “Win” While We Lose

Buchanan could keep his party together and win a race for the White House, but these very qualities made him incapable of leading. His bland impotence was not why we had a civil war, but he made it worse and longer by some of his inaction.

Fifth, Andrew Johnson- Vice-Presidents Matter. 

The greatest American President, Abraham Lincoln, picked a political running mate to win. Sadly, Andrew Johnson ended up as President and his opposition to “radical” Republicans put off dealing with the legacy of slavery for a century.

Sixth, James Garfield- History can be cruel. 

Garfield had all the right credentials to be a great President, but then he was killed by an assassin and the medical care he received. The Republic chose wisely in selecting Garfield, but it did not turn out well. Oddly enough, the horrid compromise choice of corrupt old Chet Arthur turned out better than anyone hoped. Arthur ended up downright mediocre.

Seventh, Woodrow Wilson- Utopian academics should be kept out of the White House. 

Woodrow Wilson was not just a racist, he was, in his own mind, the master race personified. He had dreams and dead American soldiers in two world wars paid the price for those dreams.

Eighth, Herbert Hoover- Technocrats do not make good presidents.

Hoover was hobbled by his big picture problem solving skills. He forgot that while he might “heal” the economy over time, millions were suffering.

Ninth, Richard Nixon- Beware the Politician that Takes Things Personally

Nixon was arguably less corrupt than Johnson. He was no more ruthless than the Kennedy family. He also took everything personally. Dark personality types (Jackson and Andrew Johnson) should be kept out of the White House.

Tenth, Jimmy Carter- Personal Character Isn’t Enough

Jimmy Carter might make a great neighbor and depending on your theology (his is not mine) a good Sunday School teacher. He was also good at running for office, had a healthy self-regard, and highly moralistic streak. He was a rotten manager, had a hectoring speaking style, and a disconnect with the base constituencies of his own party.

He has been one of the best (charity work!) and worst (foreign policy interference!) former presidents. Excellent private citizens should be kept in the area they are fit to fill and out of the area, the public arena, where he was and is a disaster.

Just because nobody asked, I do not think U.S. Grant belongs on this list. His work to back African-American voting rights and his efforts to keep us out of war makes me believe his presidency is underrated. I don’t think he was a great president (see corruption), but I do not think he was a failure. Even the corruption was not personal and not unusual by the standards of his time.

And so today, a day we can remember Millard Fillmore (and how great is that?), is a day to look at 2016 candidates and ask: does Hilary Clinton have a Nixonian personality? is Ted Cruz a conservative Wilson full of Utopian ideas? is Joe Biden a Martin Van Buren in training? is Mike Huckabee an Evangelical Jimmy Carter? if Chris Christie was on a ticket is he Chet Arthur in process?

Both parties should ask these questions now.

 


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