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Indexing and dating America's "worst" presidents.

Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor, Bancroft prizewinner, and contributing editor to The New Republic, said during George W. Bush's second presidential term that, "George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history." (1)

Wilentz's comments led me to wonder whom historians currently rank as America's "worst" presidents and how that category is determined. To answer the last part of that question, I examined six presidential-ranking surveys done since 1948, the year when Harvard Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. compiled the first such census of historians, and found certain evaluative criteria central to their results. (2) Those criteria include:

Domestic policy: Generally, the more the president's domestic policies are endorsed by the American people and passed by the legislature the higher the president's poll rankings.

Foreign policy: Significant foreign policy success can compensate for domestic failure. President Nixon ranks low on many lists, but he had key triumphs in the foreign policy area. These achievements help balance the deficits he displayed in the domains of character and integrity.

Character and integrity: The attributes of character and integrity are important when judging presidents. Bill Clinton marred a successful residency with many personal scandals, like lying to the public.

Crisis management How a president deals with domestic and international crises has a great impact on how they're evaluated. Lyndon Johnson did a poor job handling the Vietnam War. That poor performance lowers his ranking, despite his impressive domestic attainments, particularly in the realm of civil rights.

Presidential appointments: The individuals that presidents appoint to various offices can influence presidential standing. Presidents Harding and Grant did great harm to their presidencies with inept, corrupt appointments, and their rankings reflect this.

Public persuasion: The ability to persuade the public to their point of view is one of the most powerful weapons that presidents possess. Ronald Reagan, who is known as the "Great Communicator," was a virtuoso in this area.

Presidential vision: Not having a vision of what one wants to accomplish usually results in a failed presidency. Without a master plan, the president is vulnerable to the inclinations of Congress, which can then take the lead in making policy for the nation.

To find out which presidents currently dwell at the bottom of presidential evaluation surveys, one can look at such inventories and see who they include.

A particularly well-respected appraisal of American presidents was released in 2009. In that year, C-SPAN (National Cable Satellite Corporation), a network designed to show public affairs programming, conducted a survey of 65 presidential historians and experts on the presidency and asked them to rank American presidents using the following ten standards: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with congress, vision/ setting agenda, pursued justice for all, and performance within the contexts of the times.

What follows is an '"indexed list" of the lowest scoring ("worst") presidents from the 2009 C-SPAN survey, starting with the nethermost scoring president first. (3) (Indexing is a general semantics approach that involves examining parts of a larger category. It can be helpful to uncover differences that might make a difference and differences that don't. For example, with respect to differences that might make a difference, the three lowest scoring presidents on the C-SPAN list are there largely due to their stances on the issues of slavery and preserving the Union.) Brief bios containing evidence of why a president might have been given a poor evaluative score accompany the register.

Interestingly, George W. Bush appears on the C-SPAN roll as the seventh "worst" president. Other surveys have also begun to consign Bush to the cellar presidential level. Will he remain there, or perhaps even supplant James Buchanan, a perennial choice of historians who rank presidents, as America's "worst" CEO? That question is discussed at the end of this article.

An Indexed List of the "Worst" American Presidents

Worst [president.sub.1]: James Buchanan

President Buchanan was personally opposed to slavery but believed the Constitution allowed it. So, he declined to do anything about the issue. Instead, in 1857, he supported the Dred Scott decision, which declared that slaves were not people or citizens but rather chattels or private property.

When seven Southern states seceded after Lincoln's victory in 1860, Buchanan stood by, did nothing, and simply waited for his term to end. When Lincoln arrived at the White House to take over the reins of government on March 4, 1861, Buchanan dashed back to his house in Pennsylvania where he spent lots of time defending himself from accusations that his refusal to take action helped cause the Civil War. Shortly before his death in 1868, at the age of seventy-seven Buchanan said, "I have always felt and still feel that I discharged every public duty imposed on me. I have no regret for any public act in my life, and history will vindicate my memory." (4) Unfortunately, for Buchanan, that prophecy has not panned out. He is typically ranked either at or near the bottom of most presidential surveys.

Worst [president.sub.2]: Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency only because President Lincoln was assassinated. He is widely considered one of the worst U.S. presidents.

Johnson's Reconstruction plan for the Southern states after the Civil War was lenient for the ex-Confederate States but didn't help the newly freed slaves at all. In 1866, Johnson vetoed a Civil Rights Bill passed by Congress, an action that pushed federal legislators to a point where the House of Representatives impeached him for violating the Tenure of Office Act. He escaped conviction in the Senate by one vote.

In his 1867 message to Congress, Johnson said, "Blacks have less capacity for government than any other race of people [and when left alone show a] constant tendency to relapse into barbarism." (5) Had it been solely up to Johnson, African Americans would have never gained citizenship or received the benefit of civil freedoms.

Worst [President.sub.3]: Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce was a Northern Democrat with a Southern psyche. He laid the foundation for the Civil War by helping Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas ram through the proslavery Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The act overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed Kansas to become a slave state if the settlers voted for it. Border thugs from the slave state of Missouri then swiftly crossed into Kansas to set up a proslavery government there, despite the strong objections of antislavery Kansans and Northerners.

Pierce imbibed heavily as he ignored the conflict ripping Kansas apart. He didn't run for reelection in 1856. Instead, he retired and drank himself to death. Pierce's home state of New Hampshire didn't put up a statue to honor their native son until fifty years after his death.

Worst [President.sub.4]: William Henry Harrison

It's not fair to evaluate William Henry Harrison on his presidential tenure, as he served just over a month in office, most of it on his deathbed. However, one can rank him on his campaign and agenda. (Actually there was no agenda because Harrison stood for nothing except for being opposed to whatever his opponent was in favor of and he ran without a platform.)

Harrison's campaign portrayed him as a hard-drinking man of the people who was born in a log cabin. In fact, he did not drink hard cider and rather than being born in a log cabin, Harrison was raised on the grand Berkeley estate in Virginia and was living in stately 22-room home in North Bend, Ohio, when he ran for the presidency. His campaign was based on a lie, that of being a "common man," but it got him elected. Harrison's chief presidential legacy lies in his campaigning methods, which laid the foundation for modern presidential campaign tactics.

Worst [President.sub.5]: Warren G. Harding

President Warren G. Harding appointed friends to high-level government positions, and they repaid him by bringing disgrace to his administration through events like the Teapot Dome Scandal in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall sold for personal gain the nation's oil reserves at Wyoming's Teapot Dome; the conviction on bribery charges of Thomas Miller, the government's alien property custodian, and the sentencing of Charles Forbes, the corrupt director of the Veterans Bureau, who diverted alcohol and drugs from Veterans hospitals to bootleggers and narcotics dealers and earned big kickbacks for purchasing government supplies at inflated prices. While no evidence exists that Harding personally profited from such crimes, his laissez faire attitude to what went on around him speaks poorly for his executive abilities.

Harding was not a particularly ethical president. He backed Prohibition and tippled covertly. He married his wife for her money and then cheated on her in a 25-square-foot closet just off the Oval Office while she slept in her bedroom. Harding didn't kid himself about his suitability to be president. He said, "I am not fit for this office [the presidency] and never should have been here." (6)

Worst [President.sub.6]: Millard Fillmore

Whig vice president Millard Fillmore became America's chief executive when President Zachary Taylor died one year into his term.

Shortly after taking office, Fillmore signed into law various measures that constituted the Compromise of 1850, which included a continuance of slavery in the District of Columbia and a new Fugitive Slave Law that made federal officials responsible for recovering runaway slaves. More a surrender to southern slave interests than a middle-of-the-road deal, the Compromise of 1850 effectively spelled the end of the Whig Party and inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin.

In 1856, Fillmore agreed to run as the presidential candidate for the racist American Party (popularly known as the "Know-Nothing" Party), which advocated against blacks, Jews, and Catholics. He ran a distant third behind the Democratic candidate James Buchanan and the Republican candidate John Fremont, winning only one state. After he left the presidency, Fillmore opposed President Lincoln for reelection and supported President Andrew Johnson in his battles against Congress.

Worst [President.sub.7]: George W. Bush

Indifferent to detail, lacking in curiosity, and manifesting a strong penchant to delegate authority, George W. Bush failed to supervise key underlings with whom he entrusted the operations of his administration. As a result, and because his minions let him down, Bush didn't modify his strategy in Iraq to take into account the insurrection there; he didn't intervene to provide U.S. forces in the Middle East with needed vehicular and body armor (Congress eventually did); and he defended a sloppy federal response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

When Bush took office in 2001, he inherited a $236 billion budget surplus. When Bush ended his term, he left a $1.2 trillion deficit, a shortfall that was due in large part to his reluctance to control federal spending.

Bush did not dispose of the "axis of evil," a term he first used in his 2002 State of the Union Address (Iraq is optimistically a "work in progress" and Iran and North Korea are determined to become important nuclear powers). Also, after finding goodness in Vladimir Putin's soul, Bush did little to improve relations with Russia. On the plus side, after September 11, 2001, there were no more attacks on Americans in the United States during Bush's presidential watch.

Worst [President.sub.8]: John Tyler

Vice president John Tyler became president when William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841. As president, Tyler's stubborn attitude and unwillingness to negotiate with Congress led to almost everyone in Tyler's cabinet resigning, ostracism from his own Whig party, and calls for impeachment from the House of Representatives. After Tyler avoided being tossed out of office in 1843, he turned to the Democrats for support. But they refused his appeals for help, and in the election year of 1844, he had no party to run with. So he formed a party of his own (the Democrat Republicans) that failed miserably, which effectively put a kibosh on his chances to remain in office for another term.

Tyler's one big accomplishment as president was annexing Texas. Without this success, Tyler would probably rank even lower in presidential polls. On Tyler's last official day on the job, Congress overrode his veto on a minor piece of legislation concerning revenue cutters. It was the first presidential veto override in the history of the republic.

Worst [President.sub.9]: Herbert Hoover

Hoover was a self-made man and a great humanitarian who saved millions of Europeans from starving to death after both world wars. How could a fellow who was such a compassionate and competent administrator in bringing food to people be such a lousy president? Because, while he can't be blamed for causing the Great Depression, he can be blamed for his late reaction. Hoover also refused to implement unemployment benefits (he believed local governments could take care of the unemployed), and Congress had to pass over his veto the Bonus Act, which provided almost a billion dollars to veterans.

In 1932, Hoover further tarnished his legacy by ordering the military to disperse approximately 2,000 veterans who had set up tents in Washington where they were protesting Congress's handling of their bonus payments. This led to their huts being burned down, the death of a baby, and an enraged public that ended his career. In the subsequent election, Hoover gained only 59 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 472.

Worst [President.sub.10]: Rutherford B. Hayes

Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular and electoral vote over his rival Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 presidential election. However, the Republicans challenged those results and Hayes became president through a deal brokered with the Democrats. (The Democrats permitted the recalculation of the black vote in three southern states, which gave the electoral votes in those states to Hayes, while the Republicans pledged that Hayes would withdraw remaining federal troops in the south and that his cabinet would include a southerner.)

Hayes removal of the U.S. military from the South and his trust of Bourbon Democrats to uphold the rights of the newly enfranchised freedmen marked the end of Reconstruction and the reassertion of the Democratic Party in Southern politics. The process of segregating blacks from society and their disenfranchisement by Democratic states legislatures also began at this time. By not enforcing federal laws that guaranteed blacks the rights to vote, Hayes sold out the very men who risked their lives to put him in office.

"Dating" Considerations in Presidential Rankings

In addition to how presidents perform on the job, presidential rankings are largely influenced by the times in which their evaluations are made. For example, scholarly interpretation of the Reconstruction era began to change during the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. So Andrew Johnson, who was once considered an "average president," is now rated a "failure." (Using the general semantics notion of dating, Andrew Johnson's evaluation by [historians.sub.(pre 1960s)] is not Andrew Johnson's evaluation by [historians.sub.(post 1960s)].)

Also, the discovery of new data can affect presidential placement. The opening of Dwight D. Eisenhower's papers approximately a decade after he left office shed fresh light on his managerial style and administrative competence. As a result, Ike has moved from "low average" to "top tier" in most presidential evaluations. (Ike's evaluations by [historians.sub.(pre 1960s)] is not Ike's evaluation by [historians.sub.(post 1960s)].)

George W. Bush's Place in History

Will George W. Bush remain at the bottom of presidential evaluation surveys and maybe even supplant James Buchanan, a perennial choice of historians who rank presidents, as America's "worst" CEO? Will he move up in presidential rankings? It's too soon to answer these questions because over the next 30 to 40 years there may be some presidents who perform so badly and have such little presidential vision that most historians will deem them "worse" than President Bush; new information from classified papers and yet-to-be published memoirs might shed a more positive light on the Bush presidency, and if things go better than expected in the Middle East, President Bush might get a bump in the ratings. (On the flip side, it should be noted that the historians who are marking Bush down today, who are in the vast majority of such professionals, are also teaching the history of this period to the college students who will be the historians of tomorrow. In addition, it's difficult to imagine that, given Bush's foreign and domestic policy missteps, he will ever be seen as more than a mediocre or poor leader.) As with so many things in life, we'll just have to wait and see how things play out.


(1.) Sean Wilentz, "The Worst President in History?" Rolling Stone (4 May 2006): 32.

(2.) I examined the following six surveys: Chicago Tribune poll (1982), Ridings Mclver poll (1996), Schlesinger poll (1996), Wall Street Journal poll (2000), the 2009 C-SPAN Survey, and the Sienna Research Institute Poll (2010).Results from these polls and a discussion of notable scholar surveys can be found at

(3.) The 2009 C-SPAN survey is among the most comprehensive presidential surveys available to the public. More information about it can be found at

(4.) David C. Whitney and Robin Vaughn Whitney, The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives from George Washington to George W. Bush, 9th edition (Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 2001), 125.

(5.) Marcus Stadelmann, U.S. Presidents for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2002), 151.

(6.) Ibid., 356.

Selected Bibliography

Davis, Todd and Marc Frey. The New Big Book of U.S. Presidents. New York: Courage Books, 2005.

Degregorio, William. Complete Book of U.S. Presidents: From George Washington to George W. Bush. New York, 6th edition. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2005.

Faber, Charles F. and Richard B. Faber. The American Presidents Ranked by Performance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2000.

Felzenberg, Alvin S. The Leaders We Deserved (And A Few We Didn't). New York: Perseus, 2008.

Flagel, Thomas R. The History Guide to the Presidents. Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007.

Ridings, William J., Jr. and Stuart B. Mclver. Rating the Presidents: A Ranking of U.S. Leaders, from the Great and Honorable to the Dishonest and Incompetent. New York: Citadel, 1997.

Stadelmann, Marcus. U.S. Presidents for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2002.

Taranto, James and Leonard Leo, eds. Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and Worst in the White House. New York: Free Press, 2005.

Whitney, David C. and Robin Vaughn Whitney. The American Presidents: Biographies of the Chief Executives from George Washington to Barack Obama. 11 th ed. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest, 2009.

Martin H. Levinson is the president of the Institute of General Semantics and the author of numerous articles and several books on General Semantics and other subjects.
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Author:Levinson, Martin H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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