The planned Bush library would include a “Bush Institute,” which would use an obscenely rich endowment to create positive spin on W.’s historical legacy. This inspired me to declare, as a working historian, how I rank the current chief executive among his White House peers. (My fellow historian Arthur M. Schlesinger periodically polls scholars on how they rate the presidents, but so far he’s not asked for my input.)
On one level, ranking presidents represents a silly parlor game, carrying no credible intellectual weight. Each presidency occurs in a very different historical environment. Variations in the economy, the national and international political scene, technology, culture, and even the natural climate, make comparing leaders a difficult if not impossible task. Nevertheless, considering in detail who has been “great” or a failure in the White House clarifies what we want and hope for in presidential leadership and gives us a chance to consider deeper criteria than how they perform at a press conference or how good they look on television.
Being an awful president does not automatically mean being an incompetent one. Some terrible presidents, like Richard Nixon, scored significant achievements in foreign policy and successfully steered domestic programs through Congress. By my criteria, however, presidents fail when their terms are defined by self-righteousness, by inflexibility, by an inability to accept and respond reasonably to dissenting views, by imperialism, by military blundering, and by an indifference to suffering either in this country or in the wider world.
Without further ado, here my ranking of the 10 worst presidents:
10. Woodrow Wilson. This is probably a surprise, because Wilson was rated as “near great” and the 7th best president ever in Schlesinger’s 1996 survey of historians. Wilson only fell behind 1) Abraham Lincoln 2) George Washington 3) Franklin Roosevelt 4) Thomas Jefferson 5) Andrew Jackson and 6) Theodore Roosevelt. He’s also honored as only one of two American presidents (along with Washington) who has been honored with a statue at my campus, the University of Texas at Austin.
Wilson certainly racked up numerous legislative triumphs including creation of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade commission, but he was a lukewarm Progressive at best and concerned himself little with the poverty blighting American cities or the appalling conditions faced by factory workers. He presided over American victory in World War I, but his arrogance alienated European allies and caused America, and its English and French allies, to lose the peace.
A Virginian who moved North to serve as a professor at, and then as president of, Princeton University, Wilson reigned as governor of New Jersey before winning the White House, but unfortunately for the country, he never forgot his white Dixie base. Wilson proved to be the most racist president since Andrew Johnson.
Wilson’s racism was most compelling underscored by sociologist James Loewen in his great book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong." Loewen notes that as president Wilson, who regularly told racist jokes in cabinet meetings, attempted to legislatively curtail the already severely limited civil rights of African Americans, appointed white segregationists to posts traditionally set aside for blacks, and obstructed a clause affirming the concept of racial equality in the League of Nations covenant. By executive decree, Wilson segregated the federal government. Most famously, Wilson enthusiastically endorsed the pro-Ku Klux Klan epic The Birth of a Nation, declaring it was “history written with lightening” after watching the D.W. Griffith film at a White House screening.
Even without America’s entry into World War I, which happened in Wilson’s second term, no president other than George W. Bush has been more hair-trigger in using the United States military, with Wilson sending troops in harm’s way to intervene in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and the just-established Soviet Union, as well as using American troops to interfere with Nicaragua’s internal politics. In spite of his later hypocritical cant about democracy during the Versailles Peace talks, Wilson consistently backed oppressive regimes that supported American business interests.
Few presidents since John Adams in the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts suppressed civil liberties like Woodrow Wilson. America’s first ‘Red Scare” happened at the end of World War I at the instigation of Wilson and his attorney general Mitchell Palmer. Wilson also rammed through Congress the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. Wilson and his henchmen like a young J. Edgar Hoover, deported immigrants, even naturalized citizens, for disagreeing with American foreign policy or embracing left-wing politics In mass numbers, Americans were jailed and sentenced to long prison sentences for criticizing America’s entry into World War I while one filmmaker, Robert Goldstein, received a 10-year prison term for portraying America’s World War I ally Great Britain in a negative light in a film about the Revolutionary War.
Issues on which Wilson often gets praise, his advocacy of a League of Nations to resolve international disputes and to promote democracy, and his embrace of forgiving terms towards the Central Powers in the Versailles peace talks, also represent some of his greatest failures. His self-righteousness disgusted Europeans hardened by four years of butchery on the Western Front while his ugly suppression of civil liberties at home created an anti-Wilson backlash that elected an isolationist Congress. That Republican Congress then rejected American participation in the League of Nations. If Wilson was right on peace terms and the League, his personality made success on those issues impossible.
9. Richard Nixon. About the best thing you can say about Richard Nixon is that Bush’s presidency makes the Trickster’s look so much better. Like Wilson, Nixon’s administration was not without accomplishment. The SALT treaty reduced nuclear tension with the Soviet Union and Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency was an inadequate but necessary baby step towards detoxifying the planet.
Unlike Bush, Nixon at times acknowledged the dangers of oil dependency and actually took some steps towards reducing it, such as mandating the national 55 mph speed limit. Nixon also never embraced the all-taxes-and-government-spending-is-evil theology that has sealed Republicans in an ideological lockbox since Reagan. Nixon was willing to recognize that government could play a positive role in reducing poverty, improving the health and education of the public, etc.
But for Nixon, the evil he did deservedly lives after him while the good has been largely interred with his bones. I have had conservative students repeat the cliché that Nixon did nothing during the Watergate scandal that his predecessors hadn’t done. That’s not quite true. Yes, previous presidents like Kennedy wiretapped citizens’ phones and other politicians engaged in campaign “dirty tricks.”
But no other president taped himself saying it would be no problem to pay a million bucks to suborn perjury, and buy silence from felons, as Nixon did when he plotted to bribe the burglars who broke into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. (“We could get that,” Nixon said of the million dollar bribes to a startled White House Council John Dean. Dean suggested paying the burglars a million dollars as a bluff, thinking Nixon would balk at such a grotesque act of corruption.)
Other choice selections from Nixon’s surreptitious Oval Office tapes reveal Nixon to have been a raving anti-Semite who bitterly complained about Jewish control of the media and a racist who casually dropped words like “nigger” in conversation. Even more appalling, the White House tapes reveal that Nixon ran his administration with the same ethics as Tony Soprano runs his fictional crime family.
In addition to the just-discussed bribery plot, Nixon actually discussed blowing up the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank the president considered to be political opposition. On the day Arthur Bremer attempted to assassinate Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace, Nixon directed his political operatives to plant in Bremer’s hotel room campaign literature supporting George McGovern, Wallace’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination in 1972.
As with Wilson, some of Nixon’s alleged triumphs are also black marks. He did open up a diplomatic channel with China, so he could use that relationship as an implied threat to the Soviet Union. However, Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, set an unfortunate precedent for what has become a mutually exploitative Sino-American relationship, where American consumers greedily gobble up cheap Chinese goods sometime produced by slave labor, and China uses the United States as a dumping ground for its inexpensive, prison-produced exports.
From Nixon on, the United States declared itself uninterested in Chinese human rights abuses and its economic dependency on China’s manufacturing prowess lead several successive administrations to ignore Beijing’s role in the proliferation of dangerous arms, including weapons of mass destruction, around the world.
Beyond blatant criminality, Nixon’s tenure was marked by the harsh suppression of civil liberties that occasioned Wilson’s presidency, with civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam War protestors the chief targets. Beside the illegal wiretapping of Americans, Nixon turned the Internal Revenue Service into an instrument of personal political revenge, ordering audits of his opponents.
Along with Kissinger, Nixon also engineered General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody 1973 d'état against the democratically elected Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, ushering in a regime that crushed free speech and murdered thousands of its opponents, including folksinger Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez whose crime was to write protest ballads that irritated Pinochet. On September 12, 1973 America’s client Pinochet dispatched his goons to arrest Jara, who was confined with thousands of other political prisoners in Chile Stadium. Guards broke the bones of Jara's face and his ribs were crushed before he died.
Nixon’s worst crime, however, can be found on the beautiful Vietnam War Memorial that graces the mall in front of the Capitol. More than half of the 58,000-plus names on that overwhelming black granite surface date from Nixon’s tenure. Nixon campaigned in 1968 on a pledge that he had a secret plan to end the war. While perhaps he should be given some credit for acknowledging that the war couldn’t be won (something George W. Bush hasn’t been able to do with Iraq), the peace terms agreed to by the United States and Vietnam in 1972-1973 were almost identical to what could have been acchieved four years earlier.
Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars were allowed to remain armed and in their combat positions in South Vietnam, well-poised to take over the entire country just two years after the final American withdrawal. This wasn’t “peace with honor,” but a long-overdue surrender delayed for four years because of Nixon’s narcissistic need to not be the first president to “lose” a war (Lyndon Johnson bears similar guilt.) In the meantime, Nixon had expanded the war by invading Cambodia, essentially creating the conditions that led to the rise of the homicidal Khmer Rogue regime. Graveyards overflow in Chile, in Vietnam, in Cambodia and the United States with human sacrifices to Nixon’s hubris and multitudinous neuroses.
8. James Polk. During the buildup to the Iraq invasion in 2003, many liberal critics expressed outrage that the United States had never launched an unprovoked invasion of another country before. That is patently untrue. Unwarranted aggression became the modus operandi of our relations with Native Americans. Many at the time saw through the bogus claim that the Spanish had bombed the American vessel The Maine, a phony casus belli exploited to justify an attack on the crumbling Spanish empire in 1898. And the Vietnamese certainly never attacked the United States either.
But until the Iraq invasion of 2003, no president had ever concocted a flimsier excuse to send American servicemen in harm’s way than had James K. Polk when he launched the 1846-1848 Mexican American War. Judged by the standards the United States used to justify war against Saddam Hussein after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Polk should be seen a shameful warmonger. Yet, that’s not how many scholars see the one-term chief executive from Tennessee. Schlesinger’s pool of scholars perhaps focus on a president’s effectiveness in office at the expense of holding chief executives to any kind of moral standard. That undoubtedly is how Polk managed to be ranked as the ninth best president in the Schlesinger poll, landing in the “near great” category.
Nevertheless, a white supremacist worldview deeply shapted Polk's presidency. As the 1844 Democratic presidential nominee, Polk aggressively embraced the ideology promoted by his Southern slaveowner-dominated party that the United States had a racial "manifest destiny" to wrest control of North America from Indians, Mexicans and other racial inferiors. He believed that conquering the land from California to Texas would represent easy pickings for superior Anglo Saxons and he enjoyed the support of the Southern plantation class that fervently hoped to create new, pro-slave states out of Mexican territory.
Just before Polk was sworn in as President, the U.S. congress annexed Texas, even though the Mexican government had seen the Lone Star Republic as part of an American conspiracy to seize their territory. Mexico declared that annexation of Texas would lead to war. The boundary between Mexico and Texas had been in dispute since 1836. Under Mexico, Texas' southern border had always been the Nueces River, but after provocatively grabbing Texas Polk insisted on making the Rio Grande the boundary, an action that would remove hundreds of miles of territory from Mexican control.
Polk sent an envoy to Mexico City, who offered to buy California, and the future states of New Mexico, Arizona and other territory, for well under fair value. The Mexican government, understandably, refused. Yet, Polk wrote in his diary that if he could not acquire all of this territory through negotiation, he would gain it through force.
In 1846, United States soldiers under the command of General Zachary Taylor clashed with Mexican troops by the mouth of the Rio Grande near Matamoros. Taylor, under instructions from Polk, had entered the disputed territory south of the Nueces in order to provoke an incident. An armed skirmish ensued, with 11 Americans killed and Taylor pulling back. Polk had a draft war declaration on his desk before the incident, when he received news of the armed encounter, he had his excuse to declare war. Polk deceitfully proclaimed, "American blood has been shed on American soil."
The Mexican-American War unleashed some of the worst war crimes ever committed by the American military. The white public had been led by men like Polk to view Mexicans as degenerate half-breeds tainted by worthless Indian and black blood and already legendary tales of the Battle of the Alamo led Anglos to view their wartime opponents as ruthless, untrustworthy and worthless. This no doubt opened the way to appalling wartime atrocities on the part of American soldiers, particularly volunteers from Texas.
A young officer, Ulysses S. Grant, later to be commander of Northern troops in the American Civil War and president of the United States, wrote to his future wife Julia Dent from his post at Matamoros. "Some of the volunteers and about all of the Texans seem to think it perfectly right to impose on the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by dark!" he lamented in one letter. "And how they seem to enjoy acts of violence too! I would not pretend to guess the number of murders that have been committed upon the persons of poor Mexicans . . . but the number would startle you."
A diary by one American soldier, Samuel E. Chamberlain, published in 1956 as My Confessions, detailed the sadism of American troops near one cave in Mexico. "On reaching the place we found one 'greaser' shot and scalped but still breathing; the poor fellow held in his hands a rosary and a medal of the 'Virgin of Guadalupe,' only his feeble motions keeping the fierce harpies from falling on him while yet alive. A saber thrust was given him in mercy, and on we went in a run.
Soon, shouts and curses, cries of women and children reached our ears, coming apparently from a cave at the end of the ravine. Climbing over the rocks, we reached the entrance, and as soon as we could see in the comparative darkness a horrid sight was before us. The cave was full of our volunteers yelling like fiends, while on the rocky floor lay over twenty Mexicans, dead and dying in pools of blood. Women and children were clinging to the knees of the murderers, shrieking for mercy . . . Most of the butchered Mexicans had been scalped, only three were found unharmed. A rough crucifix was fastened to a rock, and some irreverent wretch had fastened the image with a bloody scalp. A sickening smell filled the place. The surviving women and children sent up loud screams upon seeing us, thinking we had returned to finish the work! . . . No one was punished for the outrage."
Polk had achieved his squalid little conquest with the surrender by Mexico of half its national territory in 1848, a victory that more than doubled U.S. territory. That fact alone probably earns Polk his high rating in the Schlesinger poll in spite of the dubious morality of the Mexican War. Polk’s triumph, however, carried the seeds of disaster for the Southern slaveowners who had catapulted Polk to the White House.
Starting with California’s application for admission to the Union in 1849, the year after the Mexican War, the territories seized from Mexico became heated bones of contention between Northerners and Southerners, who battled with increasing bitterness over whether new territories in the West would be admitted to the Union as free or slave states. Each new state's application for admission to the Union intensified regional conflict, thus leading directly to the American Civil War in 1861. Though Polk launched his dirty little war in 1846 partly for racist reasons, he unintentionally made inevitable a future conflagration that would bring about the abolition of slavery. Maybe we should give Polk credit for this, but his one good deed was entirely unintentional.
Next: the Worst Presidents, seven through five.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.