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Who Makes the Cut for the Worst Presidents Ever?

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The 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce

As President Obama prepares his State of the Union Address and the nation looks forward to a Presidents Day holiday, Americans should consider the warning examples of our worst chief executives.

While few of Washington and Lincoln’s successors could hope to replicate their epic achievements, every president can — and must — focus on avoiding the appalling ineptitude of John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and their feckless fellow travelers on the road to presidential perdition. The common elements that link our least successful leaders teach historical lessons at least as important as the shared traits of the Rushmore Four: Broken promises and gloomy temperaments lead inevitably to an alienated public.

All the chief executives unmistakably identified as failures displayed a self-destructive tendency to violate the core promises of their campaigns. Take Tyler, the unbending Virginia aristocrat who won election to the vice presidency in 1840 and assumed the highest office when his predecessor died just a month after inauguration. The new chief executive, dubbed “His Accidency” by critics, used 10 unpopular vetoes to block implementation of his own party’s longstanding ledges. Most of his Cabinet resigned in protest, and eventually they all quit while the hostile Senate voted down four new Cabinet appointments — a record that stands to this day.

Between 1853 and 1861, Pierce and Buchanan completed back-to-back disastrous terms in which personal weakness and pro-Southern sympathies shattered confident promises of unifying leadership. Buchanan pledged to stop “agitation of the slavery question” and to “destroy sectional parties.” By the end of his term, seven Southern states seceded from the union and the nation lunged toward the Civil War.

After that war and Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s vice president) defied members of the martyred president’s Cabinet and congressional leaders, ignoring commitments to lead former slaves to dignity and full civil rights.

In the 20th century, Herbert Hoover’s slogan promised “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage,” but he presided over the beginning of the Great Depression. Similarly, Jimmy Carter’s 1976 platform pledged to reduce unemployment to 3%, but Carter ran for re-election with more than twice that rate.

No wonder that Hoover and Carter, like other unsuccessful presidents, came across as gloomy, self-righteous sufferers. Hoover’s secretary of State said that a meeting with him was “like sitting in a bath of ink.” Carter staked his presidency on a notoriously sour televised address that became known as “The Malaise Speech,” warning the appalled public of a “crisis of the American spirit.”

None of our least successful presidents displayed the self-deprecatory humor of Lincoln or the sunny dispositions that powered the Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin) and Ronald Reagan. A visitor described the Pierce White House as a “cold and cheerless place,” noting the isolation of the invalid first lady, in deep mourning for three dead sons.

When Buchanan welcomed successor Lincoln, he plaintively declared: “My dear, sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed.”

The result of the depressing and erratic leadership of our six most conspicuous presidential failures is that all managed to estrange a once-admiring electorate within the space of a single term. Tyler,Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Buchanan all earned rejection by their own party, failed to win their own party’s nominations, entering retirement as discredited figures. Hoover and Carter appeared on national tickets and campaigned vigorously but got wiped out in historic landslides, with each incumbent carrying a mere six states.

Democrats who denounce George W. Bush as the worst president ever, along with Republicans who apply the same ugly title to Barack Obama, can’t explain away the inconvenient fact that both of our most recent incumbents won re-election with 51% of the vote. Regardless of controversies blighting Bush’s second term, or setbacks that might afflict Obama’s, their legislative and electoral successes place them in a different category from the White House worst.

This baleful history should warn the current occupant and all successors against visibly disregarding commitments while encouraging voters to steer clear of presidential candidates with dour, inflexible temperaments. By selecting aspirants with clear, consistent agendas and cheerful, persuasive personalities, we’ll face fewer shattered presidencies that leave reviled incumbents and a disillusioned electorate.

(This column appeared first in USA TODAY. )

Be sure to tune-in on Presidents Day for Michael Medved’s special broadcast of  THE WORST PRESIDENTS EVER. A recording of this broadcast is available now  for purchase in the Medved History Store.

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Comments (6)

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  1. NavySubVetDave  •  Feb 15, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Interesting that I believe the cable On Demand program, Ultimate Presidents, indicated that Tyler FIRED his cabinet while Dr. Medved says they resigned. Small matter, I suspect that Medved is correct…Interesting that our current president doesn’t even meet with his cabinet but uses his unelected, unapproved by Congress czars to implement his orders.

  2. John Merrifield  •  Feb 15, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Kept promises are often a disaster: FDR, LBJ, Obama.

  3. Buzz Swanson  •  Feb 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    Agreed. I would rather have a haplessly inept president, like Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan, who lacks the vision or the political skills to succeed at his agenda than one, like Obama, who succeeds at destroying the country by achieving his diabolical goals. Better inept and ineffectual than skillful and nefarious.

  4. Johnhorse  •  Feb 15, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    ovomit has won that Title hands down as the WORST political hack ever.Then there is Serial Violator of the Constitution, pathological sociopath,marxist, socialist, communist,and that just names a few titles you can hang on ovomit there are more.

  5. John Poland  •  Feb 15, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Lets judge on how Bad a President is buy the way a President’s agenda Hurt America and prosperity in America worse..That he got elected or by how much says NOTHING about how bad a President He was ..It says how the people who voted Believed the President was going to perform. And in That catagory By Far OBama IS the VERY WORSE !!!

  6. ickym  •  Feb 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Having lived during President F.D Rosselvelt through todays President Obama, thats prohbably all I am qualified to judge. However, President Carter had to be the worse until today. The inflation rate was terrible and our home mortgage rate was 13%. The line up of cars waiting for gas was crazy. Carter was just plain dumb. Then came Nixon, and while he had brains, his coverup for the Watergate situation was stupid, and thats what most people remember him for. Then came reagan who without a doubt was the greatest speaker ever and his vision will live on forever. But, shortly after Bush (who won the 1st Gulf War going away only to become put down by saying “read my lips – I will not raise your taxes. It was a monor deal, but the liberal medica and the democrats took him down over it. Then came the sex adict called Billy Clinton, and he personally shamed this country when he had an afair in our White House Oval Office. We all liked George W. Bush and his leadership subsequent to 9/11, but the democratic controlled congress was overpowering and started the destruction of the economy with their unparrelled spending. And then came without the most unqualified President ever and his name was Obama – and this nation has become paralyzed because of his ineptness.


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