5 Presidents Who Hated The Job

Presidential sealBeing president is a sweet gig. The White House staff is at your beck and call. You have Air Force One to take you anywhere in the world on short notice, no TSA lines at the airport. And let’s face it, it’s still the most powerful political office in the world.

But sometimes, the job ain’t what’s it’s cracked up to be. At any given time, half the nation thinks the president is wrong and is evil, no matter how popular he is. Some, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, let it roll right off their backs. Others, like Nixon, couldn’t wait to get on Marine One and get the hell out of DC. Most men, however, enjoyed the job, including Nixon. A handful didn’t. In fact, five in particular hated the job as soon as the finished taking the oath of office. Who were they?

Andrew Johnson5. Andrew Johson

Lincoln’s second vice president was chosen for several reasons. As the Civil War drew to a close, Lincoln wanted a Southerner and a Democrat to unify the nation and make it easier to reconcile North and South. Johnson, former military governor of Tennessee and the only Southern senator to refuse to give up his Senate seat when his state seceded, was perfect from a campaign standpoint. Like Lincoln, Johnson was self-educated and self-made. Unlike Lincoln, he was a slave owner, though the Emancipation Proclamation did not exactly break his heart. Johnson hated the planter class so much that the end of slavery meant sticking it to the man. But…

He did not begin his vice presidency very well, showing up for his oath of office drunk off his ass and giving a rambling, incoherent speech to the Senate, which did not exactly go well with Lincoln’s famous With Malice Toward None speech happening outside at the same time. On the night Lincoln was assassinated, someone also tried to kill him. (The would-be killer chickened out and was hung weeks later.)

Senate impeaches Johsnon

“Wait. Impeachment? But who’d give him a blow job?”

Then the fun really began. Johnson, hotheaded and stubborn, originally wanted to seek revenge on the fallen Confederacy, yet another dig at the planter class. However, after about a month in office, Johnson decided that Lincoln’s plan of gentle reconciliation while adjusting newly freed slaves to life as citizens was the best route.

Congress wasn’t having that. Just to make a point, they passed a silly law called the “Tenure in Office Act,” which said that the president not only had to consult the Senate to appoint his cabinet, he had to consult them to fire them, too. This brilliant piece of stupidity set Johnson up for a fall. Johnson fired the combative (and let’s be honest, self-important) Edward Stanton as War Secretary. Congress, dominated by revenge-minded Radical Republicans, responded by impeaching Johnson, the first president to have been tried in the Senate. Johnson survived by a single vote.

He got his revenge, though. In 1875, Tennessee returned him to the Senate.

Warren Harding4.  Warren G. Harding

Warren Harding was a likeable senator from Ohio who was one of the handsomest men in the country at the time. And that was the extent of Harding’s qualifications for office. Oh, he liked the presidency well enough. It had a perk that would more famously be used and abused by Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton in later years:

Sex in the Oval Office. Harding famously quipped after becoming president, “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I’d be pregnant all the time.”

However, Harding also had the most corrupt cabinet of the early twentieth century, possibly since Grant’s cabinet in the 1870’s. His attorney general, Harry Daugherty, engineered Harding’s campaign, beating out much more qualified candidates such as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt’s confidant, General Leonard Wood. However, Daugherty had a plan.

Bill Clinton

“That man is still the coolest president ever.”

Harding was so likeable and docile that it would allow Daugherty, Albert Fall, and several others to loot the nation’s land holdings for cash. Ultimately, this resulted in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which embarrassed Harding. At one point, he said he wasn’t worried about his enemies, it was his friends who kept him up at night worrying. He’s also rumored to have said “This fucking job’s going to kill me.”

As he embarked on a tour of the nation to restore his reputation (and get out of Washington), he admitted he was in over his head and should never have run for president.

The job did, in fact, kill him. Harding died of a stroke in 1923. Calvin Coolidge, with no loyalty to anyone but the more talented members of the cabinet, took the oath of office, came back to DC, and fired the Ohio Gang.

Chester Alan Arthur3.  Chester Arthur

Here’s a man who never expected to be president. In fact, he intended to spend Garfield’s first term in office in New York, minding his investments. Chester Arthur never held an elected position in his life. Instead, he was the rare honest cog in New York Senator Roscoe Conkling’s political machine. Conkling saw himself as the Henry Clay of his time, wheeling and dealing, making things happen. However, Clay was considered honest, likeable, intelligent, and level-headed. Conkling was an asshole.

Nonetheless, Arthur made the patronage jobs Conkling procured for him work to the advantage of both Conkling and the nation. As a reward, Conkling strong-armed the Republican Party into making him Garfield’s running mate. Garfield and Arthur actually never met until inauguration day, and Arthur only came to Washington to cast tie-breaker votes.

All that changed when Garfield was shot in the back by a man who, in modern times, would probably be sitting on a city street with a cardboard sign and rambling incoherently. And Garfield might have survived if his doctors had not botched his treatment. The president actually died of infection, not the bullet itself. (Which, kids, will not get you off when you shot the bullet that caused said infection.)

Conkling saw Arthur’s ascendancy as an opportunity. He proceeded to instruct Arthur on how to run his White House. Arthur instructed Conkling to go to Hell. It ended Conkling’s political career. The new president was so disgusted by the disrespect given the presidency by office seekers that civil service reform, which would dismantle the very system that made Arthur president, the centerpiece of his administration. How bad was it? One office seeker waltzed into the White House (because you could do that back then), plopped down in front of “Chet’s” desk, and put his feet up on the desk, telling “Chet” what office he wanted. Arthur told him to put his feet on the floor and address him as Mr. President.

"Told you I was sick."The job took its toll. Arthur came into office with Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment caused by high blood pressure. By the end of his term, he was so ill that he almost could not do his job. However, he put up a token campaign to win the Republican nomination in his own right. Fortunately for Arthur, they nominated James G. Blaine to run against Grover Cleveland. Arthur died only months after leaving office, completely unable to work. So like Harding, the job killed Arthur.

William Howard Taft2. William Howard Taft

Few men came to the White House as qualified as William Howard Taft. Governor of the Phillipines and Cuba, supervisor of the Panama Canal project, Secretary of War and Theodore Roosevelt’s confidant, Taft was the logical man to carry on Roosevelt’s policies. Only Taft didn’t want to be president. He wanted to be on the Supreme Court. Taft started his career as a lawyer, then a judge before William McKinley plucked him out of Cincinnati to run the Civil Service Commission. So why did this man who loved the law run for president?

First, Roosevelt asked him to run. Fair enough, but he needed one more reason to do it. He had it. His wife wanted to live in the White House. Can you think of a better reason to run for president?

Taft was not the healthiest man to sit in the Oval Office. Beset by weight-related issues such as sleep apnea, he would fall asleep during cabinet meetings. It’s also rumored that he got stuck in the White House bathtub and had to be buttered to get out of it. It gets worse.

"In what universe does the progressive movement work?"

“In what universe does a ‘bull moose’ make a good president?”

His own party derided him for not being progressive enough. It got so bad that Roosevelt decided to run again in 1912, which told Taft that Roosevelt saw him as keeping the Oval Office chair warm. The battle between the two became so bitter and protracted that it all but guaranteed the election of Woodrow Wilson, the Sheldon Cooper of presidents.

Taft and Roosevelt eventually patched up their differences. In 1921, Harding made Taft a happy man by naming him to the Supreme Court. There, as Chief Justice, Taft excelled, overhauling the federal court system and moving the judicial branch of the government to its own building by the 1930’s. In all that time, Taft never spoke much about his time as president. To him, it was an interruption in his legal career.

James Buchanan1. James Buchanan

Like Taft fifty years later, James Buchanan came to the White House more qualified than most of his predecessors. Secretary of State. Minister to Britain and Russia. A long-time Pennsylvania congressman and lawyer. His resume screamed president.


“We find Mr. Buchanan fabulous!”

He also was likely our first gay president. While Buchanan never confirmed the rumors that swirled around him, particularly while he roomed with senator and vice president Rufus King, he did little to convince anyone he wasn’t gay. He would also be our only bachelor president. Others would come to the White House married, widowed, or would even get married while in office.

So a guy that comfortable with himself and with a resume like his would be the perfect guy to keep the nation from flying apart on the eve of the Civil War. Right?


Buchanan stuck to the tried and not-so-true policy of appeasing the South. This idea cost Franklin Pierce his presidency, and Buchanan only succeeded in angering both sides. His handling of the crisis over admitting Kansas as either a slave or free state resulted in aggravating the civil unrest there. And then South Carolina seceded.


“Later, bitches!”

Buchanan took the odd (and untenable) position that secession was illegal but that the federal government could not do anything about it. In other words, it became official policy to sit on his hands until Lincoln came into office. On the way to Lincoln’s inauguration, Buchanan said to the new president, “If you’re as happy to be coming to the White House as I shall be leaving it, you are a very happy man indeed.”

The Presidents: What About George And Barry

I’ve managed to read about the first 41 men to serve as president. It’s been a great way to look back at US history. I’m sure, though, there are some ideologues out there who wonder why I’m not using these posts to foam and froth at the mouth about George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Simple.

To look at these two administrations, especially when one of these men is still in office, usually ends up being an excuse to foam and froth at the mouth. There’s too much foaming and frothing, usually with a lot of misinformation. Then again, we are a society that thought what Phil Robertson said was really, really important. (Hint: No, it wasn’t.) The simple fact is their tenures are too recent for an objective look.

I admit I was hard on George W. Bush. It was hard not to be when we were embroiled in a war that turned out to have a dubious purpose, coupled with an exploding deficit. Likewise, Barack Obama could have cruised through an easy second term were it not for a signature program ham-strung by a poorly designed web site.

Still, in reading about all their predecessors, I’ve discovered often that, when a president screws up, the results are almost immediate. Their accomplishments, though, often aren’t noticed until years afterward.

What I’ve also discovered (and have witnessed in recent years) is that modern presidents generally take a dim view of criticism of their successors. For instance, George W. Bush, who will occasionally defend himself if he thinks Barack Obama might have crossed a line, generally frowns on those trying to bait him into attacking Obama. “He deserves my silence,” he famously said. Granted, Nixon was hard on his successors. He thought Carter was an idiot, and he never really forgave Reagan for shifting the party’s ideology. Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt had a legendary feud that kept Hoover out of the public policy loop until late in World War II. Truman eventually offered the olive branch. Eisenhower was a mentor to Kennedy. Nixon sometimes turned to Johnson for advice. Both Bushes and Clinton have worked together on humanitarian efforts.

It wasn’t always like this, though. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not speak for years after Adams left office, and only settled their differences in their old age. Adams’ son John Quincy Adams, made it a point to be a thorn in the side of Andrew Jackson. And William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt fought each other so bitterly, it all but guaranteed a Woodrow Wilson presidency.

But prior to the twentieth century, America seldom had more than one or two former presidents living. While the Viriginia Dynasty and Adams survived well into the younger Adams’ administration, it wasn’t until the leadup to the Civil War that we had more than three living presidents. There were a record six alive on the day Abraham Lincoln assumed office (one of whom could not wait to get out of Washington.)

Most presidents loved the job. Many did not. Buchanan, arguably the worst chief executive, was so disgusted that he told Lincoln he was happier than the new president to be leaving. William Howard Taft only ran as a favor to Theodore Roosevelt and to please his wife. He himself wanted a seat on the Supreme Court (which he later attained.) Truman and Ford both felt overwhelmed. Chester Arthur hated the job and the system that put him there virtually unelected.

But really, presidents are often only as good as the Congresses we saddle them with. Yes, I said “We.” You and I are the ones who vote for all 435 representatives and 100 senators. So some of the blame for the recent gridlock, the government shutdown, and even the more poorly thought-out parts of the ACA goes to us the people. Some of it. We’re still paying them to get stuff done, whether what the president proposes or some opposition alternative. So while we probably need to do a better job picking people to send to Washington for lobbyists to bribe, ultimately, they need to do their jobs.

Presidents don’t normally do well when their party holds Congress. It’s almost (not always, but almost) a rubber stamp on a president’s agenda with no chance for opponents to adjust legislation. However, it seems that the worst scenario is when Congress is split between parties, which is a large reason why this Congress is one of the most despised Congresses in US history.

One thing that struck me, though, was how our laws came to be. No, not the old School House Rock “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon. (Those were awesome!) The Constitution was written with a quill pen. After the Civil War, laws and amendments were typed. Now we are on the cusp of the original documents being electronic.

Another thing that’s striking is the communications presidents have had to rely on. George Washington depended on horse-and-rider. The peace offer that could have stopped the War of 1812 literally passed the declaration of war against England somewhere in the Atlantic, both taking three weeks to arrive. On the other hand, Lincoln, by necessity of a war literally in sight of the White House, was the first wired president, keeping a bank of telegraph units in the nearby War Department. Since Johnson, presidents have had satellite capability and instant links to world leaders. Barack Obama can Skype with Vladimir Putin (though they likely use something more secure for direct conversations.)

It’s been a fascinating way to look at American history.

Bill Clinton

Bill ClintonI may have gone a president too far in going through all of our Chief Executives. Bill Clinton still inspires a lot of controversy today, and not just for his dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky. However, he did preside over the longest sustained period of growth in US history. And yes, he does deserve much of the credit.

Conservatives like to say that Clinton did nothing, that his success all comes from the efforts of Ronald Reagan paying off during his term. Most men who have sat in the Oval Office would find that assessment extremely offensive, including – and maybe especially – Ronald Reagan. There is, however, a kernel of truth. Reagan’s (and Bush’s) success stems from shattering a petrified structure that grew out of the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to reinvent the New Deal. Love trickle down or hate it, the freewheeling eighties could not have happened with the huge tax rates of the seventies or the burdensome regulations that contributed to the stagnation of the American economy.

That said, Reaganomics represented a course-correction, not a new vision. What Reagan did was put forth a program and challenge the nation to do better. They responded. But when capitalism has the safeties taken off (something, incidentally, Adam Smith frowned upon, since being a douchebag actually went against the ideas he put down in The Wealth of Nations), it has a nasty habit of pulling apart the middle class. Clinton sought to reinvent government, offering a scaled-down version of the New Deal while massaging the markets by slashing the deficit, a perpetual thorn in the side of George H.W. Bush. It almost did not happen.

While Clinton’s appetites later became a distraction, early on, it was Clinton’s informal management style and failure to comprehend Washington politics that almost sank his presidency within the first six months. Clinton had three goals when he took office: create jobs, slash the deficit, and reform health care. (Sounds like Obama’s mandate, doesn’t it?) This last, of course, went down in flames, resulting in little more than reforming the health insurance industry. (And no, I have no nostalgia for the HMO’s of the 1990’s.) The latter was stalled until mid-decade by discretionary spending caps, but later fueled by the tech boom. That same boom would not have been possible were it not for his biggest first-term victory, the deal to slash the deficit by $480 billion.

To look at Clinton, I read Bob Woodward’s The Agenda. Woodward paints a portrait of a chaotic White House populated by about a dozen Type A personalities from the president himself to Hillary Clinton (more an adviser and informal cabinet member than a First Lady, hence her later Secretary of State posting) to point man George Stephenopoulos to consultant (and now CNN analyst) Paul Begala. Everyone on Clinton’s economic team had their own pet projects, as did Secretary of Treasury Lloyd Bentsen (channeling the ghost of LBJ), Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore. Whenever someone had to compromise, they would loudly complain. Whereas getting a consensus served Governor Bill Clinton well in Arkansas, it bogged him down with indecision early on as president.

Eventually, Clinton found his voice, his theme, and his spine. It took counseling from none other than Richard Nixon, who told him it was fine to compromise on the deficit, but he would have to hit Congress hard in demanding any new programs. Americans, the disgraced former president said, wanted a leader.

I do remember being impatient with not just Clinton, but the Congressional leadership under both parties. The Democrats in his first two years in office proved to be a fractured and contentious lot, unable to agree on much without nearly sinking their own cause. (They would do this to Obama from 2009 to 2011.) When the Republicans took over, the government ground to a needless halt because Clinton held his ground, Newt Gingrich held his breath (and stamped his feet and whined), and Bob Dole, normally a master deal-maker, wanted to be president in 1996. Even Ross Perot, the last credible third-party candidate for president, so incensed me that, in 1996, I voted for my only write-in candidate for president, writing in Richard Lamm, who lost the Reform nomination to Perot. Yeah, I was pissed off over the government shutdown. (These days, I refuse to vote for any representative or senator who held a seat in Congress in October, 2013. Sorry, but there must be consequences. If I did that at my job, I wouldn’t even be eligible for unemployment.)

Clinton presented an affable image to the public. To admirers, he cared about the middle class and minorities. To detractors, he was a snake oil salesman. There’s truth to both views, but ultimately, his 1993 deal to hack $480 billion from the deficit by 1997 ultimately led to a budget surplus in 2001. Yes, Reagan and Bush 41 definitely deserve credit for loosening up the economy in the 1980’s, but Clinton managed to balance fiscal prudence with investment in the nation’s infrastructure, education, and technology.

Since he left office…

The deficit exploded, America has lost its standing in the world, and attempts to reinvest in America have been underwhelming. As I said in my post about the elder George Bush, something seemed to leave when our best one-term president retired. Clinton managed to pick up on it and, for a time, rediscover it, but since the twenty-first century began, leadership in Washington has been spectacularly absent in two of the three branches of government.

George H. W. Bush


George H.W. Bush Library

George Bush had an unusual path to the White House, though not as unusual as that of Chester Arthur or Gerald Ford. No, Bush had only held one elected office, as a congressman from Houston, Texas. From there, he became Ambassador to the UN, Republican National Chairman, head of the US Liaison Office in China, and director of the CIA. The presidents who have taken office since World War II have been senators (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Obama, with Ford coming from the House), governors (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush), and four vice presidents (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, GHW Bush), two of whom were senators before stepping one heartbeat away from the presidency.

It may surprise many to know that Bush was actually considered for the vice presidency, a job he held under Ronald Reagan, as early as 1972, when Nixon considered getting rid of Spiro Agnew, and again when Agnew resigned. Ford twice considered him (complaining later in Write It When I’m Gone that Congressional leaders twisted his arm to make Bush head of the CIA essentially to keep him off the 1976 ticket.)

Bush ran in the second election in which I was eligible to vote. I immediately liked him because, unlike so many who run for president, he struck me as a manager. He was definitely a politician. He had to be to hold the jobs he held before joining the Reagan Administration. But spending most of his career in business and in appointed jobs showed in his demeanor and his approach to domestic and foreign affairs. He would manage the country, whereas Reagan, though active and involved, also served as a larger-than-life figurehead.

What I also remember is that Bush was better suited for foreign policy – which he excelled at – than domestic. It may have been that he simply approached domestic matters with a more low-key approach than Reagan did. Bush is a Republican in the mold of Bob Dole (who probably should have been Nixon’s second vice president, though Ford did well enough.) He leaned conservative, but was more center right than he cares to admit even now.

Reading his book of letters, All the Best, George Bush, I got a sense of a man who did business in a way that Washington sorely needs to return to these days. Bush valued friendship and even sought advice from political rivals during his political career. One letter playfully needles his former opposite number on the Democratic National Committee after Bush’s posting to China.

I often say Bush came in the finish Reagan’s paperwork. Considering that he was president at the end of the Cold War, that’s a somewhat accurate assessment, but hardly a dismissal. After Reagan was shot in 1981, he became an essential part of the administration, a sort of unofficial diplomat. (“You die, I fly,” he once joked after some ribbing in the press about his frequent trips to attend funerals, where, he points out in his book, a lot of diplomacy would get done.)

But, as with Reagan, Bush saw the rough-and-tumble of politics as a sort of Sam Sheepdog/Ralph Wolf routine. Legislators, candidates, and officials would snipe in the press, then roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get work done.

There’s something missing in the way DC governs now. Clinton, who learned a lot from his predecessor, may have been the last to govern the way Bush did, but it’s something more. Bush was the last World War II vet to sit in the Oval Office. While the living presidents tend to be friendly, if not close (George W. Bush is surprisingly the most sympathetic man to Barack Obama’s woes, which should really make some of Obama’s – and Bush’s – detractors ashamed of themselves), it seems as though real civility in the White House and on Capitol Hill began dying off as the Vietnam Era generation began to retire from politics. Today’s method seems to be hold one’s breath, stamp one’s feet, and make sure nothing positive is ever said about one’s opponent.

I admire Clinton, but I suspect something very deep and very important began disappearing the day George H. W. Bush went home to Houston. Johnson, for all his crassness, showed it. Ford was the embodiment of it. Carter and Reagan did it without thinking. Bush was the last of a generation that survived a Depression and fought a war to save civilization. Today it’s all demagogues, posers, and people who are incapable of compromise, nuance, or even substance.

It died when our best one-term president in modern history left office.

JFK: Fifty Years Later, My Theory


National Archives

Today is the fiftieth anniversary anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination. There would be three more credible attempts on a president’s life afterward, none of them successful: Two on Gerald Ford and John Hinkley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan 100 years after the Garfield assassination. The Kennedy assassination, however, looms large in our national consciousness. Conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory abounds, including a questionable assertion from Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt that LBJ was in on it. (Most credible biographies and accounts of Lyndon Johnson suggest that our 36th president spent his entire term in office terrified that he was next. Wouldn’t you?)


LBJ Presidential Library

Part of this stems from Kennedy’s death existing in living memory. For instance, I read one of McBain’s 87th Precinct novels from the mid-1960’s where one of the bulls (Kling, I think) went into an American Legion post to ask questions. The veterans were all from the Spanish-American War (which ended before 1900). When it was written, most Americans had either served in World War II or had relatives who did. When I grew up (the 1970’s), World War II was still a big scary thing, and many adults younger than I am now looked still looked suspiciously at Germany and Japan. Now World War II is fading into history as old age claims more and more veterans every day. Korea is forgotten, but Vietnam is now grandpa’s war, and most of us wonder why we couldn’t duplicate the rapid victory of the Gulf War in 1991.

Likewise, Kennedy is in the memory of a large number of Americans, up there with the Challenger disaster, the Reagan shooting, and 9/11. So naturally, people have strong feelings on the matter. It’s inevitable that books and movies, particularly Oliver Stone’s JFK, would muddy the waters a bit.

When I was younger, before I looked at why many of the theories got debunked, I believed there was someone on the infamous grassy knoll that shot Kennedy. What I also believed was this:

  1. Oswald acted alone, but missed.
  2. Oswald just happened to pick the same day someone else did to take a shot at the president.
  3. The shooting was a mob hit – an idea bolstered by Joseph Kennedy’s cozy relationship with the Mafia.
  4. When Oswald’s rifle was found an Oswald arrested, some mobsters probably did a happy dance having found a patsy to feed an angry FBI and Secret Service.
  5. Jack Ruby sealed the deal.

It’s possible, but I don’t believe it as strongly as I once did. At this point, it doesn’t matter to me now. Those responsible for both the killing and its aftermath are mostly dead. The repercussions have been supplanted by subsequent events and issues.

Still, it ended an era in America. I still feel robbed after all these years. Whoever was responsible (and anymore, I believe it was Oswald) stole from a large number of unborn Americans. For that, I have no forgiveness.

Getting To The End With The Presidents


On President Whitmore’s watch, most Americans died. Source: 20th Century Fox

We’re getting to the end of my quest to read about most of the presidents. It’s been a great way to gain perspective on American history. I’d love it if some of the talking heads would do this. But then they’d all have to admit they’ve been getting paid to talk out their ass for too long.

George H.W. Bush is on deck. I found a book of his letters which should provide some perspective on his life and presidency. I also decided to read about Bill Clinton, even though most books on our 42nd president aren’t worth the lighter fluid needed to burn them. A few weeks back, I voiced some concern about Bob Woodward’s books on the presidents. Starting with Reagan, Woodward seemed interested only in revisiting his glory days with Carl Bernstein and taking the sitting commander-in-chief down a peg. But I also read a few reviews of his book on Clinton, The Agenda. This one is probably the only one I’ve seen that could give me an honest look at Clinton’s presidency.

I’d rather not read a book of Clinton’s letters or those of his successors. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama are email and text presidents. That makes for some torturous reading, and frankly, I’d rather not read something by the most powerful man in the word with “LOL” prominently featured.

I’m going to have to stop at Clinton, however. Bush and Obama are too recent to be assessed objectively. Most books about them are written by detractors and opponents. Usually, such books aren’t worth lining a cat box with, nor worth the cat’s time to use them for litter.

Also, as strongly as we might feel about the sitting POTUS, the truth is history is the only objective judge of a president. Bush and Obama are two of the most embattled presidents in recent history. Either one can go down in history as another Harry Truman. Just as likely, they can go down as another Franklin Pierce or Rutherford Hayes. At least they are assured of not being the second coming of either James Buchanan (nearly unanimously considered to be the worst president ever) or Warren Harding (a man whose cabinet was so corrupt it made Nixon’s staff look merely unlikeable.) But we’re too close to these men to be honest about their impact. Not everything has taken effect. And the voices of extremists do little more than stir up hysteria and send more rational people diving for the remote in search of the latest Duck Dynasty or The Big Bang Theory.

So this series will finish up in December.

Then I have to go find something else for blog fodder.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald ReaganOur 40th president is easily the most popular president since World War II, even among his detractors. It’s easy to see why. More conservative than predecessors Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (not to mention his vice president, George H.W. Bush), his roots actually lay in the New Deal. In his diary, he even laments how the press has painted him as trying to undo the New Deal when he felt it was Johnson’s Great Society that needed to be dismantled.

The America Reagan presided over in 1981 was broke, exhausted, and self-loathing. Vietnam, Watergate, and a stagnant economy combined to batter the population and convince most Americans that we were in severe decline. (Sounds a bit like today, doesn’t it?) Reagan knew the nation needed a shake-up to get things going again. His role models?

From a leadership perspective, Reagan turned to FDR, a man he voted for in all four elections, along with Harry Truman in 1948. Roosevelt might have been opposite in ideology to Reagan, but he had many things to teach Reagan about uniting a divided and demoralized population. Having good working relationships with opponents helped. His relationship with Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil is well-documented. There are numerous entries in his diary where he accuses O’Neil of playing games or obstructing his agenda, then, on the same day, has dinner or cocktails with O’Neil. What many fail to understand about the presidency and Congressional leadership is that it bears more resemblance to the old Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Sam the Sheep Dog and Ralph Wolf than most of the nonsensical pap spewed by radio talkshow hosts and demagogic pundits.

Reagan did something that had not been done since Andrew Jackson in 1835. He survived getting shot by a would-be assassin. John Hinkley’s bullet did far more damage to Reagan than Charles Giteau’s did to James Garfield in 1881, but better security, better medical techniques, and, the advent of antibiotics saved Reagan. It’s highly likely Garfield might have lived had he been shot 100 years later, but had Reagan been in his place, even the best efforts of doctors in 1881 would not save him.

One of the things that is pointed out about Reagan is his hands-off approach to management. Reagan would give orders and expect it to be carried out. Unlike, say, Richard Nixon, who elevated micromanagement to an art form, this tended to separate Reagan from his subordinates. It allowed Reagan to have a broader focus as president, but it also got him into trouble when those under him, such as Attorney General Edwin Meese or Lt. Col. Oliver North, went out on their own on the assumption the president wanted plausible deniability.

Many of Reagan’s policies and views painted him as a racist and hostile to the poor. His diary reveals the opposite, though while he decries a biased press, he concedes that, by not following the herd on solving race problems or continuing the top-down approach begun under LBJ, he did indeed look like he was pandering to rich, white men. Compounding this were some hardline views on drugs and on abortion. Indeed, a more nuanced view of abortion common today had yet to evolve during Reagan’s term.

In foreign policy, Reagan’s twin triumphs involved standing up to the Soviets, particularly as he found himself dealing with a fractured Politburo propping up three dying neo-Bolsheviks, and developing rapport with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan was a staunch anti-communist, and this often put the US in an embarrassing position. As long as the Cold War raged, the United States took the approach of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” which meant friendship with the repressive government of El Salvador and with brutal dictator Ferdinand Marcos of The Philippines. But Reagan had excellent relationships with the leaders of Canada, France, Italy, West Germany, Japan, and, in particular, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. Thanks to Reagan’s efforts, Russian became part of what’s now called the G20. This goodwill extended to China, which recently formalized relations with the US when Reagan took office, and even saw a near thaw in relations with Cuba. Reagan did not see enemies, a flaw Nixon could never overcome. Reagan saw rivals. You can respect and deal with a rival. It’s one of the reasons the Cold War ended in 1990 and not 2010.

It’s the economy that leaves Reagan still controversial among Americans. If FDR showed Reagan how to lead, Calvin Coolidge showed him what the agenda would be. Coolidge was a small-government fiscal conservative whose policies appealed to Reagan. He saw the tax code as punishing the rich for being rich and choking businesses from investing. Did it work? In the high-tax atmosphere of 1981, slashing the tax brackets and simplifying the tax code was a no-brainer. The irony lies in the same thing that has plagued pro-small government presidents for the last half-century: It resulted in deficit spending.

What mars Reagan’s legacy with the working class is the switch to a free trade policy as opposed to fair trade. In the long run, free trade has been a boon to the American economy, but early on, it devastated the auto, rubber, and steel industries. Pittsburgh will never again be a steel town, and Detroit is a shell of its former self. In another irony, it took a New Deal-style bailout to rid General Motors and Chrysler of the mismanagement that kept both companies from adapting to compete with Japanese auto makers. Then again, like the New Deal coalition, the current conservative bloc suffers from the same inertia that keeps it from adapting to new problems and a new generation of voters.

I recall not liking Reagan very much in high school. I was a child of the Steel Belt. There was supposed to be a factory job waiting for me after high school, maybe even at General Motors or Ford. Indeed, my first election was 1984, and I voted for Mondale. (The more I learn about Carter as president, the more I regret that vote.) But four years later, I saw Reagan, President-elect Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev standing in New York looking out at the Statue of Liberty, smiling and shaking hands. Yeah, the President of the United States was genuinely friendly to the President of the Soviet Union. We had no idea the Berlin Wall or the failed putsch or the breakup of the Soviet Union was coming. But we knew it was a lot less likely that our lives would end like something out of The Day After. My opinion of Reagan changed over time, much as it has for Bill Clinton and will likely change for George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Reagan saw a nation in need of shaking up and a boost in confidence. When he left office in January of 1989, it felt good to be an American again.

Jimmy Carter

JimmyCarterPortrait2The first president I remember is Nixon. The first president I remember taking office is Ford. But Carter’s was the first presidential election I remember, being 10 at the time. I think, for a while afterward, I remember thinking that Nixon was a Republican, so Republicans must be bad. I wanted the smiling guy from Georgia to be president. However, I was eight years from casting my first vote. (Mondale. And I’ve been kicking myself over that one ever since.)

Carter came into the White House as an outsider, portraying himself as a citizen president. It was what America needed after Johnson and Nixon, and especially after the shattering of trust that followed Watergate. Unfortunately, that doomed Carter’s administration from the start. He was very forward thinking on several issues. Among his initiatives were energy independence and national healthcare. However, Carter also took hardline stances with the Soviet Union, often accused by European leaders of unnecessarily provoking them while turning around and normalizing relations with Beijing.

Carter’s biggest problem, one that later plagued George W. Bush and dogs Barack Obama, is his relations with Congress. Bush, at least, got along with his party, but failed to establish rapport with Democratic leadership. Former Senator Bob Dole has accused Obama of not only the same with Republicans, but also failing to build bridges within his own party. That describes Jimmy Carter to a T.

You have to admire Carter for sticking to his common man narrative, though. By 1977, when he took the oath, Americans had had enough of Washington insiders and veterans. And Carter, a two-term governor of Georgia, was tired of Congress’s intractability when his state needed Washington to lead, follow, or get out of the way. It’s a frequent complaint of governors both current and former, including Carter’s eventual opponent and successor, Ronald Reagan.

But an outsider cannot push Congress the way someone with connections can. You are dealing with 535 men and women each beholden to their own constituents, each with their own network of Washington insiders, and each heavily lobbied any number of interests from environmentalists to the gun lobby. Without a connection to any of them, a president is doomed to failure. It’s a wonder he ever got the Panama Canal Treaty done.

Carter did have two things to his credit heading into the 1980 election. The first, less noticeable because of other factors and for bearing fruit so late in his presidency, was an economy on the rebound. It wasn’t quite morning in America yet, but a few rays were showing in October, 1980. Despite pressure from the left to implement wage and price controls, Carter’s economic team attacked inflation by raising interest rates to match, which eventually slowed the double-digit rates, something we haven’t seen even during the Great Recession. Second, and most notably, Carter brokered the deal between Begin and Sadat that saw Israel withdraw from the Sinai. It was a watershed moment in Middle East relations that no president since has been able to duplicate. (Clinton came very close in the 1990’s, only to have that work undone when Yitzak Rabin was assassinated.) Those two things alone might have earned Carter a second term, except…

The Iranian hostage crisis blindsided Carter. Poor intelligence in Tehran suggested the Shah, not the most noble of leaders, was stable, and revolution was unlikely. That was 1977. In 1978, the Ayatollah Khomeni returned to Iran and swept the Shah aside almost effortlessly. By the end of the year, militants supporting the new regime would take the US embassy and hold fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days. The regime demonstrated its duplicity when it complained that Canada illegally spirited away a dozen Americans who slipped out of the embassy as it fell. At the time, perception that Carter did nothing, coupled with a failed military rescue operation, battered his already growing reputation as a weak and ineffective president. Even a series of gaffes on the part of Reagan during the 1980 campaign could not restore confidence in Carter.

Even then, he might have had a chance had he not faced what is now the last serious attempt to unseat a sitting president for his party’s nomination. Ted Kennedy ran for the nomination, a sign that the Democrats themselves were dissatisfied with the president they had seated. A similar effort by Reagan badly wounded Gerald Ford’s campaign, putting Carter in the White House.

Carter is looked upon as a failed president, and to some extent, that’s true. He had Woodrow Wilson’s rigid mindset with no Col. Edward House or Edith Wilson to build bridges for him. Like Wilson, he learned diplomacy on the fly. Unlike Wilson, Carter learned and adapted to the point where he earned a reputation as America’s best ex-president. Unlike Nixon, who wrote and lectured, mainly to rehabilitate his legacy, Carter simple did. He went to the Middle East before the Persian Gulf War to try and broker a settlement. Presidents Bush (41) and Clinton sent him with UN missions to observe elections. And much to the chagrin of President Bush (43), he visited Cuba to push for more open relations between the island and the US.

But his biggest accomplishment? His involvement with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that takes a bottom-up approach to addressing poverty, building homes for people who need some means to escape an endless cycle of slums, Section 8 housing, and crushing debt. Have seen this effort up close (I helped work on a house while I was out of work a few years ago), I can attest that it’s much better managed and does more for the poor than many state and federal programs that seem bogged down in paperwork, useless regulations, and political jockeying.

Many presidents come into the White House with their biggest accomplishments behind them. A few, like Lincoln, both Roosevelts, and Truman, are made by the presidency. For Jimmy Carter, the presidency was just the beginning.

Gerald Ford

jerryfordTwo men who had the most unenviable task in presidential history are Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Both men had to follow the implosion of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Both men were honest, likeable, and from humble beginnings. Of the two, Ford probably had the hardest job.

Gerald Ford began life as Leslie King, Jr. When he was two months old, his mother fled Omaha, Nebraska, tired of dealing with the abusive Leslie King, Sr. She married a man named Gerald Ford, who adopted the future president and gave him his name. Ford would learn enough about his biological father to make the elder King one of the very few people he would openly despise. How badly did he resent his biological father’s treatment and later neglect of his mother? Early in his law career, a rookie lawyer needed a case to build his resume. Hearing the normally pleasant and amiable Ford rail on Leslie King’s nonpayment of support, the lawyer offered to handle a lawsuit against King. King, who had a hard time understanding that his son now called Gerald Ford, Sr., “Dad,” pleaded with Ford to call off his mother. Ford’s response.

“That’s your problem. Settle it with her.” Mrs. Ford took him for $4000.

Ford joined a generation of politicians who came to prominence in the late 1940’s that included future presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, shepherded along by Congressional stalwarts in both parties like Sam Rayburn.

Though Ford, to date, the only unelected president in US history, served less than 900 days in the White House, his is probably one of the most important presidencies in the Cold War era. Beginning with his vice presidency, in which he was the first vice president appointed under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, he had to walk a fine line between defending Nixon and keeping his party together. As late as a week before Nixon’s resignation, Ford believed Nixon had another six months before he would have to resign. (That it would have shortened his own term as president to less than two years, making him eligible for two elected terms in his own right, might have crossed his mind.) The first thing out of his mouth after taking the oath of office was “I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers.”

A wise move. After the abuses and subterfuge of Watergate, the last thing Americans were in the mood for was having an unchosen president foisted upon them. For the most part, Ford was well-liked and enjoyed high approval ratings. However, when he pardoned Nixon unconditionally, he likely cost himself a chance to win an election in his own right. Also, Ford, like Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Robert Dole, came from the moderate segment of the Republican Party. The liberal wing, represented by Ford’s own vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, was in rapid decline while the right wing, led by Ronald Reagan, began asserting more and more power. Reagan’s bid for the 1976 nomination likely weakened Ford to the point where he could not overcome the pardon. His successor, Jimmy Carter, would meet a similar fate when Ted Kennedy mounted what became the last serious attempt to wrest a party nomination from a sitting president.

The final nail in his political coffin, however, came during the debates with Carter when he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” It’s one of those gaffes that you can’t take back once it’s out, especially on camera in front of the entire nation.

Ford reluctantly retired from politics and opted against running against Carter in 1980 in favor of Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, it relegated him to the role of interim president. On the other hand, he and George H. W. Bush (Ford’s CIA director and one-time considered to be a possible vice president) would later become some of the most accessible former presidents in recent history. Ford kept busy in his post-presidency, serving on several corporate boards and raising money for worthy causes. Of all the former presidents alive when George W. Bush came to power, Ford had the most even-handed assessments of his more recent successors. He felt George Bush, Sr., was better than Reagan but ran a horrible campaign against Clinton. He admired Clinton’s flexibility, but did not think he had much depth. More surprisingly, upon meeting the Clintons for the first time, Ford remarked to friends and quite a few reporters that he thought Hillary Clinton would become America’s first female president. To biographer Thomas DeFrank, he remarked that Bill Clinton had stolen the young Hillary Rodham from the Republican Party. (Quite likely, it was a little envy on the part of Ford, who met her when she was a young intern in the early 1970’s.) He found George W. Bush too stubborn for his own good, and thought that Bush should have dumped Dick Cheney in 2004. This last assessment is remarkable as Ford named Cheney his chief of staff for a time and felt he was the perfect running mate for Bush in 2000. However, while Ford would not come out and say it, he seems to confirm Bob Woodward’s conclusion that Bush only wanted to hear an echo chamber.

Ford’s career, which almost lead to the role of Speaker of the House, is quite remarkable. It’s also rather low-key, which is why he’s often overlooked.

Richard Nixon

NixonHow does one write a fair summary of Richard Nixon? Having resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal, he forever tainted whatever legacy he might have had. But then only Nixon could go to China, and he did. A Republican, he proposed universal healthcare, sounded the alarm over dependence on foreign oil, and achieved a thaw in the Cold War.

So was Nixon really that bad? After all, he was “Tricky Dick.” Actually, the name stems from his 1950 primary campaign against actress Helen Gahagan Douglas for Senate. Douglas, not the shrewdest of politicians, actually ran a dirtier campaign than Nixon and invented the “Tricky Dick” nickname in reference to his 1946 victory over Orange County Congressman Jerry Voorhis. In all honesty, Voorhis had never faced anything but token opposition until Nixon ran.

On the one hand, Nixon is seen as a foreign policy genius, and his expertise formed the basis of his role as an elder statesman in his later years. But early in his career, he jumped on the red-baiting bandwagon early, joining the House Un-American Activities Committee. For this, many people paint him with the same brush as Senator Joseph McCarthy. Ironically, one of Nixon’s tasks as vice president was to basically pat McCarthy on the head, tell him Ike brooked no commies in his administration, and quietly push the senator out of the spotlight as his excesses eroded his power. Nixon was a genuine anti-communist (which did not endear him to the left in the 1960’s); McCarthy was a drunken fear-monger.

What keeps Nixon from ranking in the upper echelon of presidents is Watergate and his behavior leading up to it. He wasn’t the first president to use questionable wiretaps on enemies. That honor goes to Franklin Roosevelt. And he did not have the most corrupt staff of the twentieth century; you can give that crown to Warren Harding. But Nixon destroyed all the goodwill he built up when he became paranoid about leaks. Every administration has them, and every administration deals with them in a manner the average citizen might not consider ethical. However, when former aide Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, Nixon commissioned “the plumbers,” a group of operatives who functioned essentially as burglars tasked with getting dirt on Nixon’s enemies. Even then, Nixon might have saved himself a lot of grief by appointing a disinterested third party to deal with the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel (hence the name “Watergate.”) Instead, Nixon’s paranoia and self-destructive tendencies kicked in, and Nixon soon found himself almost synonymous with what he himself dubbed “a third-rate burglary.” In the tapes that ultimately unraveled his presidency, Nixon says, “It’s not the crime that gets you. It’s the cover-up.” By that point, the cover-up had already involved several instances of obstruction of justice, including attempting to get the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation.

Sometimes, it seems as though Nixon and America might have been better off if he had won the presidency in 1960 instead of 1968. But the self-destructive streak showed itself when he lost the California governor’s race to Pat Brown when he lashed out at the press and said, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Some suggest, and it’s probably true, that Nixon had an inferiority complex as a graduate of an unknown Quaker college in Whittier, California, when moving amongst the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton grads who dominated (and still dominate) Washington. Never mind that Nixon was one of the top graduates of Duke University’s first law class. What ultimately destroyed Nixon was that, unlike his predecessors or most of his successors, he could not enjoy power once he attained it. FDR, Johnson, and Reagan all had huge egos that fed on the Oval Office, but it enabled them to accomplish much. The White House battered Nixon’s ego badly, which doomed him to a slow political suicide.