Being 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?
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”