The Housing Ministry also shed light on the government’s urban development efforts and encouragement for investment in the sector. Co-founder of the MENA
Who was the worst president in U.S. history and why?
In terms of defining the word “worst,” I’m going to take literary license and define “worst” as “least effective.” I am also going make a few caveats to set the stage:
1. It is common practice for presidential staffers and political appointees to implement their president’s policies & plans, watch out for his better interest, and mitigate potentially damaging information from “going public.” After all is said and done, however, the actions and inactions of anyone serving at the pleasure of the president is ultimately laid at the chief executive’s feet. This means that in the discussions below, a given president may not have been the worst or least effective on a personal level; but, failure and misdeeds by his Administration ended up tainting his time in office. In a nutshell, an ineffective administration seen through the eyes of future generations is interpreted as an ineffective president.
2. In judging ineffectiveness, I have given a “pass” to several presidents who died in office after only a brief stint. James Garfield served only six months in 1881 until he was assassinated. Zachary Taylor died in 1850 of a stomach ailment after 16 months of service. William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia in 1841 after serving just a month. His death was not in vain, however. He wisely chose an able vice presidential running mate, John Tyler. Tyler became the first V.P. to exercise the Constitutional provision for a vice president to become the president if the elected one is unable to discharge his duties as the president. Tyler and Congressional leaders realized the Constitution’s wording left a lot up to interpretation. Once Tyler was sworn-in, there was a collective, “now what?” Numerous politicians felt the founding father’s intent was to merely use the V.P. as a presidential “fill-in” until a special election was called to elect a new one. Tyler set an important precedent by pointing out the Constitution’s silence on what to do next. Wisely, Tyler saw the situation akin to the old adage, “possession is nine tenths of the law.” He notified the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore that he would faithfully serve-out Harrison’s term, and not run for reelection. Tyler’s actions were critical in setting the tone for future vice presidents having to step-in to the presidency.
3. Lastly, I have not attempted to put them in a certain order to avoid quibbling over trivial things.
A. Franklin Pierce. 1853-1857. Pierce had a good record as a military officer. In that era, military officers, diplomats, senators & governors tended to be perceived as men who were a cut above the rest in education, wealth, life experiences with important people, and adept in maneuvering in the halls of power. The 1850s was a politically polarized and perilous time due to slavery issues. Political leaders from the non-slavery northern states and their counterparts from the pro-slavery southern states were finding it increasingly difficult to identify candidates that could equally satisfy both factions at the same time. Pierce was a northerner who was willing to somewhat look the other way on slavery issues; this included signing some pro-slavery legislation into law. Pierce became politically ineffective rather quickly. It did not help matters that on the way to Washington, D.C. to prepare for his inauguration, his son was killed in a horse n’ buggy accident. Both Pierce and his wife spiraled into despondency, and he slowly became an alcoholic.
B. Warren G. Harding. 1921-1923. Harding had previously been a Republican U.S. senator. The 1920 presidential election had a strong undercurrent of sentiment in the country that World War I should only be seen in the rear-view mirror. The War was presided over by a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, who basically worked himself to the point of exhaustion & suffered a stroke while trying to launch his “League of Nations” idea to prevent future conflict. Instead of Americans seeing the League as a good thing, it kept reminding everyone of something they were ready to forget.
The political end result of Wilson’s power vacuum in his final 18 months created a huge albatross around the Democratic Party leader’s necks, and became a windfall for the Republican Party. Party leadership was looking for a presidential candidate who was not a fire brand, but, someone who could go along to get along…a political “good guy” not prone to rocking the boat; Harding became the good guy poster boy for the Republican Party.
Two and a half years into his presidency, Warren Harding suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. At the time of his death, he was an extremely popular president. During his truncated term he actually showed some positive results from his goals and leadership. He at least showed the electorate (and party leaders) that he was no patsy. In general, anything negative later said about President Harding, was not so much an indictment of him personally, as it was for some of his Cabinet members.
In terms of anything less than positive directly attributable to Harding, it would have to be his long-running affair with one woman, and a second woman who became pregnant as a result of her own affair with Harding. The affairs first came to light when the Republican Party Chairman and his lieutenants found out about the pregnant mistress. It could not have surfaced at a time much worse than it did…right in the middle of the presidential election after the nominating convention, but, before election day. In order to keep a lid on the whole thing, party leaders paid hush money, and continued to do so for many years after Harding died.
After Harding died, the public gradually became aware of certain Cabinet members who were indicted for malfeasance and fraud of the 1st order. No evidence surfaced after Harding’s death to directly implicate him in the various scandals. Instead of Harding demonstrating his lack of culpability and leading the charge to politically & legally clean house of his cabinet’s bad apples, he became the convenient patsy and lightning rod for the public, the Congress, and the court’s ire. Even though members of the Harding Cabinet went to jail, Harding’s death prevented him from putting distance between himself and the scandal. Many of the pundits claimed it was implausible for Harding to be unaware of the crimes; or, if he truly knew nothing about it, then he was a fool for not seeing what was right under his nose.
C. Andrew Johnson. 1865-1869. Johnson became the Vice Presidential running mate for Lincoln’s second term election and victory. Lincoln chose Johnson as V.P. for his extremely tough and successful effort during the War as the military governor over the slave-owning border state of Tennessee. Tennessee was the first state to not remain with the confederacy after secession.
Throughout President Lincoln’s term in office, he made numerous decisions and took a lot of heat over them. Examples included:
1. Suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War;
2. Promulgating the Emancipation Proclamation;
3. Allowing African-Americans to enlist in the Union Army;
4. Dismissing under-performing Army generals;
5. Meddling in the duties and affairs of the War Dept run by Edwin M. Stanton;
Lincoln brought several prominent, well-to-do politicians into his Cabinet who all had presidential aspirations, too. Besides Stanton he tapped Senator William H. Seward as Secretary of State, and Salmon P. Chase as head of the Treasury Dept. Only a master in interpersonal relations & communication could pull-off a feat of critical success with this kind of leadership horsepower and egos all under one roof. Lincoln was the man to do it. In 1860 none of these men even thought Lincoln could be elected, let alone save the country and win the Civil War. In due time all of them quietly tipped their hat to Abe, acknowledging that if ever there was exactly the right man in the right time and place in history, Lincoln was it.
I am discussing all of this because these were the shoes Vice President Johnson was left to fill. As masterful and charismatic as Lincoln was to save the country in his first term, it would take another masterful four years to put the country back together again. This effort became known in history as, “Reconstructing the South.” Even by his own, self-biased standard, Johnson knew he was no Abraham Lincoln.
The whole concept of Southern Reconstruction was a hotbed of controversy. Many influential northerners had the attitude that the Confederates lost, and now it was time to be treated like losers. Johnson understood Lincoln’s rationale behind Reconstruction, but no firm plan of who, what, when, where or how had been fleshed-out and presented as proposed legislation to Congress. Johnson lacked the people skills and finesse to pull it all together. Furthermore, the northern politicians and businessmen he needed on his side were suspicious of Johnson who came from a nominal, slave-holding state (Tennessee) and owned slaves himself at one point. When it came to southern leaders, they perceived Johnson to be an early “sell-out” of the southern cause, as seen with his military governorship appointment, and then being Lincoln’s second in the 1864 presidential election. No doubt, Johnson was on a precarious, political knife edge, and under Lincoln he likely would have been Abe’s envisioned best tool in helping carryout Reconstruction. Being thrust into such a presidential hotbed in 1865 was practically a no-win situation for Johnson, or any other politician.
The end result was Congressional gridlock, Cabinet member infighting, and so forth. Andrew Johnson became the first President to be impeached, and came within one vote of being bounced out-of-office. If Lincoln was the right man, for the right time, President Johnson was the wrong man, for the wrong time. For his inability, partially his own fault, to successfully follow, arguably, one of America’s best presidents of all time, Johnson’s presidency surely fits the category of least effective.
D. Jimmy Carter. 1977-1981. The country was coming out of the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s with major news items such as:
A. The Vietnam War and all of its homefront ramifications;
B. The space race to the moon;
C. The Kennedy assassination;
D. The Watergate Scandal;
E. The energy crisis & oil embargo;
F. A major recession, double digit unemployment and rampant inflation;
G. Civil rights unrest.
All of these issues were connected in some way with the Washington, D.C. establishment. Anything connected with Washington during this era became tainted in the public’s eye. This pervasive sentiment became a direct carryover to the 1976 presidential election. This is the political power vacuum in which Jimmy Carter intended to exploit as a “Washington outsider.” Carter’s political experience included one, four-year term in the Georgia Senate, and four years as Georgia’s governor. Carter never worked in Washington, D.C. in or out of government.
After Carter prevailed in the 1976 general election, his transition team went about the process of setting-up-shop in the White House prior to his January 1979 inauguration. Thinking his election victory was a vote of confidence in his philosophy that the American presidency was becoming too “imperial,” and the key to getting things done by an administration was based on what you know, not who you know, Carter began to dismantle some of the presidential “imperial trappings.” He reduced the appointed White House staff by nearly 35%; directed his staff to arrange for the sale of the presidential yacht, Sequoia, and decided the White House staff needed to be managed differently.
Carter was an Annapolis engineering graduate and became a nuclear engineering officer aboard submarines; he served six years in the Navy. Carter’s Naval service revealed the then practice of each service branch’s top commander being his own chief-of-staff. Carter was influenced by this leadership concept, thinking it was a much better way to lead a team by making yourself the central hub with all communications routed, unfiltered, unprioritized, directly into the Oval Office. So, his first two years were conducted sans appointing an actual chief-of-staff.
Carter was an intelligent man. At times, however, Carter felt his superior intelligence meant that others were not quite as smart. When you coupled the lack of a White House Chief of Staff with Carter frequently trusting his own judgment over that of his staff experts, it created sticky problems that could not always be smoothed over in short order. After two years of the White House flailing without solid direction, Carter acquiesced and promoted Hamilton Jordan to Chief of Staff.
Even though House Speaker, Tip O’Neill, was a Democrat like Carter, O’Neill was seen by the President as a prototype Washington insider; so, relations were strained. Not having good relations with a House Speaker from your own political party can seriously stymie a presidential agenda – and it did for Carter.
President Carter’s greatest success as President was his negotiation with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat of Egypt. The positive outcome was the Camp David Peace Accords. Unfortunately, Carter’s efforts at Camp David had no direct benefit to the United States internationally or domestically. The country was in a deep recession with double digit unemployment and the same for inflation; but, Carter was unable to make improvements.
Even though Carter’s first two years were problematic, he may have been able to improve things during the second half of his term; but, it did not happen. Instead of success, it was more inaction and disappointment when his presidency came to a grinding halt over the 444 day long Iran Hostage Crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The hostages were released unharmed shortly after President Reagan took his oath of office. Whether it was deliberate or not, it was hard to ignore that the Carter Administration failed to get the hostages released; yet, the moment Reagan took office the hostages were free to go. It was as if the militant Iranian students who took the hostages were mostly intent on embarrassing the Carter Presidency. Regardless the kidnapper’s intent, it guaranteed Carter’s walk into presidential history to be a negative one.
E. Ulysses Grant. 1869-1877.
Americans love heroes, and they had one in General Ulysses S. Grant. The U.S. Presidency has had no less than nine Army generals grace the White House; the list includes: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Dwight Eisenhower. Aside from the fact the Union Army won the Civil War, it also dominated presidential elections, starting with Grant in 1868. For the next 32 years (1868-1900) no one was elected President of the United States except those who served as Union Army officers during the Civil War. When the War ended in 1865, 80 years would pass before a president took office from a former slave-holding state – Harry S. Truman of Missouri. A total of 22 presidents served in the military. And, just like society in general, there is no certain formula for career success; nor does an Army general or any other service member increase the odds of a successful presidency. Ulysses Grant’s two-term Administration would bear out the foregoing statement; even a popular hero cannot win all-the-time.
President Grant graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Grant’s academic record was merely average; but, his military science skills ranked him near the top of his class. Upon graduation in 1844 he reported to his first duty station in Texas and served in the Mexican-American War. Grant’s commanding general in this campaign was Zachary Taylor; he would become the next president in the 1848 election.
After 10 years of service he resigned his commission to begin a civilian career. Speculation has it that he was asked to resign due to alcohol problems. Grant spent the next seven years as a civilian trying to make a living farming, selling real estate, and working as a landlord over several large buildings. He was never successful in private business before or after the Civil War. After two terms in the White House he returned to civilian life and was bankrupt in less than a year.
Although Grant’s leadership skills were well-honed from his military service, he had never held an elected or appointed political office and had shown little interest in running for office. Simply put, Grant was a political novice when he became president in 1869. Critics later blamed his lack of experience for the economic panic of 1873 and scandals that dogged his administration.
Though scrupulously honest, Grant became known for political appointees of poor character. Grant struggled to spot corruption in others. While he had some success during his presidency, like pushing through the 15th Amendment and creating the National Parks Service, his Administration’s scandalous behavior was a constant distraction throughout his two terms. In the court-of-public-opinion Grant faced charges of misconduct in nearly all federal departments, engaging his Administration in constant conflict between corrupt associates and reformers. He protected colleagues and appointees, unless evidence of misconduct was overwhelming. No one implicated Grant in the scandals; nor did proof surface of an Administration-wide conspiracy. As more one-off scandals became public, Congress began corruption investigations in many of the Cabinet departments. High profile appointees, such as the Attorney General, Secretary of War, Treasury Secretary, and Interior Secretary resigned when evidence of wrongdoing was blatantly obvious.
In President Grant’s final address to Congress before leaving office, he kept his personal integrity intact by solemnly acknowledging his failure to choose Cabinet members who brought honor to their fellow citizens, and the Grant Administration. Indeed, for all the turmoil wrought upon the country that stemmed from his poor staffing choices, he could only feel shame for not doing a better job. The President was not obligated to say anything to Congress about his troubled Administration; but, he knew that good leaders delegated duties, and responsibility always comes back to the boss, good or bad.
Steve Miller, Copyright (c) 2008