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STAR-SPANGLED MEN by Nathan Miller


America's Ten Worst Presidents

by Nathan Miller

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-684-83610-6
Publisher: Scribner

A humorous look at the less distinguished former presidents.

To develop his personal list of the ten worst American chief executives, historian and presidential biographer Miller (Stealing from America, 1992; Theodore Roosevelt, 1992; etc.) gives the incumbent a temporary bye and excludes William Henry Harrison, Taylor, and Garfield due to their very brief service. He then orders by rank his mostly unsurprising choices according to the actual harm each inflicted on the country. In a close call, Carter is selected over Bush as best of the worst. From there we proceed down to familiar mediocrities such as Taft, perhaps most famous for becoming stuck in the White House bathtub; Benjamin Harrison, a loser in the popular vote but whose supporters bought an electoral college victory; Coolidge, whose "silences did not cloak a wide-ranging mind''; Grant, who "was neither hardworking nor conscientious''; Andrew Johnson, a racist cast in the role of supervising Reconstruction; Pierce, a presidential nominee because "he angered no one''; and Buchanan, whose "plodding caution'' and "passion for precision'' were unsuited for staving off civil war. Edging out this undistinguished group to finish second from the bottom is Harding, whom Miller charitably describes as "no dimmer'' than other presidential nonentities yet deserving of special recognition due to the level of graft that riddled his administration. But the clear victor in the awfulness sweepstakes, Nixon, genuinely stands out even in this crowd. Unlike his colleagues on the ten worst list, Nixon did not secure his place in history through well-meaning ineptitude; he was very capable and didn't always mean well. For Miller in every other case the threat posed to the country was unintentional, whereas Nixon set his sights on the Constitution with malice aforethought and thereby earned his dubious ranking as number one.

Fortunately, even the worst American presidents haven't destroyed the country, making it possible to enjoy this survey of their follies.