An oddly entertaining study of “the first plodding-to-the-top president,” a man mercifully forgotten by history.
James Buchanan (1791-1868) was a Pennsylvanian, writes Strauss (Nonfiction Writing/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Daddy’s Little Goalie: A Father, His Daughters, and Sports, 2011), the log cabin of his birth now enshrined on a rural campus in Mercersburg. Yet, having survived the turmoil of the collapse of the Whig and Federalist factions, he cast his lot with the Southern Democrats. As president—a job for which he had prepared well if unimaginatively, plodding from one political post to another—he meddled in the Supreme Court decision in the matter of runaway slave Dred Scott, setting the Civil War in motion. Buchanan wasn’t on hand for the bloodletting, but he took time to write his successor, Abraham Lincoln, to ask for the return of some books he’d left behind at the White House. He may have had good intentions, but fueled by a diet of reading about Napoleon and exhibiting a combination of “hubris…arrogance, misaligned affections, indecisiveness, and misreading of current events,” Buchanan managed to trash pretty much whatever he touched. Does that make the self-styled “strict constructionist” the worst president in American history? Yes, by Strauss’ account; he was feckless and not interested in being guided toward doing a good job, he surrounded himself with yes men, and, lacking good counsel and left to his own devices, “he would often waffle on major issues, and could easily come up on the most ill-advised side of them.” Its juvenile title aside, and even allowing for a couple of positives for its subject, Strauss’ biography makes a convincing case for disdaining Buchanan, who, he writes in a concluding survey, has only two real rivals, both also forgotten: Warren G. Harding and Franklin Pierce.
Heavy-handed enough at times to make readers wish someone out there might step up to Buchanan’s defense; nonetheless, Strauss makes a firm argument for the essential doofusness of the 15th president.