Michael David Cohen is the editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is also writing for us this weekend from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence, Rhode Island. Michael is also the author if Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012). Here is first post:
Greetings from OAH 2016!
Providence welcomed us historians today with a gentle spring rain. At least, by Noah’s standards. Surely I was not the only one who arrived at the Rhode Island Convention Center soaked to the bone. My umbrella fared rather worse, blown inside out by the day’s refreshing breeze. Nonetheless, after changing into dry clothes, I made it to the Exhibit Hall in time for the conference’s first plenary session.
As one who spends his days studying a U.S. presidency, I was looking forward to the presentation titled “Worst. President. Ever.” It did not disappoint. Guided by chair Claire Potter, panelists David Greenberg, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Jacob Weisberg (who assures us that, despite the original program, he is not Sean Wilentz) offered their insights both on who was the worst president and, perhaps more important, on how we should judge presidents as best or worst.
Dr. Greenberg argued that, although only a few things make a president great, our chief executives can be bad in a variety of ways. He grouped the failures into four categories: “completely insignificant and forgettable presidents” (such as Millard Fillmore, for whom, he noted, even the White House’s website offers faint praise); those who responded terribly to a crisis (think Herbert Hoover); those who accomplished much that we don’t like (some may say Indian remover Andrew Jackson); and those guilty of corruption or abuse of power, crimes “that transcend party and politics.”
Mr. Weisberg suggested similar criteria for badness. A bad president may have accomplished something harmful, through either action (entered a war or dropped atomic bombs, for example) or inaction; may not have left a significant lasting impact (cough, William Henry Harrison); or may have displayed bad character. The first two being opposites—bad impact and no impact—no president could have achieved all three types of bad.
Though they hesitated to settle on a single “Worst. President. Ever.,” their typologies led both these speakers to select the same candidate for the dubious honor. Richard Nixon, as Weisberg put it, was the only president to have attained true “Shakespearean villainy.” Despite his oft-cited accomplishments, especially in foreign policy, Nixon’s abuse of power—Greenberg’s transcendent evil and Weisberg’s character flaw—damaged the presidency and the American people’s faith in government. It propelled him to the top (or bottom) of the list.
Dr. Gordon-Reed, though she shared her co-panelists’ condemnation of Nixon, gave a different answer to the plenary’s question. Her two approaches to presidential failure were to find a leader who responded poorly to an intractable crisis and to find one who chose not to follow the best available path. The former approach yielded James Buchanan, who has so often been lambasted for his weak response to secession. But what, Gordon-Reed asked, could Buchanan have done? No promising solution presented itself.
The latter approach yielded Andrew Johnson. Republicans in Congress and elsewhere
proposed alternatives to his Reconstruction policies that held the hope of unifying the nation across both regional and racial lines, expanding true citizenship and independence to recently emancipated African Americans. But, owing to his “stubbornness” and to the fact that “he hated black people,” Johnson forswore that path. The president who put his “petty prejudices” ahead of the good of the nation earned the title of Worst. Buchanan can rest easy for once: not a single panelist named him President Number 44.
The speakers’ initial presentations and the questions from audience members brought much more nuance to the conversation than this summary indicates. They also brought more names. Franklin Pierce, Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren G. Harding, and Thomas Jefferson all received consideration for Worst, though Gordon-Reed quickly responded, “Jefferson is no part of this conversation, okay?” I was pleased to hear at least a brief reference by Weisberg to James K. Polk, whom I study and who so rarely gets any attention, good or bad. George W. Bush came up several times, though the panelists hesitated to evaluate very recent presidents. (Weisberg did admit to having once debated, against Karl Rove and Bill Krystol, whether Bush was the worst president of the past hundred years. Weisberg lost.) Even Abraham Lincoln, the racist emancipator who angered half the nation by reunifying it, was raised by several audience members in this conversation on America’s worst president.
One question that noticeably did not come up in the plenary was whether determining overall greatness or badness is of historical value. Certainly historians and other Americans love to rank. I was excited when once surveyed for a presidential ranking. As Dickens wrote, many people prefer “being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Yet, if Nixon went to China and his people bugged the Watergate, does it help for us to name him overall as 44, 36, or 12? Does it help to compare his record with James Buchanan’s? Can a presidency be graded as a whole or compared with one in another historical context? It’s a sign of a great panel that I’m left with questions as well as answers.
This was just my first session of the conference. I’m looking forward to plenty more sessions, questions, conversations with old colleagues, and meetings with new ones. Perhaps I should go easy on the discounted books, though. I’ve already bought two more than I have room for in my suitcase.