In May, Ethics Alarms began a review of the U.S. Presidents to separate the chaff from the wheat, keeping the chaff, and assembling the finalists for the Worst U.S. President Ever competition. The issue has gained more significance of late: President Biden’s polls are now the worst of any President at a similar stage in his first term, and his own party and its propaganda minions—you know, the mainstream media and its pundits—appear to be sharpening the metaphorical long knives. No potential finalists were found in the first ten Presidents, examined in Part 1. Among POTUSes 11-20, which EA covered in Part 2, there were three finalists, strong candidates all: depressed and drunken Franklin Pierce, lonely and inert James Buchanan, and poor Andrew Johnson.
Let’s assess Presidents #21-28, technically eight, but really only seven, because one of them really needs a lot of exposition. The photo above is a clue…
President Chester A. Arthur, 1881-1885, who inherited the office after President Garfield’s doctors killed him, can’t be one of the worst Presidents, because he’s among the most over-achieving ones, as I’ve written about here and elsewhere. He rose to the challenge and surprised even himself. He also, unlike some Presidents I could name, refused to be a puppet of his party’s power-brokers, and did what he thought was in the best interests of the people. This ended with him being respected by the public and shunned by his party: he wasn’t allowed to run for a second term. If Biden is blocked from the nomination, it will be the first time since Arthur that a President who hadn’t removed himself from consideration after a single term was rejected by his party.
Arthur, however, was much more popular than Joe Biden.
President Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897), typically is counted a two Presidents because he had split terms, put he was a single man, so I’m counting him as a single President. Cleveland had a wild ride, ending badly as the nation was hit by a depression in his second term, but he was unquestionably a strong and decisive leader during a period containing unusual turmoil, especially in the rise of labor unions. Rankings by historians of both conservative and liberal bents consistently place Cleveland in the Better Than Average category, or even higher. He’s not a candidate for the Worst President bouquet.
President Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893), ‘stuck between two Clevelands, ‘ as Mary Mcgregor might sing it, would be a strong entry in the Most Boring President race, but the grandson of President William Henry Harrison was neither very bad nor especially impressive. His greatest accomplishment was probably signing into law the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
Skipping over Cleveland II to President # 25, William McKinley, we encounter a 20th Century James K. Polk. Just as Polk maneuvered Mexico into a war the U.S. could win easily for substantial territorial gains, McKinley’s foreign policy target was Spain. The dubious provocation for the Spanish American War was a mysterious explosion on board an American vessel, the Maine. In the 100-day war that followed the United States liberated Cuba, seized Manila in the Philippines, occupied Puerto Rico, and ended up with Guam as well. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy was booming. McKinley was assassinated shortly after his re-election, and though he is, in my view, an under-rated President, he was far from a bad one.
I’m going to skip over the next President, Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909). He’s on Mount Rushmore for a reason. Theodore had his flaws: he loved war, he was an imperialist and a white supremacist (but in those days, who wasn’t?), but he was also independent, creative, gutsy, politically skilled, and brilliant. This was unquestionably one of the five best Presidents, at the opposite end of the spectrum for Joe and his competition.
William Howard Taft, 27th President, (1909-1913). There’s no sugar-coating it: Taft was a mediocre President at best. He had no feel for leadership; at heart he was a scholar and legal intellectual. Few Presidents were smarter, but Taft was bad at politics, and it didn’t help that he seemed wan and uninteresting in comparison with his estranged friend, his flamboyant predecessor. Nevertheless, Taft is also an overly maligned POTUS who accomplished quite a bit in his single term. He is far from the bottom of the barrel.
Now we reach one of the strongest contenders for Worst President Ever,#28, Woodrow Thomas Wilson, (1913-1921), who was really Thomas Woodrow Wilson but “Tom” was too mundane for a narcissist with delusions of grandeur. Whether he’s the worst President or not, he definitely is the President whose stock has fallen the farthest from its zenith.
When I was first getting obsessed with the Presidents of the United States, Wilson was routinely listed by historians (who were almost completely dominated by Democrats even back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth) as great or near-great, definitely one of the top ten. Before I was out of high school, I was wondering what they could be thinking, and as Wilson’s horrific record slowly emerged from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s whitewashing efforts, it became increasingly apparent that however he ranks in the final analysis, Wilson was almost certainly one of the worst people to dwell in the White House.
His previous reputation rested on successful passage of a string of progressive reforms.The first was a lower tariff, the Underwood Act, along with a graduated Federal income tax. The Federal Reserve Act streamlined the money supply. Antitrust legislation established the Federal Trade Commission to police unfair business practices. Another new law prohibited child labor; yet another limited railroad workers to an eight-hour day.
Meanwhile, Wilson, a dyed-in-the-cotton Virginia Southerner at heart, was erasing whatever slow progress was being made at the federal level in civil rights. Before his election black Americans worked at all levels of the federal government. When Wilson assumed office in 1913, he decreed that the federal workforce be segregated by race, leading to the reduction of black civil service workers’ income and increasing the already significant income gap between black and white workers. Wilson demanded segregation in his Cabinet departments and appointed racist Southern Democrats to lead them, resulting in vastly reduced black work forces. Meanwhile, he was openly celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, and making sure that Jim Crow put down deep roots in the South.
Upon taking office, Wilson personally fired 15 out of 17 black supervisors in the federal service , replacing them with whites. To enable hiring discrimination going forward, Wilson directed that the federal government begin requiring photographs on job applications. There is a lot more in Wilson’s racism dossier, but incredibly, he inflicted even more damage with his foreign policy misadventures. Wilson, who only won the Presidency because Roosevelt and President Taft split the GOP vote in 1912, barely won re-election with the motto, “He kept us out of the war!” Then, once narrowly re-elected, Wilson got us into the war on a pretense, supposedly to “make the world safe for democracy,” though nobody then (or even now) knew what exactly was being fought over.
About 53,000 American soldiers died in battle; 10,000 more than that perished of disease. Another 200,000 were wounded, and countless more traumatized for life…for nothing, essentially. Though it was clear that the so-called Spanish Flu was killing soldiers at an alarming rate, Wilson kept sending diseased troops to Europe, vastly accelerating the world-wide spread of the most deadly pandemic in centuries. He never took any action domestically to deal with the contagion, even refusing to declare that a pandemic was underway.
Wilson is still lionized in many progressive media and websites, so we get stuff like this: “For an activist president, President Wilson’s passive response to the influenza pandemic is baffling.” It’s not baffling at all, it was typical. The man was a narcissist who only cared about his own legacy and accomplishing his agenda. The fact that “little people,” especially poor little people, were dying in droves had no impact on him at all.
During the war, Wilson reveled in near dictatorial power. The federal government essentially ran the economy; it allocated food, fuel and material resources, controlled production, set wages and all but nationalized the railroads. Wilson’s administration censored the press, restricted public speech, and jailed political opponents. It created a massive propaganda campaign and enlisted over 200,000 citizens in the American Protective League, which was told to spy on their neighbors, report food hoarders and identify dissenters.
When the war was over, Wilson allowed the other victorious powers’ leaders crafting the Treaty of Versailles to create brutal terms for Germany that Wilson knew were overly harsh and punitive. The other leaders steamrolled Wilson and used his pet idea to neutralize him: Wilson had dreamed of an international body of nations that would prevent future wars by compromise and cooperation. Lloyd George, Clemenceau and the rest gave Wilson his “League of Nations” as part of the treaty in exchange for his acquiescence to the vindictive and greedy measures they wanted to inflict on Germany.
That, as we now know, was disastrous. The cruel Treaty of Versailles was a catalyst for the rise of Hitler, the Nazis, and World War II. The League of Nations, which Wilson couldn’t even persuade Congress to let the U.S. join, failed utterly. In the process of touring the nation against doctor’s orders to try to create public pressure on Congress to approve his dream project, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919. Incredibly, his wife and his doctor kept his true condition secret from the public for almost two years until the end of his term, signing documents for him and running the executive branch, noe too well, either. All of my research indicates that Wilson was aware of the cover-up and could have stopped it, but he didn’t want to resign and hand over power to his Vice-President, Thomas Marshall, whom neither he nor Edith Wilson liked
And so it was that Woodrow Wilson allowed the nation to be substantially run by his wife Edith and his physician, while the nation was kept in the dark. Yet Wilson still reportedly wanted to run for a third term. He delayed so long before admitting to himself that he wasn’t well enough that Democrats had to scramble to find a candidate. They ended up with bland and undistinguished Gov. James Cox of Ohio, who lost to the spectacularly mediocre and unqualified Warren G. Harding.
That’s a lot of carnage inflicted upon party, public, nation and world for a single President.
Woodrow Wilson makes the finals as we seek The Worst President Ever.
A final note, as we are at the end of this installment’s presidential reviews…
How did Woodrow Wilson come to be regarded as an excellent and admirable President for so long? It is a disturbing example of how bias and political agendas warps our historical accounts and cultural memories. The example of Wilson also in a startling indictment of the profession of historians generally. So tunnel-visioned was their perspective on a “successful” two-term Democrat and progressive, so committed were they to the ideal of an international peace-seeking organization, ultimately the United Nations, that they failed the most basic duty of their craft: tell the whole truth and all the facts, not just the parts that fit an approved narrative.
We have seen this phenomenon after Wilson, in the completely unjustified deification of John F. Kennedy, another awful human being whose Presidency was more failure than success.We will see it again with the historical verdicts on Barack Obama, in my view the most destructive President regarding race in this nation since Tommy Wilson.
Imagine how long it will take for historians to admit that.