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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Book Review: Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents by Robert Strauss

I read this book in the wake of the election. It hopefully is getting a bit of a boost from that. After all, reading about the worst president ever (up until now), is a good way to try to look and see what might lie ahead.

Buchanan was the first president who wasn't either a Founding Father or a war hero. He was rather, a professional politician (a lawyer when he was between political gigs) and he did have spectacularly bad timing. Few people would have been able to do much with the mess of those years. However, considering that Lincoln did so spectacularly well with the only years that were worse, shows it certainly could be done. The worst thing that he did, over and over again, was nothing. He wouldn't make decisions. He wouldn't make a tough call. He'd try to wait out a tricky situation. But you can't do that when states are threatening to secede from the union. That's not the time to sit on your hands and hope time heals all wounds.

Interestingly he was also at the time our oldest president, and the only one a bachelor (his niece happily stepped in to perform all the First Lady tasks) and possibly also our first gay president, although we'll never really know the truth there. Being back-to-back with Lincoln does nothing to burnish his reputation, although the reverse is also true as his predecessor is also one of the 5 worst so he could have looked good in comparison. What I found the most intriguing was that at this time, int he early to mid 1800s, We had a real string of forgettable and inconsequential presidents, and yet we had a lot of non-president statesmen who were impressive and spectacular (like Henry Clay and James Seward.) So why were we electing these yahoos? The nominating system worked less well then and of course our bizarre electoral college has never helped. More than once in these years, the candidates running were hoping no one would get a plurality of votes and the Congress would have to decide the president. That strikes one as an odd tactic in today's world.

Interspersed through this biography, Strauss gives us a rundown of the other presidents vying for the sobriquet of Worst. The good thing (so far) is that all of our bad presidents have been impressively ineffectual and they just don't do anything. It's possible that in four years we'll not only revise the list, but that we'll finally have someone who stands out as actually accomplishing negative things, but we can always hope for another Know Nothing campaign and a Do-Nothing Congress to mitigate.

I also realized upon reading this that I have only read one other straightforward presidential biography (not including Lincoln's Melancholy which is pretty narrowly-focused) so I ought to probably read another one. It's sad that of the only two I've read, one was of the worst president. (The other was John Adams by David McCullough so that compensates in a lot of ways.)

Regardless of whether you fear the next four years, this was an entertaining and amusing biography, and we ought to learn from our mistakes so we don't repeat them, which means we should study the worst president alongside studying the best.

I checked this book out of the library.

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