January 30, 2001

   Strakon Lights Up, No. 94

The twelve worst
Part one

News of the sitting president perdures as the media's unremitting obsession, as always, but a body can't swing a spraying polecat these days without also hitting some commentary about past presidents and the history of the presidency. For example, C-Span recently televised a lecture by the talented Establishment historian Michael Beschloss on America's imperial magistracy, with special attention to the accomplishments and character of Father Abraham. Beschloss — author and editor of several books on American presidents — was speaking at the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg several days after the presidential election, and during the Q&A, he indulged in a little presidential ranking. (Guess who came out on top.) It's a game that writers on the public scene, whether laymen or registered members of the clerisy, find almost irresistible. I'm surprised I haven't given in to it before this. But now I've seen it played once too often by a worshipper of the presidency.

I would be hard pressed to come up with a ranking of the best presidents, and it would be pretty thin gruel in any case. Pointless, too, since the worst have had immeasurably more influence in shaping our history than the "best," whoever they may be. Therefore, what you have here is Strakon's list of the worst U.S. presidents — a round dozen of them, in homage to Suetonius, historian of the twelve Caesars.

But before I start the list I've got to get a few stipulations and qualifications out of the way. (That's how you know this is a Strakon column.) First, in building the list, I'm taking into account not only the calculated, deliberate, and direct actions of the president himself but also events occurring during his term that his people — or sponsors — helped steer. I don't want to be accused of blaming the puppet for actions of the puppet-master.

Second, I admit it may seem odd that no president of the past quarter of a century makes the list. If I were a historian I could fall back on some excuse such as, "It's too early to consider them. We don't have enough perspective." But honestly, at the risk of disappointing haters of Bush of Arabia, I don't think they qualify. They're up against some mighty stiff competition, for one thing. And however wicked and dastardly they were per se, they came along too late to wreck the Republic.

Take Clinton, for instance. He helped to further degrade the populace, but he was propelled into office by an irrevocably degraded populace to begin with. And he did much to shatter the icon of the presidency in the eyes of the non-degraded remnant of believers — which actually wins him a better ranking than president No. 12, who refurbished that icon. If I were going to add a thirteenth president, I'd probably put Reagan on there, largely on account of all his empty wind and deficit spending. I hope that helps.

Finally, when I point out that this isn't rocket science, I don't mean it's easy. I mean it's not scientific. The order of presidents in the early going — the "least of the worst" — is especially debatable and subject to reshuffling.


12. John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy makes the list primarily because of his disastrous and scary foreign-policy arc, from the Bay of Pigs to his fumbling summit with Khrushchev to the Berlin crisis to the Cuban missile crisis. Actually, it didn't end in 1962. Only 20 days before Kennedy's own assassination, his national-security apparatus was complicit in the assassination of "our ally," South Vietnamese President Diem. Oliver Stone and other Kennedyite fools think that this Cold Warrior, fierce and incompetent, would have avoided the Vietnam quagmire had he lived. Fat chance.

Kennedy qualifies for the list also because of that icon-restoring I mentioned earlier. He and the flacks around him, aided by their revolting, lying sycophants in the media, did their best — and their best was very good — to create entire generations of Kennedyite fools. And those fools were also fools for the glittering, heroic, sacred Arthurian presidency itself. On the domestic side, Kennedy didn't get much evil accomplished, owing to his lack of skill in governing and negotiating, but he did put some big bad trains on the rails — notably the first and worst of the major civil-rights acts — that his more skillful successor was able to send roaring down the tracks.


11. Thomas Jefferson.

One of the reasons I've listed Jefferson is the dismaying gap between his rhetoric as a revolutionary and his performance once in the White House. If that strikes anyone as unrealistic, I'd ask them to consider whether it's my expectations that are unrealistic — or those of limited-government republicans. Promoting the Embargo, permitting the nascent public debt to survive, and starting the National Road look like small potatoes to us now, sinking as we are under the weight of the fullblown leviathan, but those acts of Jefferson, only the third occupant of the magistracy, helped set the tone and establish the framework of that very leviathan. The same is true of his sending the U.S. Navy to police the Barbary Coast — a terrible precedent that came terribly early in our history. Americans now have the idea that they can freely wander the world and, if they get in trouble, aircraft carriers must rush to their rescue, financed by taxpayers with the good sense to stay at home. And those carriers do rush to the rescue all too frequently when the people, or corporations, getting in trouble are politically connected.

So much for small potatoes, so-called. Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase was one big honking potato by anyone's measure. He said his principal aim in cutting the deal with Napoleon was to exclude the great European empires from the backyard of the Republic, and while I'm not about to call Mr. Jefferson a liar, I will point out that the purchase also enormously increased the area of the so-called public lands. That was land over which the Central Government asserted not only political sovereignty but also — in a style we moderns must recognize as totalitarian — actual ownership.

Jeffersonians are usually considered foes of bank privilege, but the government's sale of "public" lands to settlers established a class of unjustly privileged creditors and a class of unjustly expropriated debtors in the West, as cashless settlers took mortgages from banks to purchase land they shouldn't have had to pay for at all and wound up either foreclosed upon or dependent on the banks for life. Meanwhile, Jefferson was using revenue from public-land sales to finance the National Road. It's a good thing Alexander Hamilton never became president; Jefferson as president was quite enough of a Hamiltonian himself.

Mentioning Hamilton reminds me of his tardy executioner, Aaron Burr. In standing sentinel over his new Louisiana Territory, Jefferson seemed to be less worried about encroachments by European empires than about his old running mate's purported scheme to set up an independent commonwealth in the Western wilderness. In 1807, Jefferson haled Burr into court on a charge of treason. That was two years before the birth of another man who, when he occupied the White House, defined secession as treason. He occupies a place on this list also.


10. Richard Nixon.

Boring, boring, boring, I know. He appears on all the leftists' lists of the worst, and that alone gave him a shot at staying off my list. But he's got to be on it somewhere. Nixon was the second Great Society president. He inherited Great Society socialism from his predecessor, and if he did anything important to overthrow it instead of enlarge it, my memory fails, and I am prepared to be educated. EPA, OSHA, Consumer Product Safety Commission, gasoline socialism, affirmative action, wage-price controls, "We're all Keynesians now" — Nixon was the very model of the Republican socialist.

Nixon and his people ended the draft and the Vietnam War, but they pre-emptively forfeited whatever credit they were owed from that when, upon taking office in January 1969, they drafted the next American boy and permitted the next bomb to be dropped in the stupid, unjust, and murderous foreign war they were inheriting. Nixon was not only the second Great Society president but also the second Vietnam president. If he hadn't carried out some important presidential-icon-besmirching of his own in the Watergate affair, I'd assign him a worse rank.

January 30, 2001

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