That James Buchanan is considered the worst U.S. president ever is hardly a new idea. Earlier this year, the National Constitution Center published a piece on the growing consensus against the 15th president, noting several reasons — he influenced and defended the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which made slavery purely a states rights issue and fanned the flames of war, he pushed to allow slavery in the Kansas territory before its admission to statehood despite a majority consensus there against it, and he allowed states to secede, arguing that, while such a thing was illegal, he was powerless to stop it.
Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson and perhaps Richard Nixon may be grateful for such disastrous leadership. It keeps them from reaching the bottom of the list.
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But what of the rest of us? Does Buchanan, who served from 1857 to 1861, have anything to offer a nation in the midst of what many consider a record-breaking disastrous presidential race?
In “Worst. President. Ever.,” scheduled for release in October by Rowman & Littlefield, author Robert Strauss may not answer this directly, but he provides plenty of evidence from which readers may draw their own conclusions.
Unfortunately, definitive lessons may be difficult. That’s not Strauss’s fault. History seldom cooperates the way rabid partisans would have us believe.
For one thing, Buchanan was an honest man. He seldom, if ever, insulted anyone, including his political enemies. So much for the importance of what modern Americans call the “character issue.”
For another, he may have been the most qualified man ever elected to the White House, in terms of political and diplomatic experience. So much for experience as a harbinger of success.
No, Strauss tells us, “…it seems that Buchanan was just a bad president — a poor chooser of associates, a waverer when quickness was necessary, pompous when he should have been contrite, oblivious to both current events and public thought, and living in a sheltered past in an era when America was really burgeoning on the world scene.”
The joy of reading “Worst. President. Ever.” comes not so much from the recanting of Buchanan’s foibles as from the way Strauss presents them. A former Sports Illustrated reporter and feature writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, he brings a storyteller’s touch to his subject. Along the way, we learn of his own obsession, almost from birth, for all things presidential, and of his efforts to instill this in his daughter. We follow them on side trips to obscure presidential sites that include an in-person meeting with John Tyler’s granddaughter-in-law, which he describes as “a major kick.”
This is not a stuffy, academic history book. It is a lively and thoroughly readable assessment of a subject that ought to concern every American who fears a November choice between two people who might have the potential to unseat Buchanan.
Near the end, Strauss writes, “In toto, much of Buchanan’s failure seems to come from his obtuseness and his cleaving to some vague idea of what he thought a strict reading of the Constitution was, which meant that the president was mostly an administrator and that Congress and the states should dictate the direction of the country.”
He then adds what certainly must be true for every ideologue who finds himself, or herself, in power: “To be sure, he deviated from that whenever he wanted to — particularly in his influencing of the Dred Scott case.”
That almost begs readers to hear the echoes in today’s political landscape. Strict ideology dissolves easily in the face of obstacles and problems. But when it does, we can only hope our ideologues make better choices than Buchanan did.
Unfortunately, Buchanan’s administration offers little comfort to any student of history. His poor performance could not have been predicted. One cannot even offer the observation that he shows the United States can survive bad presidents. After all, his administration led to a Civil War that nearly wrecked the nation for good.
America can’t rely on providence to send an Abraham Lincoln along whenever it needs one. So choose wisely, whatever that means.
Title: Worst. President. Ever. James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents
Author: Robert Strauss
Publisher: Globe Pequot Press / Lyons Press
Scheduled release: October 2016
Projected retail price: $26.95