America's Three Worst Presidents

Presidents Day has taken a deep back seat these days on our holiday calendar to the point that not only do schools go on as scheduled, but so do many state and government offices. This is not surprising in 2008, and many revel in it. Presidents Day now celebrates all presidents, not just our greatest. That being the case, let's "celebrate," or at least recall, the three worst presidents in our country's otherwise proud history.

All 43 had their faults, and though mainstream media sources may not agree with my choices, many who understand history will, as a recurring theme continues. During each of these men's short times in office, they were responsible for deterring progress and negatively affecting the future for America. Thankfully, two of them were followed by two of the greatest commanders in chief of all time.

From the bottom:

Jimmy Carter: (1977-1981)

Few would deny Mr. Carter's place in infamy. I will confine myself to his actual time in office, although Jimmy Carter arguably has actually been as detrimental to freedom, democracy and the American ideal as during his catastrophic tenure.

Many historians rank him around the mid 20s, some liberal publications place him even in the top 20, and some conservatives in the low 30s. But these are 1980s and 90s ratings. It no doubt takes two post-presidential decades for more complete observations, as we saw with President Reagan, and will likely see with President Bush, depending upon the successor.

One absurd decision, considered "controversial" by even his ardent supporters, was the final negotiation and signature of the "Panama Canal Treaties" in September 1977. Those treaties, which essentially would transfer control of the American-built Panama Canal to the nation of Panama, were bitterly opposed by a majority of the American public. The treaties transferred a great strategic American asset - one that nearly 30,000 men died while constructing it over a decade -- to a corrupt third-world military dictatorship. Mr. Carter could not care less.

America's worst president also terminated the Russian wheat deal, which was intended to establish trade with USSR and lessen Cold War tensions. Even as a former farmer, Carter didn't value the grain exports, which would have been beneficial to many people employed in agriculture. This embargo marked the beginning of terrible hardship for American farmers.

If all that were not tragic enough, the main conflict between human rights and U.S. interests came in Carter's dealings with the Shah of Iran. Though Carter's presidency was marked by several major crises, the final year of his term arguably was his worst. It was dominated by the Iran Hostage Crisis, during which the United States struggled to rescue diplomats and American citizens held hostage in Tehran, paving the way for the rise of Radical Islam now threatening the free world.

The Shah had been a strong ally of America since World War II. He was also friendly to the Jews of Israel, an idea subsequently non-existent in Iran for more than three decades now. Al Qaeda and the Taliban did not exist and Radical Islam lacked a major state sponsor.  Shah Reza Pahlavi was one of the "twin pillars" upon which U.S. strategic policy in the Middle East was built.

When the Iranian Revolution broke out, the Shah was overthrown, and the U.S. did not intervene. The Shah, in permanent exile, was refused entry to the United States by the Carter administration, even on grounds of medical emergency. Nearly a year later, Washington relented and admitted the Shah into the U.S.  Gaining strength and confidence, Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage.

The Shah died a few months later in Egypt, but the hostage crisis continued, dominating the last year of Carter's presidency and putting his misguided policies on display for the world to see, embarrassing America in the process. Carter's response was to do nothing at first. He simply stayed inside the White House. Then he attempted a rescue he closely managed, which failed. (Contrast this to President Bush after 9-11, though he was still criticized in the press). The redeeming factor in this telling ordeal was Carter's crushing defeat by Ronald Reagan in the presidential election.

The hostages were released on January 20, 1981 moments after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the USA. Carter's greatest achievement was leaving office.

James Buchanan (1857-1861)

Slavery persisted deep into the 19th century, and more than 600,000 brave young American men lost their lives in order to abolish the cruel practice and preserve the Union. Democrats were in charge of America leading up to the beginning of hostilities in April 1861, and bear a special historical responsibility. Of course, on campus there is a noticeable gap in studying party's history during the last half of the 19th century, which academics also underplay when discussing the casus belli of the War Between the States. The worst among a bad lot of Democrat presidents, ranked at the bottom of several ranking lists, was the man who preceded Abraham Lincoln and left the country in ruins, Pennsylvania-born Democrat(ic) President James Buchanan -- the only man who was a  bachelor when elected to the presidency.

Though Franklin Pierce, who served directly prior to Buchanan, was just as disastrous (as was this entire era of Democratic politics), during Mr. Buchanan's administration the Union broke apart, and as he left office, the only Civil War in US history was 39 days away.

The country was divided in the middle of the 19th century. Not divided in the 'red state, blue state' way that today's emotional media decries, but divided over the serious issue of slavery. Violence was everywhere, with abolitionists murdered in Kansas having their murders avenged by radical northerners in Virginia, lynchings and so on.

What did Mr. Buchanan, apparently learning nothing from the failures of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that led to this tipping point, do? He kept to the Democrat status quo, asserting that slavery should be a matter for individual states and territories to decide for themselves. The Southern slaveholders, largely Democrats, approved. His opponent in the 1856 presidential election, Senator John C. Fremont, literally the first Republican presidential candidate, argued that the federal government should prevent slavery from spreading into the new western territories. Buchanan won the election, although he failed to get a popular majority over Fremont and former president Millard Fillmore, candidate from the erstwhile Know-Nothing party.

Buchanan, still ignoring common sense and appeasing evil, decided to end the troubles in Kansas by urging the admission of the territory as a slave state, endorsing a proslavery constitution. In his inaugural address, he even encouraged the Supreme Court's forthcoming Dred Scott decision, which ruled that Congress had no power to keep slavery out of the territories.

Republicans won the House in 1858, but every significant bill they passed fell before Southern votes in the Senate or a Presidential veto. The Federal Government thus reached a stalemate, and sectional strife then forced the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern wings, each nominating its own candidate for the Presidency. 

When the Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln, it was a foregone conclusion that he would be elected. The South advocated secession. Like the Democrats 150 years later in dealing with Islamic terrorists, Buchanan hoped for compromise or diplomacy, but secessionist leaders did not want compromise. He sat idle as the furor of the situation spiraled out of control, naively believing that the Constitution did not give the president power to act against seceders.

In March 1861 he retired to his Pennsylvania home Wheatland, where he died seven years later, leaving his successor to resolve the frightful issue facing the nation.

Even the White House website seems to concur:

"Buchanan grasped inadequately the political realities of the time. Relying on constitutional doctrines to close the widening rift over slavery, he failed to understand that the North would not accept constitutional arguments which favored the South. Nor could he realize how sectionalism had realigned political parties: the Democrats split; the Whigs were destroyed, giving rise to the Republicans."

Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)

I will avoid discussing LBJ's adventures in foreign policy. Like Mr. Carter, his presidency was so full of mishaps there is not enough space to cover them all, and Johnson's foreign policy was particularly contentious. Rather, I will focus on his long lasting social policies which have had lasting, regressive, deadly effects.

Lyndon Baines Johnson's policies laid the groundwork for victicrats Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Inner cities and black America have been relegated to poverty and lack of incentive to succeed as a direct result of Johnson's socialist policies. Many contemporary historians may consider LBJ a "progressive pioneer" but I see a different story.

Johnson was sworn in as our 36th president at Love Field in Dallas, roughly 100 minutes after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. LBJ was preceded by a romantic figure cut down in  Johnson's home state.  

Though he was elected in 1964, the GOP may have aided that victory with a somewhat polarizing candidate in Arizona senator, Barry Goldwater. The Republican nominee had a great record of supporting civil rights, but Goldwater opposed certain preferences in the bills that became the Civil Rights Act. His vote against it ultimately led to a 44 to 6 state triumph for LBJ in the general election. Johnson benefited greatly from a profound expansion in liberal control over much of the mainstream press, Hollywood, and academia, a process that, of course, continues today.

Not remembered much in current history textbooks or the media of today, was that in the 1920s Republicans proposed anti-lynching legislation, reflecting back to Civil War times when Democrats, including founders of the KKK, had been involved in this horrific act. The legislation passed the House , an opposition speech was given by a Democrat Congressman from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson, but was killed by the Democrat-controlled Senate. Finally in 1939 it passed the Senate. 

LBJ and the Southern wing of the Democratic Party persisted in supporting anti-black positions. Consider, as LBJ's term neared:

 - In 1956, Democrats expressed their opposition to the desegregation decision of Brown v. Board of Education in the "Southern Manifesto." One hundred members of Congress, all Democrats, signed the manifesto.

 - In 1957, REPUBLICAN President
Eisenhower authored a Civil Rights Bill, hoping to repair the damage done to blacks and their civil rights by Democrats for nearly a century. Passage of the bill was blocked by Senate Democrats.

 - In 1959, Eisenhower authored a Voting Rights Bill, again, in an effort to undo the disenfranchisement of blacks by Democrats through poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of violence by the KKK. And once again, passage of the bill is blocked by Senate Democrats.

But then, following the JFK assasination:

 - In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is the law originally authored by Eisenhower in 1957. Democrats, including Senator Robert Byrd (a former KKK member), filibustered the bill. Once the filibuster was overcome, a larger percentage of Republicans voted for passage than did Democrats.

 - In 1965, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law, the Voting Rights Act of 1964. This is the law originally authored by Eisenhower in 1959. A filibuster was prevented, and passage of this bill also enjoyed support from a greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats. Johnson, of course, is now president and gets "credit" for this legislation -- authored by Republicans, designed by Republicans to undo a century of damage done by Democrats, and voted for by a greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats.

 - This was followed by the Great Socety programs designed to eliminate poverty and racism.

At this point, the media and academic elite began using a powerful combination of information control and revisionist history to engineer a massive electoral shift. Falling for the blandishments
of the Democrats and their media allies, blacks, once exclusively Republican, began voting Democrat in numbers greater than 90 percent,

The actual consequences of Johnson's Great Society were disastrous for blacks, discouraging initiative, encouraging a sense of entitlement and victimhood, and creating a permanent dependency class. Until 1965, 82% of black households had both a mother and a father in the home -- a statistic on par with or even slightly higher than white families. After 1965 (the year the Democrats and President Johnson decided it was time to stop oppressing blacks and start "helping" them), the presence of black fathers in the home began a precipitous decline; today, the American black out-of-wedlock birthrate is at 69%.

Unlike its socialist cousin (the New Deal), the Great Society emerged in a period of prosperity. Johnson presented his goals for the Great Society in a speech at an elite liberal public university, the University of Michigan, in May 1964. So-called "do-gooder liberals," having little faith in their common man, loved its aims. The elitist  "White Guilt"  (see Shelby Steele's book of the same name)  resulted in terrible long-term impacts. Soon after, the programs were heavily criticized by conservatives as being ineffective and creating an underclass of lazy citizens. They have been proven correct. Current evidence makes Johnson the villain. If he were alive today to see the effects, he'd cringe.

Socialism clearly makes individuals worse. Incalculable damage has been done to the black family by the neo-socialist policies begun under Johnson, which are a perverted form of what Eisenhower wisely began a decade prior. And for that, even ignoring the Vietnam adventure, LBJ goes down as one of our three worst presidents of all time. 

Ari Kaufman is a military historian for the Indiana War Memorials Commission  and an Associate Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research.
If you experience technical problems, please write to