On the Presidents Day holiday, Americans traditionally concentrate on a few celebrated examples of White House greatness. But in a provocative, unconventional and all-new history program, Michael Medved argues that we can learn even more from alarming, astonishing and mostly untold stories of presidential failure.
After all, few leaders can ever hope to replicate the epic achievements of a Washington or a Lincoln. But every future president can—and must—seek to avoid the appalling ineptitude of John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and their feckless fellow travelers on the road to the White House Hall of Shame.
As a starting point, Medved uses more than a dozen polls of prominent historians, journalists and politicians, taken between 1948 and 2011, that ranked all our chief executives from best to worst. The same three names—Lincoln, Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt—emerged at the top of every list, but the bottom rungs of the ladder generated more controversy. Medved argues that the two presidents most often ranked as worst-of-the-worst—Warren G. Harding and U.S. Grant—don't deserve their disrespectful treatment, and he explains why both of them have begun a recent climb in historical esteem.
Meanwhile, a few other names almost always listed in the failure category—James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson—richly earned their opprobrium and make the cut among Medved's "White House Worst." In fact, each of these men contributed to bringing on the greatest disaster in American history—the Civil War—or played a role in the tragic failures of the Reconstruction era.
- Which of these men dealt with an invalid wife who locked herself upstairs in the White House and spent her time writing letters to a dead son—while also convening the very first executive mansion séance?
- Which president won a gorgeous new wife (thirty years his junior) when he helped rescue her from a tragic explosion that killed her father—as well as the Secretary of State?
- And which president tried to reform his alcoholic, self-destructive son by installing him as his chief White House aide, only to watch helplessly as the talented young man plunged ever deeper into his addiction and wrecked his father's administration in the process?
The misunderstood Herbert Hoover also shows up on the list of losers, but not for the reasons he became wildly unpopular among his contemporaries. No, he doesn't deserve blame for the Great Depression—the stock market crashed a mere six months after he took office. But he does deserve history's harshest judgment for responding to economic hardship in exactly the wrong way: by hiking taxes (painfully and needlessly), raising tariffs, and growing government. By the same token, what made Jimmy Carter's regime such a spectacular disaster wasn't the economic suffering the people endured under his leadership: he was still serving his single term as Georgia governor at the time of the Arab Oil Embargo and the beginning of crippling inflation. It was Carter's handling of crisis and reverses that made him so uniquely incompetent, and associated his leadership forever with the term "malaise."
Finally, Medved explains why other candidates often nominated for lists of the White House Worst don't really belong there—exonerating Harding, Grant and Nixon as well as George W. Bush and (so far, at least) Barack Obama. Meanwhile, two other presidents much-admired by historians—Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson—deserve special consideration. Their first term stature and undeniable achievements disqualify them from lists of all-time worsts, but megalomaniacal personalities, devastating damage to the Republic by their stubbornly-pursued policies, and heartbreaking rejection by the populace create a separate category of Epic Disasters.
Entertaining, surprising, informative and insightful, Medved's new history program includes pointed advice for future presidents (and our current incumbent) on how to avoid joining the terribly tarnished names included in the rich story-telling in this presentation of The Worst Presidents Ever.
Total Run Time: 1hr, 53 min
Available on 2 CDs or audio download