News & Politics

The 5 Worst (and 5 Best) Presidents of All Time

Happy Presidents Day: Here's a list of the worst and the best in history.

Citizens of America, you can thank George Washington for your Presidents Day holiday off. That's if you happen to be one who still has a job to take time away from. But there are greater presidents in American history to thank for everything from emancipating the nation from slavery capitalists to going head-to-head with rapacious fatcats. And while these elective paragons are not without their heinous warts, so to speak, they pale in comparison to the madness and waste with which the worst presidents in American history infected the body politic. 

Here is our recession-recalibrated list of the worst presidents in American history, starting with a nauseatingly familiar face that probably both Democrats and Republicans alike wish they could forget. Then, we'll run down the top five presidents in American history, which follows the embarrassments below as a much-needed mind cleanser. 

The Five Worst Presidents Ever (Post-Econopocalypse Edition)

1. Dick Cheney

With one puppeteering hand in Congress and another behind presidential figurehead George W. Bush -- who spent eight years dodging deserved slings and arrows for everything from his cruel streak to his massacred language -- Dick "Dark Side" Cheney is both the worst figurative president and the worst real vice-president the United States has ever seen. We needed him like we needed a shotgun blast to the face. You can thank him at length for monumental screw-ups such as Halliburton, KBR, the post-9/11 panopticon, the Iraq occupation and further insane escapades. That includes those perpetrated by Cheney while serving as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush (another nomination for worst president ever), chief of staff under Gerald Ford and even with Richard Nixon, where he teamed up with Donald Rumsfeld, who Nixon memorably called a "ruthless little bastard."  

President Obama is still cleaning up the mess both of these disaster capitalists made without apology (which is the chief reason he's incapable of rising above mediocrity). But throwing out the titanic heaps of trash Cheney and Bush created may help him transcend his moribund state if he gets a second term.  

2. Warren Harding

Warren Harding can thank Bush and Cheney's bottomless schemes for diluting his renewable resource as the routinely worst president in American history. But they simply yet staggeringly built upon the foundational corruption of the Harding administration, whose benchmark Teapot Dome Scandal was an oil privatization scam that enriched his really long list of cronies, who in turn damned his compromised administration to the historical dustbin. ("I have no trouble with my enemies," Harding once told journalist William Allen White, "but my damn friends, they're the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!") Harding and his out-of-control administration more or less founded the modern corporatism and consumption that we dumbly accept today as standard operating procedure. Not even his allegedly significant infidelities and bacchanalian orgies can make him cool again. 

3. Herbert Hoover

Hoover is hard proof that trained engineers are capable of making things run not just more inefficiently, but nightmarishly as well. His lazy approach to the Great Depression is routinely referred to when running down his significant list of disappointments, but even revisionists can probably agree that he utterly to failed to institute the reforms they think, or wish, he reportedly wanted to make. Like today's vulture capitalists, Hoover believed that a government directly assisting its disenfranchised, which during his time was a much more vigorous labor base than our own, was tantamount to enabling addiction. For this impoverished economic philosophy, he was hammered by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 election, and ideologically shamed during Roosevelt's next three terms.

4. Richard Nixon

Here's a tell: The best thing one can say about Richard Nixon is that he actually left office. From ridiculously escalating the Vietnam War to only relinquishing it once it was inevitable that another clusterfuck known as Watergate would drive him into ignominy, Nixon remains a wellspring of wasted time and energy. From the Irish ("They get mean") and Italians ("Don't have their heads screwed on right") to Jews ("You can't trust the bastards") and especially blacks, who Nixon thought would have to be "inbred" before they could actually contribute to America in any meaningful way, Nixon had zero tolerance for almost everyone. The fact that a black president now occupies the White House Nixon was kicked out of is the greatest testimony to Dick's paranoia and madness. 

5. Andrew Johnson 

Because of the immediacy of our dire economic and environmental collapses, all of our electives so far are recent ones from the 20th and 21st centuries. But we'd be remiss if we didn't take a shot at American history scholars' standard whipping boy, Andrew Johnson. It was Johnson who infamously declared that the United States "is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men" -- aftersucceeding an assassinated Abraham Lincoln, who had given his life to end slavery's atrocities and reconnect his riven nation. Such blatant disrespect for the common good infected Johnson's administration, which created America's Jim Crow nightmare, combated the 14th Amendment and did much more that condemned him to much-deserved shame and scorn. He once even reportedly claimed that God had cleared Lincoln out of the way so he could become president. 

The Five Best Presidents Of All Time

1. Abraham Lincoln 

Abraham Lincoln is "the epitome of a President who endured personal loss, political attacks, and the prospect of presiding over the dissolution of the country, yet persevered and triumphed," explained Barak Goodman, director of The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (as well as the two-part documentary, Clinton, airing Presidents Day). "And not only that, he could write!"

More importantly, the insightful and thorough Lincoln could bring people from different walks of life together. It's a trait President Obama has tried to emulate, despite Republican intransigence that has passed beyond delirium. 

2. Franklin Roosevelt

FDR remains the only president to have served a record 12 years in office, thanks both to being what Goodman called an "ultimate pragmatist who found the ideal way to react to events" and "a genius at selling his policies to the American people under a banner of optimism and patriotism." Yet even that characterization looks like a short sale of Roosevelt's significant achievements. From helping defeat Hitler's totalitarian march to instituting New Deal regulatory regimes and social safety nets that have been the targets of privatization hawks ever since, Roosevelt's presidency is the ultimate repudiation of rampant capitalism. No wonder just hearing FDR's name made Glenn Beck want to slap his grandpa

3. George Washington

From leading America to victory over the British in the Revolutionary War and presiding over the convention that created the U.S. Constitution to inspiring the Presidents Day holiday itself, George Washington was "the man for his times, with a dignity and bearing that personified what a president should be," Goodman said. Despite being the only president to ever score 100 percent of the electoral votes, his presidency determinedly avoided the dictatorship that would have been so easy to institute in those heady days after the Revolution. Sadly, Washington was a gentry-born slave-owner (though, at least he freed all his slaves in his final 1799 will).

4. Thomas Jefferson

Washington tapped polymath Thomas Jefferson as his Secretary of State, but leaned more often toward the competing ideology of Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and eventually stopped speaking to Jefferson altogether. But that hasn't stopped Jefferson's own stellar accomplishments from somewhat threatening Washington's vice-grip on both the American imagination and history books. An avid outdoorsman and amateur anthropologist, Jefferson's exploratory mission for the suicidally depressed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark created the contours of our nation as ably as his searching mind crafted the Declaration of Independence. That Jefferson's territorial expansion laid the groundwork for the further callous extermination of Native Americans is as much an atrocity on his resume as, unlike Washington, never freeing his own slaves. This is likely why Jefferson's historical estimation, unlike Washington's (again) has stalled over time, despite his political ideals.

5. Theodore Roosevelt

Above all of his memorable achievements, Teddy Roosevelt "pulled the country out of the mire of crony capitalism and into a progressive age of good government," said Goodman. "He also set the stage for the country to become a world power."

To do this, Roosevelt merged his progressive ideals with a ravenous imperialism that has plagued every empire that thought it would never end. Despite being the first American in any field to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Roosevelt's presidency suffered scathing criticism for his relentless expansionism from none other than Mark Twain, who called him "Theodore Rex" for his imperialist nightmare in the Philippines. Yet without Roosevelt, we likely wouldn't have stunning national parks like Yosemite, food and drug regulation or the exuberant trust-busting that characterized his two terms. Like Barack Obama, he remains a progressive hopeful in emperor's clothing.

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In our post-millennial cynicism, we have become comfortable with the notion that national heroes are hollow receptacles for whatever historical processes are pushing them respectively forward or backward, which change almost arbitrarily with the times. So, two of the top presidents in American history were slavers crowing about indispensable human rights, and two exemplary Roosevelts were unrepentant racists. ("I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians," Theodore Rex said, "but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.")

Like them, we're no angels, because it's simply easy to turn a blind eye to human suffering, whether you're a president or a citizen. It may sound like a false equivalence that lets them off the hook, because with great power should come great responsibility. (I think Spider-Man said that.) But these presidential paragons strove to wield that power as responsibly as possible within their milieu, and created not just the ideals but also the logistical foundations for democratic governance worldwide.

Plus, the false equivalence argument downgrades our own sheer individual power, as both American citizens and consumers. Just ask the Foxconn employees who slave away in China to make our iPhones; the South Americans suffering malnutrition now that we have acquired a taste for quinoa; the Africans starving because our cars have acquired a taste for ethanol; or the innocent Middle Eastern kids playing in America's weaponized drone zones.

Expecting our finest presidents to be spotless idols is pointless. Nevertheless, we should demand they evolve, and strive like their forebears to wield their epochal power with reasonable sensitivity and sustainability. 

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.