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Move over, James Buchanan. Make way for Donald Trump. This is because Buchanan, our 15h president, (1857–1861) is generally ranked by presidential scholars (there are a lot of them) as our worst president ever. Where will Donald Trump rank? Let’s see the current rankings which have stayed pretty steady over the years. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George Washington are most often listed as the three highest-rated presidents among historians. Then come Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry S Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Andrew Jackson and John F. Kennedy. From the bottom up, we have – ta-da! — James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Ulysses S. Grant, Zachary Taylor, and George W. Bush. It’s interesting that scholars would place Texas’ own George W. so quickly among the cellar dwellers. It must be something about that Iraq War.

A 2006 Siena College poll of 744 professors reported the following results: “George W. Bush has just finished five years as President. If today were the last day of his presidency, how would you rank him? The responses were from 2 percent great down to 58 failure. “In your judgment, do you think he has a realistic chance of improving his rating?” Two-thirds (67 percent) responded no. Now, 14 years later, that 67 percent is right. Poor George’s reputation isn’t improving.

On the other hand, Truman is now considered one of our better presidents, but was ridiculed while he was in office. Truman was the only recent president who never attended college. He was from Missouri, fly over country. A hayseed. There was the tale of Truman, his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, strolling through the Rose Garden one evening, and Harry said, “Look, the gardeners have spread manure around the flowerbeds.” Daughter Margaret spoke up. “Daddy, please, call it fertilizer.” Wife Bess jumped in. “Margaret, hush-up. It took me 20 years to get him to call it manure.”

More recent presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are often rated among the greatest in public opinion polls, but do not always rank as highly among presidential scholars and historians. In 1962, a poll of 49 historians conducted by the Chicago Tribune ranked Eisenhower 22nd. In 1982, 20 years later, Ike rose to 9th. So we can see that presidential ratings generally stay the same except when then don’t. Nothing here is chiseled in stone. Oops. In the 1920s, sculptor Gutzon Borglum and President Calvin Coolidge selected Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln to appear on Mount Rushmore. I don’t think there’s room for anymore.

But why does Jimbo Buchanan always finish in last place? Most people today never even heard of him. It’s because of what he did, or didn’t do. He didn’t prevent the Civil War. Actually, I think that’s an unfair charge. No one could have prevented the bloodiest war in our history. There were too many people on both sides clamoring for it. A quick look at our boy and how he got into this mess. Buchanan was from Pennsylvania. (A historical note: Despite Pennsylvania’s major place in our history, particularly our early history, Joe Biden will be only the second president from that state.) Buchanan previously served as Secretary of State (1845–1849) and represented Pennsylvania in both houses of the U.S. Congress. After his election as president, he was off to a bad start, becoming very sick and almost dying from an illness that was spread throughout his hotel in Washington, where he traveled for meetings as president-elect. As president, he had little regard for the impending storm. Indeed, in his inaugural address, Buchanan called the territorial issue of slavery, a burning issue of the day, “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.”

He supported the theory that states and territories had a right to determine if they would allow slavery. Historians condemn Buchanan for not addressing the issue of slavery, and not forestalling the secession of the Southern states over it. That chapped a lot of people. By 1860, it was apparent that Buchanan wasn’t even going to be a candidate for re-election. His presidency was followed by that of a tall pol from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. Buchanan was our only bachelor president and never married, although he became engaged to Ann Coleman, the 23-year-old daughter of a wealthy iron magnate. But when the strain of work caused Buchanan to neglect his betrothed, Coleman broke off the engagement, and she died shortly thereafter. But even today historians debate whether he was gay. Still, it was his do-nothing tenure over slavery and secession that doomed Buchanan to history.

Trump has hinted many times that he will run again in 2024. He told a crowd of Republican supporters at a White House Christmas party “It’s been an amazing four years. We’re trying to do another four years. Otherwise, I’ll see you in four years.” He has already raised $207 million for that cause, maybe. Where the cash actually goes is a mystery. If re-elected, would Trump be our 45th or 47th president? There is a precedent for presidents. Grover Cleveland was our 22nd and 24th president. He served from 1885 to 1889, lost to Benjamin Harrison and then was re-elected in 1893. And remember that Bill Clements was elected governor of Texas in 1978, was defeated by Mark White after one term in 1982, then beat White for governor in 1986. What does that make Greg Abbott? Don’t answer that question.

Getting back who was a good president, a 2015 poll administered by the American Political Science Association among political scientists specializing in the American presidency had the usual suspects in line: Lincoln in the top spot, with Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson, Truman, Bill Clinton (yes, Bill Clinton), Jackson, and Wilson. The association conducted a repeat of this poll in 2018, with Donald Trump appearing for the first time — in last place.

 

Ashby ranks first at ashby2@comcast.net

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