Monday, Feb 21, 2011 07:30 ET
Who's the worst president of them all?
When it comes to who least deserves to be honored today, it's a close call between the 43rd and 15th presidents
By Glenn W. LaFantasie
In 2006, while the Bush administration smashed its way through two wars, countless constitutional constraints, and a fragile economy constructed on the slippery slope of tax cuts for the wealthy, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton historian, pondered in Rolling Stone whether W. would be regarded as America's worst president. Rather coyly, Wilentz never came right out and said that Bush 43 was the worst, but his essay gathered together all the evidence that pointed toward only one verdict: guilty as charged.
In making his case, Wilentz mentioned a 2004 poll of historians, who predicted that Bush would surely end up among the worst five presidents. While presidents have a way of rewriting their own history -- witness Bush's recent book tour -- he doesn't seem to be on a path to any near-term redemption. For example, a poll conducted in July 2010 by the Siena Research Institute revealed that 238 "presidential scholars" had ranked Bush among the five worst presidents (39 out of 43), with Andrew Johnson solidly occupying the very bottom of the list. Johnson is a particular favorite for the bottom of the pile because of his impeachment (although he was acquitted in the Senate by one vote in May 1868), his complete mishandling of Reconstruction policy, his inept dealings with his Cabinet and Congress, his drinking problem (he was probably inebriated at his inauguration), his bristling personality, and his enormous sense of self-importance. He once suggested that God saw fit to have Lincoln assassinated so that he could become president. A Northern senator averred that "Andrew Johnson was the queerest character that ever occupied the White House."
Queerest? Perhaps. But worst? Johnson actually has some stiff competition for the bottom rung of the presidential rankings, not only from W, but also from one of his own contemporaries, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president.
Interestingly enough, Johnson and Buchanan, two of the worst presidents, stand as bookends for arguably the best: Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln's greatness might never have manifested itself if it weren't for Buchanan's utter and complete incompetency, and for that reason I cast my ballot in favor of the fifteenth president as our absolutely worst chief executive ever.
While I acknowledge that Bush 43 was certainly the worst president I've seen in my lifetime (12 presidents have occupied the White House since my birth), he runs neck and neck with Buchanan's inadequacies as chief executive. Both of them pursued their own agendas: Buchanan hoped to placate the South as the sectional controversy grew worse (and became increasingly more violent) in the late 1850s, while Bush worked assiduously to dismantle the federal government while trying to fit his presidency into his vacation schedule. Buchanan failed to reach his goal; Bush succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Both presidents handed a broken country on to their successors. But Bush broke the nation's back on purpose, so he wins points for what we might call a competent incompetency.
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By any measure, Buchanan was an odd duck. As the last president to be born in the 18th century (1791), he began life as the son of a storekeeper in Pennsylvania, attended Dickinson College (from which he was briefly expelled for rowdiness), and became an able attorney. Apart from eyelashes and eyebrows, Buchanan lacked any facial hair; he never shaved throughout his adulthood. His eyes were slightly crossed; to compensate for the defect, he often kept one eye shut and cocked his head to the side. Actually Buchanan was nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other.
Yet Buchanan built up a prosperous law practice, and savvy investments -- particularly in real estate -- made him a wealthy man. In 1819, he was engaged to Ann Caroline Coleman, the daughter of a prosperous manufacturer, but he devoted most of his time to his work as an attorney and to politics. For whatever reason, Ann Coleman broke off the engagement and died shortly afterward, perhaps from an accidental or self-induced overdose of laudanum. Her death left Buchanan distraught with grief. "I feel that happiness has fled from me forever," he told his father. The Coleman family prevented him from attending the funeral. He would mourn Ann's death for the rest of his life. From time to time friends urged him to marry, but Buchanan vowed never to take a wife. "My affections," he said, "were buried in the grave."
The mysteries surrounding his relationship with Ann Coleman resemble the bleak and brooding elements of an Edgar Allen Poe story, with Buchanan cast in the role of a bereft and inconsolable inamorato. He remained a committed bachelor until his death. Some historians have speculated that Buchanan was actually a homosexual, but these claims are based solely on the fact that he roomed for several years with a close friend, William Rufus King, an Alabamian who served in the U.S. Senate and as vice president under Franklin Pierce. Andrew Jackson once called Buchanan "an Aunt Nancy." A Tennessee governor referred to him and his roommate as "Buchanan & his wife." But such 19th century political slurs should not be interpreted in a 21st century context. Like most of us, Buchanan kept his sexual preferences -- whatever they were -- to himself.
During the War of 1812, Buchanan turned to politics, joined the Federalist Party, and served in the Pennsylvania Legislature from 1814 to 1816; he later won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1821 to 1831. In Washington, he turned his back on the Federalists and ardently -- although somewhat incongruously, given his wealth and high status -- supported Andrew Jackson and the rising populism of the Democratic Party. Jackson appointed him minister to Russia, a diplomatic post that placed Buchanan as far away from Washington as the spoils system could manage. When he returned to the States, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he displayed all the traits of a Democratic Party stalwart, a strict constitutional constructionist (in the Jeffersonian mode), and -- again, incongruously -- a Northerner who strongly, even sometimes impulsively, supported Southern interests, including any measure that would protect or extend the institution of slavery.
In the 1840s, he hoped to receive the Democratic Party nomination for president, but he did not attract much attention in Congress or as a diplomat, and he occupied a middling rank in his own party. When James K. Polk won the presidency in 1844, he named Buchanan secretary of state -- a plum appointment -- but the new president grew frustrated with the Pennsylvanian, calling him indecisive and thinking him ineffective. "Mr. Buchanan is an able man," Polk wrote in his diary, "but in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid." As secretary of state, Buchanan's biggest idea was to propose the annexation of Cuba while the United States went about adding great expanses of territory in the Southwest and along the Pacific Coast after defeating Mexico in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1847. The dream of acquiring Cuba danced in Buchanan's head for the rest of his life, obviously to no avail, even though plenty of Southerners would have loved taking over an island in the Caribbean where slavery already existed, just 90 miles or so off the U.S. mainland. Americans, he believed, should go wherever they wanted to go, although he said so in a potentially tongue-tying sentence: "Let us go on whithersoever our destiny may lead us."
Echoes of Buchanan's belief in Manifest Destiny can still be heard in our own time. In his 2004 State of the Union address, George W. Bush recast (but only slightly) Buchanan's belief in manifest destiny by trumpeting: "America is a Nation with a mission -- and that mission comes from our most basic beliefs. We have no desire to dominate, no ambitions of empire. Our aim is a democratic peace -- a peace founded upon the dignity and rights of every man and woman." That was one of his explanations for why the United States had invaded Iraq without provocation. Buchanan's "whithersoever" had landed us in the Middle East -- without an exit strategy. For Bush and Buchanan, there was simply no way to avoid destiny and providence. If God wanted the U.S. to possess California and Oregon, so let it be done. Ditto Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buchanan thought he could grasp the presidency by wooing support from Southern Democrats, so he remained steadfast in his defense of states' rights, slavery and its extension into western territories, and aggressive expansionism. Yet his bid for the Democratic nomination failed in 1848, when Lewis Cass of Michigan ran and lost to Zachary Taylor, the Whig candidate, and again in 1852, when Franklin Pierce won the Democratic nomination and the election. Buchanan hoped that Pierce would name him secretary of state, but the new president instead appointed him minister to Great Britain. Once again Buchanan's ostensible political friends had succeeded in getting him out of the country and, one assumes, out of their hair. In London, he could not stop thinking about Cuba. He traveled to Ostend, Belgium, in October 1854, where, with two other American ministers, he drew up a "manifesto" that called for the use of force by the U.S. to take possession of the island. Inevitably, the Ostend Manifesto was leaked to the press, giving rise to a storm of protest at home and abroad. Congress investigated the diplomatic correspondence surrounding the document's creation, and Northern antislavery forces denounced it as nothing more than a Southern attempt to expand slavery into the Caribbean. The Pierce administration gave up its designs on Cuba, but Buchanan kept longing for the island, hoping that someday the United States (and he) would hold it in a loving embrace.
From across the Atlantic, Buchanan also kept his eye firmly focused on presidential politics. He resigned as minister to England and returned to the U.S. in time to throw his hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination in 1856. His timing was perfect, since the Democratic Party had been thrown into disarray by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act two years earlier. The act, which was the brainchild of Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, voided the earlier Missouri Compromise by allowing the voters of Kansas and Nebraska to decide by means of what was called "popular sovereignty" whether their territories should allow slavery inside their borders. Conflict between pro-slavery "border ruffians" and "free-soilers" resulted in violence between the two sides. President Pierce supported the pro-slavery element in Kansas, despite the fact that free-soilers actually constituted a major of the population. As a result, both Pierce and Douglas, who also had presidential aspirations, lost support in the Democratic Party -- a political development that worked to Buchanan's great advantage.
Regarded as a safe candidate, since he had been overseas during the upheavals over Kansas, the Democrats nominated him at their convention in Cincinnati. In the general election, Buchanan faced off against two other candidates: John C. Frémont of the Republican Party and Millard Fillmore, the former president, of the American (or "Know-Nothing") Party. Buchanan won, but only by a plurality, not a majority. Nevertheless, he saw his victory as a mandate, namely that Americans had voted for Union over disunion.
From the start of his presidency -- indeed, from the very moment of his inaugural address -- Buchanan revealed that he was going to do everything he could to sustain slavery and Southern interests, no matter how much his policies would give Northern Republicans proof that the new president was part of what they called a "Slave Power Conspiracy." Sixty-five years old, with snow white hair, Buchanan took the oath of office and delivered his inaugural address. He made plain his own and his party's belief that Congress had no authority to interfere with the institution of slavery.
What really mattered to him, however, was the prospect of finding a judicial, rather than a congressional or a presidential, solution to the sectional issue of slavery. Going beyond accepted political bounds, and ignoring the principle of separation of powers, Buchanan had used his influence to sway a Northern Supreme Court justice to side with the Southern majority in a pending case, Dred Scott v. Sandford. When he delivered his inaugural, Buchanan already knew the outcome of that case, although in his address he deceitfully alluded to the forthcoming decision by saying of the Court: "To their decision, in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be." Two days later, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney issued the most infamous decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court -- an opinion holding that Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom because he had lived with his master for a time in a free state, was not free; that no slave or black person could be a citizen of the U.S.; that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from a territory; and that the slavery exclusion clause of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional. The opinion did not resolve the sectional controversy as Buchanan and the Taney court had hoped. Instead, it produced thunderous outrage throughout the North. In the South, of course, the decision was cheered. But Northerners saw the court's action as a partisan ploy.
Ignoring the clamor of criticism from the North, Buchanan nestled into the White House by surrounding himself with advisors who told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to know. The new president lived in a bubble, despite the fact that the nation was beginning to crumble around him. During his first year in office, an economic depression (referred to as the Panic of 1857) hit the country and persisted for his entire term in office. With striking ineptitude, Buchanan failed to deal with the economic crisis in any effective manner, which only helped to increase bitterness between Northern commercial interests and Southern agrarians. Spouting his philosophy of limited government, he told the public that the government lacked the power "to extend relief" to those hardest hit by the depression. As he promised to reduce the federal debt and all government spending, Buchanan nevertheless oversaw during his one term in office a growth in federal spending that amounted to 15 percent of the budget in 1856. When he left office, Buchanan handed over a $17 million deficit to Lincoln.
In the heat of mounting sectional discord and as the economy bottomed out, Buchanan abandoned the traditional understanding in U.S. politics of regarding his political enemies as a loyal opposition; instead, Buchanan, like George W. Bush 150 years later, accused his political opponents of disloyalty, extremism and treason. "The great object of my administration," Buchanan wrote in 1856, "will be to arrest, if possible, the agitation of the Slavery question at the North and to destroy sectional parties." In other words, Buchanan wanted to eliminate the Republicans, not just defeat them, rather like how Karl Rove worked strenuously to create a "permanent majority" for the Republican Party during Bush 43's presidency.
While Buchanan condemned Republicans and abolitionists as the source of all the nation's troubles, the Kansas problem continued to boil over. When the pro-slavery minority in Kansas submitted a fraudulent constitution legalizing slavery in the territory, Buchanan endorsed the document as legitimate. Then he tried to force his arch-rival, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, to do the same. In a White House meeting, Buchanan threatened Douglas by pointing out that since Andrew Jackson's time no senator had opposed a presidential measure successfully without then losing his next bid for reelection. Furious, Douglas replied: "Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead!" He then stormed out of the White House. (Douglas won reelection to his seat, successfully defeating Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois Senate contest of 1858.)
Buchanan went forward and submitted the Kansas issue to Congress. Then, in his annual message, he enjoyed a "Mission Accomplished" moment by declaring that "Kansas is ... at this moment as much a slave state as Georgia and South Carolina." But Congress had not yet decided the fate of Kansas. After fierce debate, the Senate approved the bill admitting Kansas as a slave state, but the House of Representatives did not. Finally, in Kansas, the free-soil majority voted against the pro-slavery constitution in a fair election. (Kansas would remain a territory until 1861, when, after the departure of Southerners from Congress, it was admitted into the Union as a free state.) With a smugness that smacked of delusion, Buchanan took credit for making Kansas "tranquil and prosperous."
Even as Buchanan was fanning the flames of sectional strife over Kansas, another crisis in the West demanded his attention as president. In Utah territory, the Mormons combined an overt patriotism and demonstrations of loyalty to the U.S. government with rebellious rhetoric and actions -- such as the practice of polygamy, otherwise outlawed in the U.S. -- that left many Americans outside of the Great Basin convinced that the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were intent on dominating the government of Utah, ignoring federal officials and authority in the territory, and enforcing a "Theodemocracy," rather than a true democracy, under the leadership of Brigham Young. When reports reached Washington in the spring of 1857 that the Mormons were in a state of near insurrection against federal authority, Buchanan concluded -- on something less than reliable evidence -- that the Utah settlers had "for several years past manifested a spirit of insubordination to the Constitution and laws of the United States," that the inhabitants of the territory were under "a strange system of terrorism," and that those who resisted the federal government were therefore traitors. Accordingly, he ordered, in his capacity as commander in chief, a military expedition to the territory that was "not to be withdrawn until the inhabitants of that Territory shall manifest a proper sense of the duty which they owe to this government." The army blundered its mission, and the Mormons fought an effective guerrilla campaign against the federal troops. Eventually, Buchanan felt the heat of political pressure to end the so-called Mormon War, and a peaceful end to the fiasco. True to form, however, Buchanan claimed credit for a victory in Utah.
The president was a saber-rattler. To solve a dispute between the U.S. and the British over the boundary through the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Northwest, Buchanan sent troops under the command of Gen. Winfield Scott to Puget Sound. Luckily the argument was settled peacefully. He also dispatched 2,500 sailors and Marines to Paraguay after a U.S. naval captain had been killed there. The campaign lasted months without any appreciable results. Like other presidents who would follow him, including George W. Bush, Buchanan resorted to military force without qualms and then, when the use of force did not quite work out as he intended, he simply declared victory and hoped that everyone would forget his mistakes. At least he did not say out loud to the Mormons, the British or the Paraguayans, as Bush 43 did to his enemies, "Bring them on." Even so, he assumed the posture of an aggressive commander in chief -- one who conveniently overlooked the fact that Congress, and not the chief executive, was supposed to declare war.
Meanwhile, Buchanan pushed ahead with what he considered his most important piece of business: acquiring Cuba for the United States. After his nomination for the presidency, Buchanan reiterated his extraordinary lust for Cuba. "If I can be instrumental in settling the slavery question ... and then adding Cuba to the Union," he exclaimed, "I shall be willing to give up the ghost." Yet Spain had not changed its mind since the time of the Ostend Manifesto. It had no interest in relinquishing Cuba to any other country, including the United States. A bill to purchase the island languished and then died in Congress. Undeterred, Buchanan kept saying over and over, "We must have Cuba." Because his desire for Cuba was not fulfilled, he did not give up the ghost.
Instead, he led the nation into its worst crisis. The crisis, at least, was not entirely of his own making, although he surely contributed to the steady escalation of belligerent feelings between North and South while he sat in the White House. He also helped bring about a schism in the Democratic Party that led to a four-way race for the presidency in the election of 1860: in the North, Abraham Lincoln (R) versus Stephen Douglas (D), and in the South, John C. Breckinridge (D) versus John Bell (Constitution Union Party). Buchanan did not run for reelection because he had promised the nation he would serve only one term. In that sense, he was a lame-duck president from the moment he had been elected in 1856, and his disputes with Congress suffered because everyone in Washington knew that he would be gone after four short years.
What triggered the immediate chain of events that led to the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency on Nov. 6, 1860. Fearful that Lincoln was a die-hard abolitionist, rather than a Republican who simply wanted to prohibit the spread of slavery into the western territories, a good number of Southern extremists called "fire-eaters" vowed to take their states out of the Union if Lincoln became president. With his election, South Carolina quickly called a convention to consider the matter of secession, and on Dec. 20, after Lincoln's election had been confirmed by the Electoral College, the Palmetto State jubilantly declared that it was no longer in the United States. Despite all the rationalizations and elaborate justifications for secession, then and ever after, the action taken by South Carolina was illegal and traitorous. Buchanan, as the nation's chief magistrate, watched with a slack jaw as the South warned the nation that it would not abide Lincoln's election, despite the fact that the Illinoisan had been legally elected (and not, say, appointed to the presidency by the U. S. Supreme Court as George W. Bush would be in 2000). Rather than taking the South's threats seriously, Buchanan in his annual message ignored the impending crisis and asked one last time for a congressional appropriation with which to purchase Cuba. He also suggested that it might be prudent to send a military expedition into Mexico for the purpose of establishing an American protectorate in Chihuahua and Sonora to ward off Indian attacks and bandit raids into Texas and New Mexico. Congress refused his requests.
At first, though, it looked like Buchanan might take decisive action against disunion. In his annual message to Congress, in December 1860, he denied "the right of secession." The Founders had established a perpetual union, he said, and the federal government had the duty to defend it from all enemies, foreign and domestic. In Buchanan's estimation, there was no wiggle room when it came to disunion: "Secession is neither more nor less than revolution. It may or may not be a justifiable revolution; but still it is revolution." By inserting the word "justifiable" in this last sentence, one could detect Buchanan faltering, his knees buckling like a boxer who's about to collapse to the mat. Sure enough, Buchanan also declared in his message that he and Congress lacked the authority to force any seceded state back into the Union. "The power to make war against a State," he contended, "is at variance with the whole spirit and intent of the Constitution ... Our Union rests upon public opinion, and can never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war."
But he said this 17 days before South Carolina or any other Southern state had left the Union. He was, in other words, providing the South with a handy justification for secession and letting them know the federal government would do nothing to stop the disintegration of the nation. No longer did Buchanan rattle sabers, as he had done in Utah or had threatened to do in acquiring Cuba or invading Mexico. When it came to the South and secession, the president professed to be powerless. In the North, his professed impotence seemed inexcusable, especially among those anti-slavery Democrats who remembered how Andrew Jackson had effectively handled the Nullification Crisis of 1832, when South Carolina tried to void a federal tariff law. Jackson had responded by threatening to use military force against South Carolina, which wisely had backed down. Stephen Douglas was right, though: Jackson was dead, and Buchanan was nothing like him.
Buchanan's lack of resolve, once South Carolina and the other states of the Deep South did abandon the Union, opened the door for those rebellious states to take possession of federal property -- forts, armories, post offices, customs houses -- without hindrance. Fort Sumter in South Carolina, which sat on a small island in the middle of Charleston's harbor, was among the few federal military installations that remained in the hands of the U.S. government. The fate of Fort Sumter threw Buchanan into a fit of indecision. Always something of a sponge who absorbed the ideas and strength of others around him, like W did under the mesmerizing influence of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Buchanan continued to listen to his Southern advisors who told him to tread carefully or not at all. Throughout the month of December 1860, Buchanan nearly suffered a complete breakdown: He cursed aloud, he wept, his hands trembled, he could not remember orders he had given or documents he had read. Some mornings he found it difficult to get out of bed. Observers noticed that there was a constant twitching in his cheek, an indication that he might have suffered a minor stroke as the crisis mounted. Finally, he decided not to give up the fort, and the Southern members of his Cabinet resigned in protest. Buchanan replaced them with Cabinet officials who were more decisively Unionist in their sentiments.
He wanted someone -- anyone but himself -- to find a solution to the nation's problems. Nevertheless, by the end of December Buchanan ordered a supply ship to Fort Sumter; the effort failed, however, when the ship was forced to abandon Charleston harbor when it came under heavy fire from batteries along the shore. Buchanan decided to do nothing else about the fort and the troops who defended it. In fact, it became clear that he intended to take no action against the South for the remaining eight weeks of his term. When he shared a carriage with Lincoln back to the White House after the new president's inauguration, Buchanan said, "If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland [his private estate in Pennsylvania] you are a happy man." Lincoln's reply, if any, is not recorded.
Buchanan spent the rest of his life at Wheatland justifying his actions -- and, more pointedly, his inaction -- in a memoir in which he referred to himself in the third person, as if he were a figure he had never met in person. He continued to blame abolitionists and the Republican Party for the nation's troubles, and he absolved himself of any responsibility for the Civil War, stating that he was "completely satisfied" with everything he had done as president. Forgotten by his countrymen as he spent his last years at Wheatland, he died in 1868. Many Americans had assumed he was already dead.
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Numerous historians have said that no president was better qualified to serve in the White House than James Buchanan, given the vast amount of experience he had gained in elected and appointed offices over the course of a long career in public service. In 1988, some pundits said the same thing about George Herbert Walker Bush, who had served as vice president, ambassador, congressman and director of the CIA before winning the presidency. Too few pundits, however, pointed out how injuriously unqualified George W. Bush was for the presidency. But, then, we all learned that for ourselves over eight long years.
Lately some historians have tried to rehabilitate Buchanan. "It is unrealistic," writes a recent historian, Russell McClintock, "to think that in 1860 the White House could have been occupied by a chief executive willing to take a sufficiently bold stand" in the secession crisis. Really? McClintock believes that "few of the men who have occupied the White House could have stood up to the challenge of the moment." But that's nonsense. It amounts to admitting that most presidents are mediocre, and Buchanan should be forgiven for simply being more mediocre than most of them. Yet Lincoln had no experience in leadership when he took the oath of office. And while it's true that he fumbled during his first weeks in office, he eventually rose "to the challenge of the moment." What distinguishes Buchanan, then, is not that his mistakes can or should be excused, it's that he totally lacked the capacity to rise to the occasion, to act when action was necessary, to defend the country precisely when it needed defending. In other words, he was a terrible president.
Even so, Buchanan's incompetent incompetency resulted in our worst national catastrophe, though the Civil War cannot entirely be laid at his feet. Other forces, beyond his blunders, led to secession and war, and to some extent, when all's said and done, there was probably little he could have done to prevent the cascade of Southern states that left the Union after South Carolina marched out in December 1860. Indeed, it's just possible that if he had attempted to coerce South Carolina to rescind its secession, other Southern states might have seceded in even more rapid order than they ended up doing. That's not an excuse for his inaction, and my statement differs significantly in substance than McClintock's apologia for Buchanan. Buchanan might not have been able to change the course of history or to stop the onslaught of Civil War. But he might have at least tried.
As for George W. Bush, and his incompetent competency, he did not usher in a civil war -- not quite. But he did make a mockery of the Office of the President of the United States, initiate foreign wars without provocation, mismanage the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, overstep his constitutional authority as president and commander in chief, violate human and civil rights, approve the use of torture, call his domestic political opponents enemies of America and traitors, alienate most of the nation's allies around the world, lie about WMD, pass tax cuts for the wealthy that brought the national economy to its knees, sign the TARP bill into law while letting foreclosure victims eat cake, and spend a great amount of time pedaling his trail bike and clearing brush on vacation.
Buchanan's sins were many. Their consequences were felt by Northerners and Southerners through four years of a bloody Civil War. And so we still feel the effects of his ineptness 150 years after the fact. But we are still too close to Bush 43's despicable actions in office -- the ripple effect of all the mayhem he sought purposely to create -- for us to understand just how much lasting damage he actually accomplished. Even so, Bush's eight years in office were an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the more we learn as time goes by, the worse Bush's presidency continues to get; there will undoubtedly be more damning revelations in the years and decades ahead.
Hence my verdict: As of today, Presidents' Day 2011, James Buchanan wins the dubious distinction of having been our worst president. Nevertheless, it is well within the realm of possibility -- once historians have a chance to reckon more completely with all of Bush 43's extraordinary transgressions as president -- that W might someday unseat Buchanan as the very worst president this nation has ever had.
* Glenn W. LaFantasie is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University. He is working on a book about Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.