tv Worst Presidents in American History CSPAN April 24, 2016 4:30pm-6:01pm EDT
weekend on american history tv. we will show extended segments of the 1975 hearings that investigated cia, fbi, irs and nsa intelligence activities. the church committee, 40 years later, next weekend, saturday at 10:00 p.m. and sunday at 4:00 p.m. eastern time on the on american history tv on c-span3. announcer: coming up next, a panel discussion titled "worst president ever." it explores some of the least popular, at least successful and most forgotten presidents in american history. the three historians of first discuss what makes a president the worst and then they'd offer nominees for the title. this panel is part of the 2016 organization of american historians annual meeting held this year in providence, rhode island. it is 90 minutes.
host: welcome to the oah 2016 , and welcome to the plenary panel, "worst president ever." i am claire potter, professor of history and director of the digital humanities initiative at the new school and i want to let those in the audience, who are tweeting know that the tag for oah_badpres and you might want to add the tag oah2016. the theme of the conference, as chosen by john butler is "on leadership." as 2016 is a presidential election year, the program committee assembled a roundtable of scholars willing to talk about presidential leadership,
what about its failures gather -- rather than about its excesses. this seems particularly timely juggernaut rolls forward. just yesterday the clinton and sanders campaign engaged in a verbal sparring match about who is the most unqualified to be president. so things are getting interesting. the panel we have here today, all of these scholars have written about presidents who were bad in their own special way. [laughter] did occur to me on the train coming up, that bad to whom may be in important qualifier for this panel. what did it mean to be a bad president? what counts as bad? how do we define a bad president? and specifically, who might have
been the worst president ever? our panelists are david greenberg, associate professor -- are you full professor now ?--associate professor of history and journalism and media studies at rutgers university, new brunswick. he is the author about nixon, coolish and a wonderful book called the republic of spin, and inside history of the american presidency. again, a timely moment. good work, david. david is a longtime contributor to "slate" and now writes a history column for "politico." to david's right, although not politically, is annette
gordon-reed. charles wharton professor of american legal history at harvard law school, professor he of history in the history department and carol hayes for professor of american history. she has published six books. a winner of numerous awards including the poor surprise in history and the national book or for nonfiction. a leading and field, changing scholar, her most recent book is about thomas jefferson into the empire of imagination. they will be signing the book outside in the book exhibit after this theater. for those of you who got a program early, you may have
would beean relents here, but he is somewhere else. jacob weisberg has agreed to join us, which is really exciting. jacob is a veteran journalist and political writer and currently chairman of the "slate" group. he is the author of a book about the bush tragedy, which was a new york times bestseller in 2008. he cowrote "in in uncertain world," which was published in 2003. his first book, "in defense of ," and his newest ronaldnd book about reagan, which is one of my candidates for worst president ever, was published in 2016. that is the order we will go in and we hope you all have your ideas for worst president ever. let's begin with david.
david: thank you. it occurs to me that we all have written books for that american president series of calvin coolidge, ronald reagan and andrew johnson, so some of them can probably be in our mix today. it occurred to me as people are saying, right before, this whole panel could be rendered moot the next election. [laughter] we would be better to have this in 2017. as people saw my name on this and the question was, so, who is your choice? i should say, i really did not address the question that way. i mean, we can get to that and i can throw out a candidate, but i want to talk about is, what do we mean by worst? when do we mean by a bad president?
because i think when we think of great presidents, the criteria are pretty clear, and we might quibble a little bit, but there is a very small number that probably all of us would put there at the very top, but you might call it the and a corona formulation. -- anna karenina president, a lot of them are bad in many ways. but i want to look at what makes these the worst. there are, first of all the completely insignificant and forgettable presidents, and as an historian of the 20th century, i am, like everyone else, i have trouble with all of the 19th century, which had the whiskers, which of the burnside's, which was which?
allmore could easily be candidate for the worse. i took the trouble to go to white house.gov and this is what they said about millard fillmore there. " millard fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry some -- confidence -- not a lot, some. he demonstrated that through methodical industry and some confidence, and uninspiring man could make the american dream come true. this is on whitehouse.gov, they should be building him up, i think. one kind of worst president is the ineffectual, the forgettable, the insignificant. there was a great been on the simpsons years ago, the forgotten presidents. you will not see us on a dollars and cents.
millard fillmore. and william henry harrison, "i died in 40 days." then we get to the presidents who were bad in another way. who faced crisis and did a terrible job. these are serious candidates for the worst that we should talk about. you know, herbert hoover, obviously comes to mind here, someone who, before his election, over, i have been talking about my book "republic ," and had this great campaign film in 1928 called "master of emergency." he was seen as this wizard. during the mississippi flood of 1927, the worst natural disaster in american history until katrina, he was commerce
secretary and was deputized in the film shows him pulling horses out of the river and feeding bedraggled children. but then he gets an emergency and doesn't do anything. he does a little bit with reconstruction finance corporation toward the end, but largely seen on all accounts has, he could not rise to the challenge. it is interesting, having written about coolidge, he has a whole cult of conservative admirers, trickle-down economics, ronald reagan put his portrait in the white house, but hoover in the conservatives also , so he has no fans at all. another possibility and a comment about reagan suggested, what about presidents who did a lot but in a direction we do not like? a lot of people do still see reagan this way. i think if we were to have held this conference 20 years ago, 20
5 years ago, probably a lot of would be saying "ronald reagan." liberalsow, even among who do not generally approve of the direction he took the country, it is hard to say he was the worst. he was reelected, he did accomplish a lot of his goals, and i at least m uncomfortable simply the worst label as a matter of my own political opposed toas historical judgments, if we can make that distinction. they be that is a neater distinction that is tenable but one that i would like to put out there. another interesting figure, i do not think too many would put is the worst but people are certainly, his reputation as come down recently, is andrew jackson for his indian removal policy.
certainly that is something we look back on with shame and again, jacksont was someone who accomplished a tremendous amount, who transformed the nature of the american democracy. you really think this makes him the worst? probably not. the final category, presidents who do damage to the country in ways that transcend party and politics. what they did was really not about having policies that were too liberal or too conservative or took us to far in this direction or that, but were just power, andusive of this is where i do come back to richard nixon. when i wrote "nixon's shadow," my first book, there was a kind of rehabilitation of nixon in the air. saying, look at these liberal policies on the domestic front.
look at detente. i think since the time that book came out, and i argued against that by the way, but i think of the time that book came out, that has really dissipated. what is now talked about, what nixon is remembered by young people, what they know, i am not a crook. watergate. that is his lasting legacy. whichs abuses of power, were deemed as such by a bipartisan majority, so unlike the clinton impeachment when the injured johnson impeachment even, this was not a power struggle between two sides. it was very goldwater and really riker and other republicans from left to right as well as democrats who wanted nixon to go. so, i attempted to say richard nixon is the worst but we are open to discussion. annette?
annette: i did think a little bit about who was the worse. i was asked to do a biography of "times'"hnson for the book series and it was something i never thought i would be doing. that whole area is important, but it is something that in its own ways, more heartbreaking than slavery. to think of people that are hopeful and at the same time having their hopes dashed. i did think about what it meant to be the worst president because every year i am part of a survey, they ask us to list people, and the year that i did johnson, the year that the book came out, he made it all the way to the worst. buchanan had usually been at the ,ery bottom, but that was beginning was usually there but
andrew snakes past him to think -- to take the top or bottom rung. i was to get a high you make this determination, and in some ways, the way david was speaking, buchanan i would say would be the worst, if you are thinking about someone rising to a particular challenge. he was a set of circumstances that were extremely difficult, and to say, well, you should have done this or you should have done that in a situation that seems almost intractable, , what do youstible do? people say he did not act. but that seems to be a really tough situation. hand, hadn the other people that were confident, who are willing to go forward with whom he could afford to the to just not have the serious flaw
that he hated black people. because he hated black people, he was not really willing to go along with people. you had a congress, people who would have worked with them, people that have a plan for reconstruction, a plan to go who could havee stopped some of the violence that was going on in the south against african-americans, so you have on one hand, buchanan who is facing a crazy situation doing some ofe things who is supposed to do, but it is hard to think of what was supposed to happen in that timeframe. people might have offered some suggestions on how he could've gotten out of it, and then you have something like johnson who could have done better. because of his stubbornness, it is not just liking -- not just disliking white people, he did not take that way. he sent the country back
considerably. a lot of the problems we have had to do with over the past decade were problems that may be we could not have overcome, but started to overcome if he had been better able to manage himself, to be larger than himself. that is what you want in a president. the good president, that is a characteristic, people who can rise to the occasion, step out of their own petty prejudices and realize there is something bigger than themselves. he could never do that. we can understand why. he was someone who worked his almostfrom nothing, someone working his way up from nothing who was illiterate until he was a late teenager, whose wife taught him to read in his early 20's, and he occupied basically every office that anybody could have, all the way up to the presidency. said, "iike that, who
am right and i know i am right." that was a quote from him, and that is a template for a president to be, inflexible, who thinks they know it all. he is a candidate for one of the worst presidents. gohanan and johnson back-and-forth. it depends on what you are looking for. someone who is a difficult situation and cannot figure out how to get out of it, and in hindsight, we have the benefit of hindsight and we can say, well, if you done this or tried that, but still i'm not comfortable with that idea. it you have another person who had something in hand, talented men, people who were helping end were there and willing to help them but you just would not accept the help. we will talk about the absolute worst, but those are my two candidates for the worst. when i people, reagan,
do these surveys very often i would put reagan, as i recall, i stop doing them, but reagan in the top, not because i thought that he did the right thing, but he did do what he set out to do, and he made if movement and there were a number of people that went along with them, so in that sense he was effective as a president, so i would not cast him. i told the task was to think about, for the less, who had been an effective president, not my favorite people. he was not one of my favorite people, and i think what he accomplishes was extremely problematic. the modern people, some people might suggest bush. i think if sean were here, he .robably would've said w she wrote a whole article about that. we would've known his answer already. that is the candidate that it is soon to tell.
we do not know who'll be given credit 100 years ago, 50 years from now, it depends on how things turn out, but i feel comfortable talking about people from the 19th century. i would like to go back that far. nixon, maybe not. vietnam,nation, the paris with the peace talks and so forth, just some really unconscionable stuff. he is a modern person i'm must throw in the mix as well. -- i might throw in the mix as well. >> i am pleased and flattered to be considered a scholar by implication of being on this panel. i am really a political journalist but i have written something on contemporary history. i did argue, sort of, the proposition that a disastrous event that being invited to participate in this discussion,
at the end of the bush presidency, the w bush participatingwas in intelligence squared debate in new york and i argue the affirmative of the proposition to resolve george w. bush was the worst president in the last hundred years, did not really know buchanan and johnson, and on the other side were karl rove and bill kristol. [laughter] jacob: on my side was a very elegant british journalist named simon jenkins who told me he poor thingbe a very to criticize an american president in his own country, and i thought, ok, i am out here on my own, and karl rove, true to form, argued the proposition not just the george w. bush was not the worst president in the past hundred years, but he was in fact the best president of all time. bill kristol took an attack and
said, george bush may not have been a good president, but come on, he was not the worst, hoover, carver, neck said, and they actually won the vote -- nixon, and they actually won the vote. thinkk that, when we about this whole question, first of all, we have to make knowledge -- acknowledged the parlor game, but it is a fun parlor game, listing the best in the worst, and you can do the same thing about baseball players. part of the reason it has to be a parlor game and does not go beyond that, as you are making comparisons that are not really, they are sort of absurd in a way. how do you compare harding and the mexican war.
i do think when people play it, at whatever level of seriousness, including surveys that annette was talking about that she stopped participating in, they are really thinking about the same qualities, the same issues, so when you think about great presidents you are asking, did they have big accomplishments, did they create the national parks? are they create the new deal? do they play a role in into the cold war? the list, the top of but embedded in that is often a political argument about what accomplishments we think are admirable. , there is the slightly different question of whether they had a big impact, for good or bad, whether they were consequence of. -- consequential. i did an interview with barack obama in 2007 when he was just thinking about running for president any sort of talked about it with me before he sort of talking about it with a lot of other people, and he
described eating in the washington hilton or they have that white house correspondents dinner every year and looking down this long row of black-and-white photographs may have a different presidents, and he said the question about running for president was about whether he could be one of the important ones, one of the consequential ones. he didn't want to run for president just to be president. >> sure. >> exactly. lo and behold, he ended up running, but i think that is the chief debate, did a president change politics, society in a meaningful way?\ then there is the character and leadership question. do weadmire his people, think they embody something significant about the national character, and that gets down to alities. were they great writers like lincoln? t -- were they
eloquent? did they have large negative accomplishments? those can be active or passive failures. lbjthey escalate a war like , did they get drawn into a war? did they fail to act in an economic crisis like hoover? did they drop an atom bomb? did they drop to atom bombs? in the historical service, i was looking at it, and it is interesting, the block that is the worst, if you look over time, fillmore, pierce, beginning, janssen -- buchanan, work cast in ways of preventing the civil war and dealing with the aftermath in a better way. it is a predictor of being , proximity to link it the number one indicator. [laughter]
jacob: the other side of that, did they not have, where the not consequential, did they not have a big impact? you can talk about presidents who did not get reelected, ford, carter and james garfield and william mckinley. it does some make you a bad president to get assassinated after 40 days, but it does not make you a good one, either. lastly, to the person have bad character like nixon or andrew johnson, but people sometimes describe him in ways that make the case. i think to be in the running of thingresident, one of the is you have to have all three of those things, big accomplishments, consequential and you have to have strong personal qualities. to be one of the worst, you cannot have all three because you cannot do important bad things and be inconsequential. we have to sort of choose. dismiss the
inconsequential president as a different category. you could have an argument about which presidents are the most irrelevancy,heir or the historical laughingstock, but that is not the same as worst president, so sometimes it gets a little lump together. -- lumped together. i do want to say, having written about bush when he was still in office, having written about reagan a couple decades after he left office, i think it is very hard to see from up close, politics is a very distorting lens around the question of who is bad, who is worse. for that reason, it may be better to talk about the more distant historical period, but it is irresistible. to start out, i keep trying to come up with something different, but i have to come back to nixon because i think nixon is the only president who i understand well enough to say
he really has that quality of shakespearean villainy. i think it is not enough to have done bad things were not responded to an event. you have to have a kind of bad character that has a sort of transcendent theatrical quality, youin some ways it may make a sympathetic character as a great villain, being compared to richard the third or macbeth. i think next and does it on accomplishments, too. obviously, the secret bombing of cambodia escalating to the vietnam war. and one that is not appreciated enough, but everything nixon and watergate did to destroy trust in government and the ability to government to function and take on problems is a negative legacy we still live with today. i am going to go with nixon.
>> i would like to start a conversation among our friends here. i would like to thank jacob for alluding to warren harding. there is a reason for the rumored that warren harding 's wife poisoned him, because people across america wanted to poison harding. thank you for that. there are a couple scenes i am seeing here. -- themes i am seeing here. david brought up our political judgment versus our judgment as historians. that may seem like insider political history but it is an important point for those of us who worked in the reagan archives, one of the things you see over and over again is the president's advisers saying, what does the president want our r why won't he tell us what he wants? one vision of a not very good president would be this guy who
was floating through eight years in the white house with no one knowing what his agenda is. annettethe net -- brings up an important point which is, great presidents exceed who they are and bad presidents squander opportunities, and not to get too romantic about it, but there are certain political moments where if the president can seize them, they can become greater than who they are and what they are and even more than his accomplishments, i would say franklin roosevelt was that person. he did become more than who he was in a certain way. he was not enough, that it was more. and finally, i want to come back to jacob's point, as a throw away at the beginning about whether it is ok to criticize the president in his own
country. i wonder if this of the eight different conversation if we had someone who is a non-us citizen on the history panel because presidents are perceived differently outside of the united states than they are inside. i just wanted to start the conversation without, and if we can let it flow for about 20 minutes, and then i think we have microphones appear, so out a certain point, i will put a signal and we will add the audience into the conversation. if you have something to say, after i sort of give the word, come up to the microphone and ask us a question. annette: i have a question on the subject of next and, you ,entioned in overseas -- nixon you mentioned in overseas image. do you think he has a better reputation overseas? >> i think he absolutely does.
even during watergate, brezhnev would say, i do not understand what everyone is so work up about. we do this all the time. [laughter] just brezhnev, i think there was a sense in other parts of the world that this was a kind of peculiarly american fixation. i think it does have to do with our, other countries have this concern as well, but there is an american concerned with the abuse of executive power that goes back to our founding and throwing off the monarchy that i think is kind of baked in. a lot of europeans and others were much more positively inclined to do next and. -- nixon. to them.t the villain >> i think the distinction between an academic scholarly view on one hand and a public
view on the other, and i think we should talk about that with respect to reagan with the gap is the biggest. ,ut i think in regards to nixon what happens when you're outside of the country, these images get flattened out. they are not known for as many things. you get fewer highlights, good and bad. after nixon died, i wrote a long obituary saying, nixon was the last important liberal president and he founded the epa and presided over expansions of domestic government. he was the president that proposed a guaranteed income. his health care program, which was not passed would have been well to the left of obamacare or clinton care. and get to europe, those subtleties are completely lost. you are known for watergate, the ,pening of china, mccarthyism and that may play in favor or it may not, but i do think it is
not a complex deal. with that litany of things he propose, would you like him better if they had actually come to fruition? would you have forgiven him his sins if those that -- those things would've come to fruition? guaranteed income, national healthcare, all those kinds of things but he was dealt dirty dealing? >> part of that is, some of that did come from his dirty dealing, right? liberals hated him so much and so much thatrals he tried to outflank them. working fort of pat y ham
him. it was insane politically because, what if you win? ronald reagan actually played a little-known role in defeating the guaranteed income which might've passed otherwise. but having done a work early he came to washington and testified in the senate against it and said, in a commonsense way, well, you cannot people not to work because no one would work. i know i wouldn't rea. [laughter] >> and, he didn't. [laughter] >> the thing i would say with these achievements, this was the 1960's. public opinion was in a much more liberal place. he was the first president since 1848 to take office with the opposing party in control of both houses of congress. now it has become fairly routine
that we have had divided government, but he sort of seeded a lot of this to democrats in congress because foreign policy is what he really cared about. i think this gets us to another distinction when we rank presidents, the difference in the president and the president's administration. nixon was not liberal but yes, his administration did a lot of liberal things. how do we separate those? both of you spoke about moral character, whether in johnson or others, and i think that when we do talk about, when we play this parlor game, the person is important,too. ofeisenhower is sort undergoing this renaissance now, and he basically turned a lot of his domestic policy over to
rayburn and linda johnson. i do not know if he could give eisenhower that president. that is not about eisenhower, that is about what happened during the years he was president. i think that is a distinction that should factor into it. so, let me just kick this back to annette. she got to ask you a question, and they want to put you on the spot. is, how do we think about best or worst presidents from the perspective of african-american history or native american history, to the extent that, and i'm thinking about the conversation about why african-american voters are so overwhelmingly voting for hillary clinton. discussion has been organized around pragmatics is pragmatics, that they
have kept their allegiance through the best of the worst. how do we think about good and bad presidents in an atmosphere in which racism is fully defined the american political structure? speaking for, just observing african-americans, the sanders-clinton thing is not terribly mysterious. african-americans do not know sanders as well as they know clinton. year, thathis last he was pulling at 0% to 2% when they started out at it has gotten better since then, but he has not had a black constituency. he has been in vermont that does not have very many black people. he has not had to respond to a black constituency, so it is a question of who you know. the good things you have done and the bad things, just someone
you do not know at all, and he has sort of changed his message, adjusted his message over the few months to talk about more issues that involve african-americans, but that was not what he was doing at first, all in economic message, and if we just solve the economic problem, everything would be ok, but african-americans know that is not true. you could bring the socialism paradise here and there would still be racism and the white supremacy. that was not a sufficient answer for people. i think it is pragmatic. it is basically who is going to be, the least worst, or whatever, the lesser of evils because you know even if blacks who are doing relatively well, you think about the people who are doing less well, who cannot reallyto have a really, bad, hostile president, people who will not eat, people will not have a place to live, people who will suffer if the wrong
people are in power. if the republicans get an office, my taxes go down, but there are other reasons i would not want them in office, certain people in office, so i think it is really down to the question of who is going to be hurt, how many african-american people will be hurt if the wrong person gets in office? it is terrible to have to play those kinds of games but that is essentially what it is. , you seek here, too the importance, to go back to the original comments about where johnson, sort of some of the particular failures, whether it is johnson, maybe have had but less so, their worst impact on african-americans, so there is todoubt that the failure have a successful reconstruction
was a great consequence for african-americans, although it also affected all americans. hoover, get to herbert well, of course african-americans suffered in the depression along with others, but there would not be a great deviance therebetween help whites and blacks would rate him. i think reagan is an interesting question here. poll of african-american historians or african-american citizens of great or worst presidents, when reagan, markedly lower than he does among whites? i would suspect, yes, but i do not know. >> i think he probably would. he starts his campaign in philadelphia and start his campaign with a message. leaving his policies aside, it is what he unleashed in terms of people's attitudes about race,
now is the time for retrenchment. we have tried to go forward but now we have to pay attention to all that. he did kind of say that in many ways, and he certainly sent a signal that all of these things were not going to be important, and he was problematic. worstr rated him as a , thedent because of that bully pulpit he used in a way that ended up being negative for people. and theng about reagan talking about jefferson. >> jefferson has no part in this conversation, ok? [laughter] >> well, how can you do that? i mean, i agree with you. having studied reagan recently, i would rate him neither the best or the worst. i would rate him as one of the most significant of the 20th century because i think he
changed american politics, .ounded a new conservative move american politics sense has taken place in the context of reagan. but i think he does have one possible claim to greatness, which is the end of the cold war in the second term. i ended up making a case that reagan's second term, in relation to the union was not continuation of his first term his first termof and he took a radical disarmament that put him severely at odds with just about everyone else and it is administration with the exception of george schultz who he really clung to and protected for that reason. does not add up. what reagan does in the second term does not fit very well with so many of the things he said and did in his first term, but
theid go and propose complete elimination of nuclear weapons, and he had ideas that were very funny ideas. he thought the soviet union what collapse, and i found something in this task, which they have in his archives, i do not know if in looked at the pc wrote 1962, where he forecasted this not on the basis of much, and it viewn embarrassingly naive , but with common sense in that communist in hollywood and thought that they were don and not that hard to be --dumb and not that hard to beat, but he thought it to five human nature, no one would love like that, so it was a matter of time before the people there would not stand for it anymore. it is funny way, that sort of 90's, unsophisticated view has turned out to be more correct than the serious academic view.
i do think that reagan played a significant role in the peaceful conclusion of the cold war, and i think we will be grappling with that for a long time, and i think that will have him knocking on the door of the great presidents but with a lot of debate. >> a couple things, one, i received a tweet from the crowd that says the microphone at the other end, no, the one that jacob internet or using, so make sure you are speaking directly ,nto it, that the second thing finally someone pointing out the long shadow of lincoln, do not blame buchanan. i think it was in that the call that to our attention -- annette that called that to our attention. i want to bring up something that is contrasting presidents, does it matter that warren harding seems like such a slump because he follows a wartime president, does it matter that eisenhower seems a so don't because he was followed by so dull because
-- was followed by kennedy? toonder if you could speak that a little bit, the long shadow and how shift in media affects our views of presidents. wisdom onventional the waterfront is, you do not have great presidents without war. it is a chance to show yourself in the country in a conflict. the media definitely matters. the people who can master it, who are good at it, the cliche is kennedy in his press conferences, able to talk to the press, they were not really challenging him, but he charmed them when they were naturally under his control.
obama, he certainly is a president of social media and he has used that very well. it'll be interesting to see what happens afterwards, of the people that come next, if they will be able to do that, because none of them seem terribly savvy. mp tweets.u his twitter feed is going all the time. the others, i do not know. or sanders, i do not know what they're doing. in his trip to new york, he went to a matzoh factory. >> i think that is an interesting question. >> we can hear you. >> louder. >> sorry, that was too far. >> ok, good.
>> how is that? better? should a repeat everything i said before? [laughter] happenedf what has with communication, and i think that it's a good way to look at things, and obviously reagan is crucial there with the use of radio and tv, but with media we have this generational that olderonal form people cannot do or understand. it is not that we have the first president who knows that the use snapchat, no president will know how to use snapchat because no one over 30 no site use -- knows how to use snapchat. i think that is what is going on with facebook and twitter. trump is authentically a twitter -aholic.
otherwise, that game is a losing battle because i do not think politicians who keep up with changes in tech communication technology. have a slightly different view. in researching this book, i came across one president after another who was hailed as a until with modern media the presidency became a disaster. herbert hoover, i mean walter lippman, haworth brown, pierce innt are writing about him 1928, 1929, he is a master of modern publicity methods, but with the depression he cannot get a break. to helpe edward vernet with their morale program and he
says, look, i'm not a magician. you need a jobs program, in so many words. , he isarter, too hailed as a wizard with this stuff. the cover of "new york times magazine," there is a cartoon with him in the control room doing his bidding, and if he had been a good president for eight asrs, he would be remembered ronald reagan, i think, as the great communicator. he was that through the 1976 campaign and a little bit into 1977, but then he has the misery index and the hostage crisis and he could not rise to the challenge. i tend to think the people we remember as good with media tend to be the people who had successful presidencies and not the other way around. >> the only thing i would say
about carter, carter was good campaigning, but i do not know he was that great but the media once he became president. he was on too much any work cardigan sweaters sitting in front of the fire, and did all of the, carried his own bags and did all of these symbolic things that did not hide the fact that maybe he was not that great of a president, but i think he was much better as a campaigner using the media wants he actually got into the white house. >> although you would have to say the carter interview in strange moment that is not been repeated sense. audience.invite the we will continue the conversation appear, but audience members who would like to contribute to the conversation will do so back-and-forth, and if you would like to line up. that would be great. the only mention that has
been made of native americans was yours in passing, and i want to make a comment about that nixon andnother -- another nomination. his native american policies were super. b. no idea why, i think he must've had one good advisor somewhere, but if he gets credit -- i mean if he gets blamed for bad things done under his administration because of his advisors, he should get credit for that. i remember visiting the herald presidential library and see a completely wrong room about school segregation that gives them credit for more school desegregation than any other time in american history, which is of course true in all wishes against his will, and the other room shows better indian
policies happened during his ministration, never happens to be correct. my candidate would be franklin pierce. he is the only candidate, the only president who was nominated by his party, elected and then, though he wanted to be renominated, it would not. that is a distinction. another distinction is, when he left washington and came back to new hampshire, nobody met his train. [laughter] >> and then there is a third distinction, and that is, he beats out andrew johnson for being the most alcoholic president. i think he comes in second because i am with a net -- a nnette. demand that was impeached should
win. >> i am a graduate student. i kind of want to post this to you. everyone loves redemption, everyone loves the third act .hen someone redeems themselves i am a 20th-century history and so i will not even venture into the 1800s, but people like taft, , as recently as content, what can be said about the idea of a third act, a redemptive act after presidency that may change the viewpoint of how a president is looked during the time in office? thank you. >> i think it usually there is upward revision, as they sometimes say for presidents. sometimes it is because of their achievements in their post-presidential life and sometimes it is because they seem like a nicer guy now and
all of the bad feeling in hostility dies down. sometimes i am actually quite surprised. i think george bush, senior underwent an upward revision because of his son. [laughter] >> when you actually go back and look at the first george bush's presidency, in my mind, it is a poor presidency. there are few things with foreign policy where he should get credit, but it is not one that should receive the credit it has gotten recently, certainly with eisenhower, but i ,o think, yes, especially nixon carter, there are presidents that it made at the purpose of their post-presidency to rehabilitate the reputation for history. it does not tend to work. we look at the presidency, and the post-presidency is a footnote, the last chapter of the biography, but it may affect
popular perceptions of the time, but i do not think it affects historical judgment significantly. it seemsgoing to say, to me that revision upward seems a gradual process where revision downward can be quite dramatic and right now, again, this is non-scholar on the panel, we are seeing significant downward revision mainly on issues of in relation to african-americans and native americans, and that is woodrow wilson, you talk about jefferson, that seems a part, that phenomenon is probably affecting jefferson's reputation even though he was president 200 years ago. hamilton, this is not helping his reputation either, right? i think you can have these big downward, but that is the popular conception. presidents who, i think some time ago would have been assumed
to be, their racism or racial policies would have been excused to some extent as characteristic of their age if they lived in a pre-civil rights era, pre-savory -- slavery era is no longer excused. were they worse than typical of white people in that era, and if they were merely typical, that can be a comparable lever against them. president was as bad as jefferson davis, even though he was not a real president, he was the first president to leave office in a dress. >> they call it a farewell address. [laughter] >> hello, i am erica coleman. i want to piggyback on what you
said about nixon's policies regarding native americans. i want to disagree just a little bit, not necessarily disagree but give another perspective on it, because even though both a profitable maybe policy toward a native like american committees, that when you look at the freeman, those policies tend to be detrimental, and i'm thinking about a supreme court decision, which mix in had no -- nixon had no direct role in but it happened under his administration and that is the santa clara versus montagnais decision which marshall and the other eight agreed that rightsgnty trumped civil , and that made civil rights a
problematic issue in indian country and that is why to this day, the freeman continue to have a problem with the issue of citizenship and mason hood because of that particular decision that occurred under nixon. i do not want to give these people the impression that those didtive policies from nixon not also have a detrimental effect. the other thing that i want to bring up, and i am sorry dr. reid, but we have to talk about jefferson. we have to talk about jefferson. as a president, yes, we do have to talk about jefferson as a president. i, i just think about some of his, you know, his racial ideologies and ideologies,
articulate in relationship to lincoln because we do not have a problem calling jefferson a racist. lincoln embraced some of the same ideologies, yet it would be anathema to collington a racist. racist.ll lincoln a the question about whether a president was bad or worse as it pertains to racial issues, then jefferson certainly has a place in this conversation. i would like to know your thoughts about how it is that jefferson -- we have worked jefferson over, and yet we have given lincoln a pass. mentioned the play "hamilton." jefferson is the all-purpose
stand-in for racist white people. george washington as well. i have no reason to believe that george washington's views were significantly different from jefferson. james madison's or the same. declaration,e people fixate on jefferson, even though he is not an outlier. i think what this does is it ends up making whites of the 18th century better than they were. there is some sort of innocent community and jefferson is the person who stands out. these are the racial views of the time. white supremacy has been a prevalent part of american life. as a president, i was thinking mainly about his
actions, but certainly his attitudes about race or the attitudes of the people of this time. i do not think he was an extreme racist. but he was a common, garden-variety, white man for his time period. that is the way that i feel about it. you look at the notes in the state of virginia, white people are smarter than black people, white people look better than black people. i meet people who think that everyday and have all of my life. that is not something that strikes me as being out there. i think it really is the declaration, so he is the person who takes all the sings of -- sins of whites on his shoulders. >> don't we do the same thing with lincoln? lincoln with the emancipation proclamation, being seen as the great amounts of pater, -- the
great emancipater, it releases a lot of the policy and ideology he had about black people. the inferiority, repatriation. >> you are right. people don't talk about that as much. because at the end of the civil war, how he died, his martyrdom, that is secondary to his personality. people do not bring that up as much but the sentiment is there. key would add that the difference between jefferson and lincoln is on the slavery question where lincoln, despite having views that were racist was vehemently anti-slavery. to the extent that we separate from presidential action, i think he has
understandably carried the day in his historical and popular reputation. it's it's very uneasily with some unpleasant views about african-americans as well. >> i want everybody to know that i have tweeted the president of the united states and asking to join this conversation. i don't know why he has not tweeted me back yet, but as soon as he does i will interrupt everything. >> we do have to talk about wondering ift i'm you could talk about a different jefferson. jefferson davis. where would he rank on this list? as well as his counterpart, abraham lincoln. he is held in such high regard but he was certainly the most
divisive resident in american history. it might be sophistry to throw him in, but the fact that you could not even vote for him and 12 to 13 states is a lot about how hated he was at that time. that is an interesting comment about how hated lincoln was at the time. his election was in many ways, the trigger. it gets back to the point about what we are all making, historical judgment and how one is seen at the time by the time.nry of one's own flank them -- frank and roosevelt. gall of the of people who would thater to have as "
man." gingriche of newt metro favorite presidents. there are probably a few confederate, lincoln-haters. is mostly become a irrelevant point of view. fdr hating is irrelevant. jfk is claimed by the right for his tax cuts. one thing that is the marker of be that thes may other side comes round and tries to appropriate the legacy rather than attack. >> is interesting. how do you view the other side? they hated lincoln because they thought he would end slavery.
it's a value judgment but there are some types of programs for which you should be proud to incur -- that is why now when people have come around to the idea that slavery is not a good idea and think that he was right. i would not make somebody the worst president just because a large swath of the population is angry at something is doing. doing.it of what he is thate of you may the point it is hardly a great president without a war. hard to be a great eriod thatwithout a p has a claim on imagination.
if you lived in the late 19th century, in these times when they did not have a claim on historical imagination, it is hard to be important, either way. >> i teach american history in germany. i have two questions. you've had 44 presidents in the history of your country and basically every president has been named once during the debate. what does it mean about the process in this country that you have elected these people. when not talking about richard the third or kaiser wilhelm. these people were elected by the american people.
perhaps when we meet again in new orleans we will be talking about presidential that president trump --president trump. perhaps we should not only talk about the people but the times that change them. i have to gostion, back to abraham lincoln. in september, 1862 he issued the preliminary emancipation proclamation. it offered the southern states to come back to the union and keep slavery. imagine if they had accepted his offer. can we base our understanding of abraham lincoln on the fact that someone did not take the offer he offered. >> there something we say here in the united states but derives from "the lone ranger."
we, white man? not referring to you but the fact that the electoral process has changed over time and has become more inclusive and not more inclusive. looking at who gets elected often correlates with how the electoral process has been opening up or shutting down. the next thing worth throwing to the group. -- it is god. >> i think that is obama. that.ry about >> that was james buchanan. [laughter] thing worthd throwing to the group to amplify that question is -- i forgot
what was. question of the process opening up and closing down over time -- what i was going to say is, i was reminded by something online. when george washington was first elected president they did not imagine there would be political parties. a lot of it is closely aligned to the fact that we have mostly had to parties. we are not the only country who was elected some bad people. democracy.risk of you have mortals and divided sentiment. contrary to the gentleman's question, despite not having it worked out methodically, we had a fairy flesh fairly narrow pool we came down to, johnson,
buchanan come a w is out there but it is too soon to tell. as a historian, the more that i work in history, the more charitable i feel toward presidents whose ideology and accomplishments that i dislike. issue the pressures of the job see the pressures of the job, the circumstance. the senior editor of the american president series said to me -- he's the one person who has read all the books. everyone of them handsome something going for him. everyone was in his own way
extraordinary. even johnson, he clawed his way. , despite hisavvy problems. it's hard to do stuff. we makeat people and judgments about people who are actors. to have the responsibility for making decisions that send people to their death, we have chosen to do something else. the kind hard to make of judgments about people in those positions. anyway, but you have to keep that in mind. gravitateans do
toward these figures that have literary complexity. there were probably pretty successful and important, but are not that interesting. there are presidents who are bad and unsuccessful who present fascinating puzzles about failure. nixon will always be a fascinating figure. eisenhower, it's harder to make them a fascinating figure. the great unsolved puzzles of eisenhower are not the ones that keep people up at night. >> i will add a tiny bit more european perspective. so much for his administration policy but his foreign policy. he might fit the bill of this paradoxical achievement of failing what he wanted to do in postwar europe, but still leave
an enormous mess behind him. decades worth of disaster. >> can i say one thing about woodrow wilson? when i was working on my bush book i came across freud's book about woodrow wilson. how many of you know about this? it is a fascinating look. it is a diatribe. he definitely thought that woodrow wilson was the worst american president because he thought that he was a religious fanatic and was anally fixated or something. he thought he was a dangerous man because of his morally intolerant view of the world. i think the book was mainly written by william bullitt. >> freud didn't finish it. >> there is a lot of bullitt who had his own problems with wilson and is using the
prevailing authority of freud to do a hatchet job on wilson. >> it is a good hatchet job. >> would like to come back to the point that annette made about wilson. one of his greatest effects on europe was to create all of these states which then contributed to the second crisis and he did that with the help of a lot of historians. many of them were from columbia university which they mapped onto europe. the ordinary nature of it in history is important to note. >> i will push back a little bit because it's not on the thing that it was wilson's plan that left europe a wreck.
it's not clear that a return to the same great power politics that led to world war i would have done us any better. despite the cold war, the establishment of the united nations, it does start to pave the way toward self-determination. toward a more plausible system of international law. far from perfect but the vision deserves a certain credit. >> discussing presidents and their post-career, one president does occasionally get a photo in a textbook. john quincy adams who had a career in congress and was noted for his strong opposition to the gag rule. he does pass away on the floor of congress, but i have yet to hear his name mentioned.
new biography by james traub. i have not read it. journalist who really knows his history. >> quincy adams is quite an interesting figure. johnson also had a post-career, very short. to the senate from tennessee. >> a few months. >> i am from rhode island. i just want to ask e-cig -- each , who is for each of you a has beensident who pretty good in your eyes. >> i would go back to reagan. i grew up in a liberal household. we had ar in 1980,
mock debate in our high school and i played reagan because there was nobody in the school who supported him. i was the only one willing to be devil's advocate. i grew up in a reagan-hating culture. doing this book for me was really eye-opening in a lot of ways. i have not gone to the other side. i think that most of the prejudices i had growing up about reagan were in one way or another wrong. i have come to think that he was much better president than i ever would have thought, and also a more appealing person. it is hard to spend a lot of time around reagan -- i don't know if claire would agree with this, he is hard not to like. he has a genuine sense of humor. he is nice to people. everyone around him seems to have liked him. almost uniquely among presidents he did not seem to have a huge ego. he spend time around him and you
get to be a little sympathetic. >> the other one whom i have not studied myself is grant. we mentioned grant in passing as someone who for years was in the bottom tier. the credit scandal, gilded age construction, perhaps reconstruction, too. the dunning school was still prevalent. grant was saddled with this reputation. i think that is really changing a lot now. there have been recent biographies of grant. there have been more in the works. is sean writing one? he stopped. he has too many other books to write. there are others. grant, partly because of his putting down of the kkk> . the racial question is
contributing to a revision of grant. >> i would say grant, too. that is what i grew up with, great general and all this corruption. i didn't really know until i was an adult about the ku klux klan trials. he did give reconstruction a shot and was supported by african-americans. my initial thought was corruption. thebad what happened with presidency. it was much were complicated than that. >> i would say carter. not because of the post-presidency, but having spent time in the carter archives, i am more and more impressed about how unprepared the democratic party was. there is a little carter scholarship right now, and we all knwo the -- know the answers to some of these questions. struggle was the
trying to bring the democratic party out of this divided moment, where the party had splintered and reformulated itself. not unlike the republicans now. i also want to throw something in which is interesting given -- maybe about to see our first woman president, which is how few women have got questions. even the we have an equally represented panel of gender, how ininvest it many people are presidential history. just a comment, not really a question. we have a couple more minutes. maybe to find the worst president yet to divide it into the 19th century and the 20th century. but i want toe
say a word for nominating both reagan and w, even though it is quite early, because there was a progressive move toward accountability of the pentagon toward civil rights very imperfectly and a new deal coalition. the of these president said taliban, moral equivalence to the fodor's or we will get rid of the voting rights act. in that respect that would make a parallel to andrew johnson and grant. presidents, not by their lonesome did push back in way.e revenges reagan was a very amiable guy, but what i'm saying is, you have to look at the long term.
what did he a copy and his presidency and what did it set up for the political system, decades coming forward. i would argue both andrew johnson in the 19 century and reagan and bush put us in a bad situation. >> want to ask the panel with this last comment, we have about three minutes left and one of the things i like to do is pretend i am judy woodruff. if you're to address that, you have about half a minute for your closing statements. >> mine is really quick. a limerick i wrote in college about warren harding. there was an old man named warren who hated all things foreign. , andked to live normally
spent his time a-whorin. barack obama was on "wait wait, don't tell me" as a senator. would quote things out of context and he could not be as funny as he liked. lincoln -- reagan we treasure for his humor, barack obama is very funny but he cannot use it because he will be misquoted. does hillary have any humor? just a quick response on whether there is hope for humor in presidents and why we will not permit it in presidents now? >> great limerick. i think it is a very good point about humor and how it is not permissible to the same extent. hom nobodyt w
mentioned, bill clinton, no sense of humor. it's one of the reasons he does that transcend the moment to the same extent. part of what i take away from this panel is that, the fascination with presidents, and part of this parlor game coming beginning, it is a great excuse to talk about people with character. it's not that different from doing a kind of literary criticism. it is not necessarily proper history. of context comparisons is not comparing to any particular moment. that's why we try to know these people as people better than we do.
some of the e-mails we have seen for hillary clinton sometimes show flashes of humor but it is a very difficult thing because everything she is saying is being watched and the new cycle is maybe five minutes now? not even that, three minutes. people have to measure themselves very carefully. i definitely think that humor will stay there. you don't think that clinton has a sense of humor? >> i don't, can you cite an example? >> he has great charm. he may not have the humor, but he is certainly a popular person. and his capacity to connect with people maybe substitutes for that. i cannot think of a particular thing at the moment. >> i'm not sure what to say on the humor i have been working on this book for many years. spontaneity human
what would have come to call authenticity which is i think a dangerous word which encompasses a lot of things. but in the way what it is getting at, our politics are so scripted, staged, scoria graft we have speechwriters writing the words that are tested by focus groups. we crave this kind of spontaneity and every leaders and politicians. spontaneity that not everything is so calculated. i do think that hillary is humorless, but i think she is a guarded person. i think her authentic self is someone who is cautious, guarded, and methodical. that too is a virtue in presidents much of the time. the other thing i will say is, to come back about this issue of
character in the presidency, so much of what we are trained to think about is individuals matter, the agency israel, -- is real, but there are these forces that impose these great restraints. presidency, to the you start to see that this one particular decision did matter. that is not always true in other realms. it does take you back to character. think the worst president reenters the picture which are very important discussions to have, what was nixon's native american possibly. in a way, that is what the
discussion is about. >> with the bat, i want to thank the audience for your attention, your wonderful questions, your wonderful tweet. what to say what a pleasure it is been to share the stage with three wonderful thinkers and three of my favorite writers. [laughter] [applause] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2016] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org] watching american history tv, 48 hours of programming every weekend on c-span3. follow us on twitter, at c-span history --