tv Worst Presidents in American History CSPAN May 1, 2016 2:30pm-4:01pm EDT
>> coming up next, a panel discussion titled worst president ever. mosteast successful and forgotten presidents in american history. what makes the present the worst enemy offered nominees the title. the americans historians annalee -- annual meeting held in rhode island. it is 90 minutes. host: welcome to the oah 2016 and welcome to the plenary panel, "worst president ever."
i am a professor of history and chair of the panel. for those tweeting, the tag for this session is oah_badpres and you might want to add the tag oah2016. the theme 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 its successes. this seems particularly timely as the trump 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. although it didn't occur to me -- it did occur to me on the train coming up that "bad to whom" might be an important qualifier. 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 cool professor now -- full professor now?
sorry, a little inside baseball. associate professor of history end of journalism and media studies at rutgers university, new brunswick. he is an author of books about nixon and coolidge and a wonderful recent book, and insight history of the american presidency. a timely moment. good work, david. a history of the white house spin machine. formally an active editor of the new republic, is a longtime contributor to "slate" and now writes a history column or "politico." to david's right, although not politically, is annette gordon-reed. a charles warren professor and scholar of american history, she has published six books. among them a book in 2008 which won numerous awards, including the pulitzer prize for nonfiction.
signing that book outside in the book exhibit after the plenary. for those of you got a program early, one of the panelists will not the here and jacob weisberg has agreed to join us which is very exciting. he 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 was published in 1996 and his newest book, a biography of ronald reagan, 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 us begin with david. david: thank you. it occurs to me that we all have written looks for that to american presidents 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 were saying before, this will panel could be rendered moot by the next election. [laughter] so, maybe it 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 really did not address the question that way. we can get to that end i can drop some candidates but i want to talk about, what do we mean by worst? because i think when we think of great presidents, the criteria are pretty clear. 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, you might call it tthe anna karenina president, a lot of them are bad in many ways. but i want to look at what makes these the worst. first of all, the completely insignificant and forgettable presidents. as an historian of the 20th century, i am like everyone else, having trouble with all of those 19th century, which of the whiskers, which had the sideburns, which was which?
someone like millard fillmore could easily be a candidate for worst. i took the trouble to go to whitehouse.gov and this is what they said about millard fillmore there. millard fillmore demonstrated millard fillmore demonstrated that through methodical industry and some competance -- some -- not a lot, some. he demonstrated an 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 forgettable, the
insignificant. there was a great bit on the simpsons years ago, the forgotten presidents. you will not see us on any dollars or 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 we should talk about. herbert hoover, obviously he comes to mind here. someone who, before his election, i have been talking my book "republic of spin," and had this great campaign film in 1928 called "master of emergency." he was seen as this wizard. he fed europe after world war i, during the mississippi flood of 1927, the worst natural disaster
in american history before katrina. he was deputized, 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, the reconstruction finance corporation toward the end, but largely on all counts, 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, but hoover -- the conservative also renounced him. so he really 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 ronald reagan this way. i think if we were to have held this conference 20 years ago, 25 years ago, probably a lot of would be saying "ronald reagan." but i think now, even among liberals 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, am uncomfortable at putting the worst label, simply as a matter of my own political judgments as opposed to historical judgments, if we can make that distinction. maybe it is untenable but i would like to put that out there. another interesting figure i do
not think many would put is the worst, but certainly his reputation has come down recently is andrew jackson for his indian removal policy. certainly we look back on that with shame and disapproval. but again, jackson was somebody who accomplished a tremendous amount, who transformed the nature of american democracy, we -- do we really think it could make 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 is too far in this direction or that, but were just corrupt. abusive of power.
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. i think in the time since that book came out, and i argued against that by the way, but i think in that time, that has dissipated.
what is now talked about and what is remembered by younger people, the only president to resign. i am not a crook. watergate. that is nixon's lasting legacy. for his abuses of power, deemed such by a bipartisan majority. unlike the clinton impeachment we or the andrew johnson impeachment even, this was not a power struggle between two sides. it was barry goldwater and other republicans from left to right as well as democrats who wanted nixon to go. so, i attempted to say richard -- i am tempted 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 worst. i was asked to do a biography of andrew johnson for a time's book
series and it was something i had never thought i would never be doing, that whole era is important but it does something that is in some 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 was a part of a survey where they ask us to list people. the year i did johnson, the year the book came out, he made it all the way to the worst. buchanan had usually been at the very bottom but that was a thumbs up for buchanan. buchanan was usually there, but andrew snuck past them to take the top or the bottom rung, how ever you want to put it. i was thinking about how you make the determination. 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 in a set of circumstances that were extremely difficult. to say well, you should have done this or you should have done that in a situation that is almost intractable. an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. what happens? would you do? people say he did not act. he was passive. but that seems to be a tough situation. johnson, on the other hand, had people who were competent, who were willing to go forward, with whom he could have worked if he did not just have a really 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 work with him. people who had a plan for reconstruction, a plan to go forward.
someone who could have stopped some of the violence going on in the south against african-americans. so you have buchanan, who was facing a crazy situation and to did not do some of the things he was supposed to do, but it is hard to think of what would've happened in that timeframe. people might offer some suggestions about how we might have gotten out of it. then you have someone like johnson who could have done better. there was a way forward and because of his stubbornness, not just disliking black people, it was his stubbornness. he sent the country back considerably. a lot of things we have had to deal with over the past decade were problems that maybe we could have, if not overcome, we could have started to overcome if he had better able to manage himself. if he could have been larger than himself. that is what you want in a good president. the people you were alluding to were people who can rise to the occasion, who can 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 way up from nothing. i am damning him with faint praise. he worked his way up from nothing, he was illiterate until his early 20's.
the world. that is a tough way for a president to be. inflexible person who thinks he knows it all. so he is a candidate for one of the worst presidents. buchanan and andrew johnson go back and forth. depends on who one you are looking for. someone in a difficult situation and cannot figure out how to get out of it. in hindsight, we have the benefit of hindsight and we could say, if you done this, he could've done that, but i'm not comfortable with that idea. he had something in hand, very talented men who were there and would have been willing to help and he would not accept the help. so we will talk about the absolute worst those are my two candidates. but the new people -- reagan, when i did the surveys i would put reagan in, as i recall. i stopped doing them, but ronald reagan's in the top, not weak as -- not because i enjoyed what he did or i thought he did the right thing, but he did do what
he set out to do. he made a movement and there were a number of people who went on with him and and that sense, he was effective as a president. so i would not ask him. i thought the task was to combat who had been an effective president, he was not one of my favorite people. i think a lot of what he accomplished was extremely problematic. some people might suggest bush. if sean were here, he would've probably said george w. bush. he wrote a whole article about it, so we would have known his answer already. you know, that is a candidate but it is too soon to tell, you know? we do not know which things he will be given credit for 100 years from now, 50 years from now, it depends upon how things turn out. i feel more comfortable talking about people from the 19th century. next in, maybe not. the resignation, vietnam, paris peace talks and so forth.
some really unconscionable stuff. so he is a modern person i might throw into the mix. >> thank you. i am sorry i was not able to be sean, but i am pleased to be considered a scholar by implication of being on the panel. i am really a journalist who has written about 20th-century political history, particularly, contemporary history. i did argue, sort of, at a disastrous event. being invited to participate here put me in mind of it. at the end of the george w. bush presidency, i participated in an intelligence squared bait in new -- debate in new york and argued the affirmative of the proposition, result -- george w.
bush was the worst president. on the other side was call rove and bill kristol. -- karl rove and bill kristol. we did not do johnson. on my side was a very elegant british journalist named simon jenkins and on the way in, he told me he thought it would be very poor manners to criticize an american president in his own country. and i said, ok i'm out here on my own. and karl rove argued the proposition of not just george w. bush was not the worst president of the last 100 years, but of course the best president of all time.
bill kristol took a shrewder tack and said george bush was not good, but not the worst. hoover, carter, nixon. they actually won the vote but i still suggest karl rove stacked the whole in his favor ahead of time. i think, when we think about the whole question, first model all -- first of all, we have to knowledge -- acknowledge it is a parlor game. but it is a really fun parlor game for nerds like me. you can do the same thing with baseball players. we had a debate about who the cultural figures should be up there were a mount rushmore for culture and of course the decision was, they should not have carved that stuff in the stones at all. but, you know, the -- part of the reason it has to be a parlor game and not go beyond that, is you're making comparisons that are sort of absurd in a way. how do you compare harding and the mexican war. but i do think when people play it, at whatever level of seriousness -- including the surveys and that was talking about that she stopped
participating in, they are really thinking about the same qualities, the same issues. when we think about great presidents, you are asking, did they have big accomplishments? did they create the national parks? did they create the new deal? did they play a role in ending the cold war? that is at the top of the list. but embedded in that is a political argument about what accomplishments we think are admirable. there are the slightly different questions of whether they had a big impact for good or bad. whether they were consequential. i did a well-timed interview with barack obama in 2007 when he was thinking about running for president.
he talked about it with me and he talked to me about it before he talked about with other people and described being in the washington hilton where they had the washington correspondents dinner. and looking at this long row of black and white photographs and his decision was really about whether he would be one of the consequential ones. he did not want to run for president just to be president. >> sure. >> exactly. lo and behold, he ended up running. and you know, i think, did a president change politics and society in a meaningful way. then there is a meaningful question, do we admire them as people?
do they embody something about the national character? that gets down to other qualities -- were they great writers like lincoln? were they eloquent? that gets into personal qualities that go beyond just what they did as president. for bad presidents, it is the flip side but different. did they have large negative accomplishments? those can be active or passive failures. did they escalate a war? 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 two atom bombs? all of the president surrounding the can on both sides were -- surrounding lincoln on both sides were tasked with failing to prevent the civil war and failing to manage its aftermath in a better way. as a predictor of being labeled as bad it is proximity to lincoln, the number one indicator. the other side is, did they not have -- were they not consequential, did they not have a big impact?
ford, carter, and through no special fault of their own, james garfield and william mckinley. it does not make you a bad president to get assassinated after 40 days, but it does not make you a good one, either. lastly, did the person have bad character, like nixon or andrew jackson? people sometime described him in ways that make that case. to be in the president for the best president, you have to have all three of those things. big accomplishments, and be consequential, and you have to have strong personal qualities. to be one of the worst presidents you cannot have all three, because you cannot do a important bad things and be an -- and to be consequential. and i would dismiss the inconsequential presidents as a different category, you have a argument about who is a historical laughingstock.
but that is not the same as the worst president but it comes in the middle, lumped together. to wrap up, and i will talk about reagan in a minute, but i do want to say that, having written about bush when he was still in office, and having written about reagan a couple decades after he left office, it is hard to see up close. politics is a very distorting lens around the question of who was the worst. for that reason, it would be better to talk about the more distant historical period. but it is irresistible. to start out, i keep trying to come up with someone different, but i have to come back to nixon because i think nixon was the only president who i understand well enough to say about, he has the quality of shakespearean villainy. it is not enough to have been -- to have done bad things, or to
have not responded to an event. you have to have kind of a bad character that has a sort of transcendent theatrical quality. and in some ways it may make you a sympathetic character as a great villain. compared to richard the third or macbeth. but i think nixon 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. so i'm going to go with nixon. >> i would like to think jacob for alluding to warren harding. there is a reason for the rumor that warren harding's wife poisoned him gained such
traction. people across america wanted to poison harding. thank you for that. i am seeing a couple themes. 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, for example. one of the things you see over and over again is the president's advisers saying, what does the president want? 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. so, annette 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 historical moments that if a 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 is a 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 with that, and if we can let it flow for about 20 minutes, and then i think we have microphones up here, so at 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 nixon, you mentioned an overseas image. do you think people overseas view nixon better than you or me? >> 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] >> it was not 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 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 nixon. they might not have liked him personally. he was not the villain to them. >> i think the distinction between an academic scholarly view on one hand and a popular view on the other, and i think we should talk about that with respect to reagan with the gap is the biggest. but 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, perverse 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. when you get to europe, those subtleties are completely lost. you are known for watergate, the opening of china, mccarthyism, alger hiss, 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 proposed, would you like him
better if they had actually come to fruition? would you have forgiven him his sins if those things would've come to fruition? guaranteed income, national health care, 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 he hated liberals so much that he tried to outflank them. the liberal proposals he advocated were often poorly worked out and poorly thought through. i think a guaranteed income is a good idea, a left-wing idea that mystified anybody and everybody and came out of pat moynihan working for 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 version in california, 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. [laughter] >> and, he didn't. [laughter] >> the thing i would say with these liberal 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. i think that when we do talk about, when we play this parlor game, the person is important, too. so eisenhower is sort of 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. which 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. the discussion has been organized around pragmatics, that african-american voting committees have been pragmatic and 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? >> well, not 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. i've said this last year, that he was polling 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
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 afford to have a really, 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. >> i think here, too, you see the importance, to go back to the original comments about andrew johnson, sort of where some of the particular failures, whether it is johnson, maybe buchanan, but less so, have had their worst impact on african-americans, so there is no doubt that the failure to have a successful reconstruction was a great consequence for african-americans, although it also affected all americans. when you get to herbert hoover, well, of course african-americans suffered in the depression along with
others, but there would not be a great deviance there between how whites and blacks would rate him. i think reagan is an interesting question here. would a poll of african-american historians or african-american citizens of great or worst presidents, would reagan come out 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 starts 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. i never rated him as a worst president because of that, the bully pulpit he used in a way that ended up being negative for people. >> talking about reagan and then i want to talk 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, founded a new conservative movement. american politics since 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 but a repudiation of his first term and he took a radical disarmament that put him severely at odds with just about everyone else in his administration with the exception of george schultz who he really clung to and protected for that reason. it 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 he did go to reykjavik and propose the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, and he had ideas that were very funny ideas on the right.
he thought the soviet union what collapse, and i found something in his desk, which they have in his archives, i do not know if you looked at the pc wrote in 1962, where he forecasted this not on the basis of much, and it was in embarrassingly naive view, but with common sense in that communist in hollywood and thought that they were dumb and not that hard to beat, but he thought it defied 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 naive, an unsophisticated view that 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 is using, so make sure you are speaking directly into it, that the second thing, finally someone pointing out the long shadow of lincoln, do not blame buchanan. i think it was 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 schlump because he follows a wartime president, does it matter that eisenhower seems so dull because was followed by kennedy? what do presidential shadows do? and what about shifts in media? as a new type of media comes online, roosevelt projects a presidential image that hoover never could.
could you speak to that a little bit, the long shadow and how shifts in media affects our views of presidents. >> the conventional wisdom on the waterfront is, you do not have great presidents without war. it is a chance to show yourself in leading 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. barack 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. i guess trump tweets. his twitter feed is going all the time. the others, i do not know. cruz or sanders, i do not know what they're doing. >> ted cruz, in his trip to new york, he went to a matzoh factory. >> i think that is an interesting question. >> we can hear you. >> louder. >> is that all right? sorry, that was too far. ok, good. how is that? better? should i repeat everything i said before? [laughter] >> part of what has happened
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 now have this generational communicational form that older people cannot do or understand. it is not that we have the first president that knows how to use snapchat, no president will know how to use snapchat because no one over 30 knows how to use snapchat. i think that is what is going on with facebook and twitter. trump is authentically a twitter rage-aholic. no question. he does it the way crazy people who do not have $1 billion do it on twitter. i think otherwise, that game is a losing battle because i do not
think politicians who keep up with changes in tech communication technology. >> i have a slightly different view of the role of media in making presidential reputations. in researching this book, i came across one president after another who was hailed as a genius with modern media until the presidency became a disaster. herbert hoover, i mean, walter lippman, haworth brown, pearson, writing about him in 1928, 1929, he is a master of modern publicity methods, but with the depression he cannot get a break. they hired the father of modern public relations to help with their morale program and he says, look, i'm not a magician. you need a jobs program, in so many words. jimmy carter, too, he is hailed
as a wizard with this stuff. the cover of "new york times magazine," there is a cartoon with him in the control room with the networks doing his bidding, and if he had been a good president for eight years, he would be remembered as 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 and he wore a cardigan sweaters sitting in
front of the fire, and did all 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 "playboy" was a strange moment that is not been repeated sense. i want to invite the audience. we will continue the conversation up here, 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. please say your name before you ask a question. >> the only mention that has been made of native americans was yours in passing, and i want to make a comment about nixon and another nomination. his native american policies were superb.
grant may be second but he was first according to native americans. i have 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 his terrible 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 administration, which 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, they 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 annette. the guy who got impeach and would have been convicted without outright bribery should win the prize. >> i am a graduate student. i kind of want to pose this to you. everyone loves redemption, everyone loves the third act
when someone redeems themselves. i am a 20th-century historian and so i will not even venture into the 1800s, but people like taft, arguably nixon, carter, as recently as clinton, 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 there is usually 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 deserves the credit it has been given recently. certainly with eisenhower, but i do 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. >> i was going to say, it seems 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 race, both in relation to african-americans and native americans, and that is woodrow wilson, big down arrow, 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 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-slavery era is no longer
excused. there is close examination of -- were they worse than typical of white people in that era? and if they were merely typical, that can be a powerful lever against them. >> no white 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 dress. [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
policies were maybe a profitable to native american communities on one hand, on the other hand, when you look at the freeman, those policies tend to be detrimental, and i'm thinking about a supreme court decision, which 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 sovereignty trumped civil rights, 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 nationhood because of that particular decision that occurred under nixon. he was not directly related to that but i do not want to give these people the impression that those positive policies from nixon did 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? >> as a president, yes. we do have to talk about jefferson as a president. i just think about some of his, you know, his racial ideologies and ideologies in relationship to lincoln because we do not have a problem calling jefferson a racist. but lincoln embraced some of
those same ideologies and yet it would be anathema to call lincoln a racist. 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. >> you mentioned the play "hamilton." jefferson is the all-purpose stand-in for racist white people. and slaveholders as well. i have no reason to believe that george washington's views were significantly different from jefferson.
james madison's were the same. because of the declaration, 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 actually were on the race question. 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. it is as much a part of life as republicanism or any type of ideology. you talk about him 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. people say that 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 which takes all the 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 emancipater, it erases a lot of the policy and ideology he had about black people. the inferiority, repatriation. the whole nine yards. >> you are right. people don't talk about that as
much. because at the end of the civil war, how he died, his martyrdom, and all of those things, that is secondary to his personality. people do not bring that up as much but the sentiment is there. >> i would add that the key 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 personal views from presidential actions, the anti-slavery which was a strong motivator for his politics has understandably carried the day in his historical and popular reputation. for those who read -- no more deeply -- if it fits 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. over here. >> we do have to talk about jefferson, but i'm wondering if you could talk about a different jefferson. jefferson davis. the president of a failed state. 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 president 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 says 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. of what was going to happen anyway with the civil war. it gets back to the point about what we are all making, the difference between historical judgment and how one is seen at the time by the citizenry of one's own time. a lot of presidents are hated. franklin roosevelt. all of the of people who would refer to have as "that man." they let that go. fdr is one of newt gingrich's favorite presidents. there are probably a few confederate, lincoln-haters.
that has mostly become an 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 greatness may be that the other side comes round and tries to appropriate the legacy rather than continue to attack. >> it is interesting -- how do you view the other side? people 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 he is doing. i would have to think first about the merit of what he is doing. >> one of you may the point that it is hardly a great president without a war. i think it is hard to be a great president or bad president without a period that has a claim on people's imagination. easy to be a great president after the founding or the civil war, around the great depression and the civil war. if you lived in the late 19th century or early 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 political process in this country that you have elected these people. we are 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 president trump. >> you know who else was elected? >> how does this debate -- the
times that shape them. my second question, i have to go 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. for one second, imagine if they had accepted his offer. can we really 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 that derives from "the lone ranger." it is, who are 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. a second thing worth throwing to the group -- [unexplained noise] it is god. >> i think that is obama. >> sorry about that. >> that was james buchanan. [laughter] >> the second thing worth throwing to the group to amplify that question is -- i forgot what it was. the 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. right? a lot of it is closely aligned to the fact that we have mostly had two parties. though they have changed over times. >> we are not the only country who was elected some bad people. this is the risk of democracy. you have mortals and divided sentiment. i think it is contrary to the gentleman's question, despite not having it worked out methodically, we had a fairy narrow pool we came down to, johnson, buchanan, w, is out there but it is too soon to tell. for me, as a historian, the more that i work in history, the more
charitable i feel toward presidents whose ideology and accomplishments that i dislike. you see the pressures of the job, the challenges, the happenstance, ordinary people being thrown into this tremendously difficult job. >> the senior editor of the american president series said to me -- he's the one person who has read all the books -- he said, "everyone of them had something going for him." everyone was in his own way extraordinary. even johnson, as bad as he was, he clawed his way. he was very savvy, despite his problems. he was a talented person. it is difficult.
it's hard to do stuff. it really is. historians, we look at people and we make judgments about people who are actors. we are reactors. to have the responsibility for making decisions that send people to their death, we have chosen to do something else. we are not prime movers. it really hard to make the kind of judgments about people in those positions. we do it anyway, but you have to keep that in mind. it is hard to accomplish things. >> historians do gravitate toward these figures that have literary complexity. whether literary or not. there were probably pretty successful presidents who were 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 him 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. about the nomination of woodrow wilson. not 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? sigmund freud wrote a book about woodrow wilson. 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. a eye-opening book. i think the book was mainly written by william bullitt. who was listed as a co-author. >> freud didn't finish it. >> right. 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. >> right. >> i would like to come back to the point that annette made about jefferson.
one of wilson's 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 who had their own ideas about ethnicity, race, and history 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. you see with fdr, who was a
wilsonian foreign policy. despite the cold war, the establishment of the united nations, it does start to pave the way toward self-determination. and 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. i have not seen any good biographies. >> there is a new biography by james traub. the journalist. i have not read it. but traub is a journalist who really knows his history.
you might check it out. >> quincy adams is quite an interesting figure. his post-career. johnson also had a post-career, very short. to the senate from tennessee. >> a few months. >> a few months and that was it. >> i am from rhode island. welcome. i just want to ask each of you, when you started your careers, who is for each of you a lousy president who has been pretty good in your eyes. >> i would go back to reagan. i grew up in a liberal household. i remember in 1980, we had a 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 a 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. you 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 corruption, perhaps reconstruction, too. when the dunning school was still prevalent. grant was saddled with this reputation. great general, bad president. i think that is really changing a lot now. there have been recent biographies of grant. there are more in the works. is sean writing one? >> he stopped. >> he has too many other books to write. there are others. i think grant, partly because of his putting down of the kkk. the racial question is contributing to a revision of grant. he used to be a basement dweller. >> 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 just corruption. and good general, too bad what happened with the presidency. it was much were complicated than that. for the reasons he said. >> 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. to have a president like him. there is a little carter scholarship right now, and we all know the answers to some of these questions. a big part of the struggle was 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
that we are in this electorate moment, maybe about to see our first woman president, which is how few women have got up with questions. even the we have an equally represented panel of gender, how disinvested many people are in presidential history. just a comment, not really a question. we have a couple more minutes. was it this direction? >> i want, maybe to find the worst president yet to divide it into the 19th century and the 20th century. we can disagree but i want to 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 social coalition. both of these president said the taliban, moral equivalence to the fathers or we will get rid of the voting rights act. in that respect that would make a parallel to andrew johnson and grant. there was an opportunity for reconstruction to happen and both these, not by their lonesome, did push back in a more revenges way. i would argue that is what ronald reagan did. reagan was a very amiable guy, but what i'm saying is, you have to look at the long term. what did reagan accomplish in 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. >> i 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. because everybody here has been on television with 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. he liked to live normally, and spent his time a-whorin. my follow-up question was about a sense of humor. barack obama was on "wait wait, don't tell me" as a senator. he is hilarious, listen to it. then people would quote things
out of context and he could not be as funny as he liked. lincoln 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? reflections on whether there is hope for humor as presidents and why do we treasure some much and lincoln if we do not permit it in presidential candidates now. >> great limerick. i think it is a very good point about humor and how it is not permissible to the same extent. a president whom nobody mentioned, bill clinton, no sense of humor. it's one of the reasons he does 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 back to the beginning, it is a great excuse to talk about character. it's not that different from doing a kind of literary criticism. it is not necessarily proper history. looking at these people as characters, in some cases out of context and making out of context comparisons is not comparing to any particular moment. a game we cannot resist playing is because we love to try to know these people as people better than we do. >> i think there is hope for humor. 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 news 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 did not, 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. it is a part of human spontaneity, 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, choreographed. we have speechwriters writing the words that are tested by focus groups. we crave this kind of spontaneity in our leaders and politicians. humor is a part of that. it's the 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 is real, but
there are these forces that impose these great restraints. when you get to the presidency, 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. it is why i think the worst presidents reenters the picture which are very important discussions to have, what was nixon's native american policy? in a way, that is what the discussion is about. >> with that, i want to thank the audience for your attention, your wonderful questions, your wonderful tweets. what to say what a pleasure it is been to share the stage with three wonderful thinkers and
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