This week, I’m re-ranking the presidents. If you missed it, take a look at Monday’s post to see who we’ve taken off the list thus far. Without further delay, let’s see who cracks the list at #30:
30. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) (Previous Rank: 28th) – Richard Nixon had a promising political career, undone completely by his own hubris. After serving as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Vice President, Nixon thought he could waltz into the Oval Office because of the popularity of Ike. It was not to be, as Nixon was undone by both the new medium of television and a young Senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy. After losing one of the closest elections (at least based on popular vote) in history, Nixon lost the 1962 California gubernatorial election and moved to the political sidelines until 1968. Nixon was finally a victor in another close presidential election in 1968 and finally ascended to the Oval Office.
He did some good things while in office: he was the first president to visit China and also began to thaw the country’s relationship with the USSR. Also, after a decade of focus on space exploration, the U.S. beat all other nations to landing a man on the moon in 1969. After winning reelection in one of the largest electoral landslides in history – both based on popular vote and Electoral College – it seemed that Nixon was well on his way to being one of the best presidents ever… if not for that pesky paranoia and a late night break-in at a Washington, D.C. hotel. Fearing impeachment, Nixon resigned in shame in 1974 and a lot of the good that he did was undone.
29. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) (Previous: 31st) – Moving up a bit primarily because two others came down, Van Buren was mostly a dud as president. A capable senior administration official during the presidency of his predecessor Andrew Jackson, Van Buren was undone by the Panic of 1837 early in his presidency and failed to recover and compete with the surging Whig Party. He is better remembered for his service to the Democratic Party and not much that he actually did as president.
28. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) (Previous: 30th) – Another beneficiary of the slide of two “modern” presidents, Taylor rode his success as a general in the Mexican-American War to the White House in 1848. He avoided the question of slavery with the territories won from Mexico by admitting California directly as a state, which was experiencing a population boom due to the California Gold Rush. He urged the same for settlers in New Mexico, angering the South because neither state joined the Union as slave states. He started down the road to compromise, however, but unfortunately died suddenly before seeing anything formal come to fruition. The Compromise of 1850 was agreed to shortly after his death.
27. Gerald Ford (1974-1977) (Previous: 24th) – Gerald Ford might be the man most singularly responsible for the corruption of Donald Trump. By almost immediately pardoning Nixon for Watergate, he not only doomed his presidency, but also made accountability a hard thing to come by for the rogue executive. He still had some accomplishments while in office though. The Vietnam War limped to an end nine months into his presidency, and the Helsinki Accords moved the Cold War ever closer to its end. However, some of the economic woes at home that ended up affecting the presidency of Jimmy Carter started under Ford, and he was just unable to garner enough support for reelection. He remains the only man to serve as President and Vice President without being on a ballot for either position.
26. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) (Previous: 26th) – Coolidge benefits, and is in this group, mainly because of how he compared to the man he replaced. “Silent Cal” became president upon the death of Warren G. Harding, whose once popular run as president was eroded after his death by the scandals that rocked his administration. His presidency wasn’t really known for much other than making the office of the presidency respectable again, and getting out of the way of the very popular Herbert Hoover for the election of 1928.
25. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) (Previous: 27th) – Grant turned the tide in the Civil War, and rode his post-war popularity to the White House after the disastrous administration of Andrew Johnson. He was a stabilizing force during the Reconstruction period, and grew the strength of his Republican Party in the South by ensuring that the new laws regarding civil and voting rights were enforced and embracing the new African American voters. He faced some corruption by people within his administration, but he also voraciously attacked those using public office for personal gain. A fairly average president, I personally think that U.S. Grant is underrated, and it appears that presidential historians might be beginning to feel the same way.
24. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) (Previous: 25th) – A humble peanut farmer from Georgia, Carter ascended to the White House as a counter to the policies of Nixon and Gerald Ford. On his second day in office, he pardoned all the “draft dodgers” of the Vietnam War and generally set out to help Americans get beyond that terrible war. However, his presidency was mostly undone by the Iran hostage crisis, energy issues, and rampant inflation. He was challenged in the Democratic primary in 1980, and lost his reelection bid in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, Carter didn’t really get in the way while president, and has spent his post-presidential life doing great things, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
23. William Howard Taft (1909-1913) (Previous: 23rd) – All Taft ever wanted to do was be a Supreme Court justice. Maybe he felt the black robes would flatter his figure or something. But his wife had different ambitions for her husband, and Taft reluctantly became the heir apparent for the policies of Theodore Roosevelt. He focused his policies towards Asia rather than Europe, but was ultimately did in by warring factions within his Republican Party, losing to the progressive wing when his former boss Roosevelt ran against him in the 1912 election as a third-party candidate, giving the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He finally achieved his goal of reaching the Supreme Court, being appointed by Warren G. Harding as Chief Justice in 1921, and remains the only man to serve as president and Supreme Court justice.
22. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) (Previous: 22nd)- John Quincy Adams won a hotly contested election that was ultimately decided in the House of Representatives, which stained his presidency from the beginning. As with many presidents of his era, his accomplishments as president were often overshadowed by what else he did in his life, but his goals as president included a focus on the arts and education, as well as infrastructure improvements in the form of roads and canals. He also managed to pay off the bulk of the remaining national debt. An able Congressman and diplomat, he returned to the House of Representatives after losing his reelection bid in 1828, fighting against slavery until he collapsed on the floor of the House from a stroke in 1848.
21. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897) (Previous: 21st) – The 22nd and 24th president, Grover Cleveland is unique in that he is the only president to ever return to the White House after losing an election, playing personal bookends to the presidency of Benjamin Harrison in the late 19th Century. He was the first Democrat elected after the Civil War, and the first man to win three popular votes for president. Sounds like he was a pretty respected guy for the most part. He was able to stay in the middle of the political spectrum, pissing off Republicans and Democrats alike with his policies, but is most likely remembered best for his quirky electoral history. His second administration was tarnished by the Panic of 1893, which lasted his entire second term and most likely led to the return of Republicans in power until Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912.
20. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) (Previous: 20th) – Andrew Jackson was one of the founders of the Democratic Party, and after losing the tightly contested election of 1824, he came back with a vengeance in defeating John Quincy Adams in 1828. He was beloved as a “people’s president” despite being a large plantation owner, and went away from the spoils system in appointing many executive branch offices. He fought against the Second National Bank, saying that he was defending “the people” from the bankers, and ultimately won reelection in 1832 because of it. Nevertheless, the Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears should be his lasting legacy, where he took native people off of their lands simply because “white people” needed it more.
19. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) (Previous: 19th) – George H.W. Bush was ultimately doomed by his promise of “no new taxes,” a statement that helped win the election in 1988 but hurt him against Bill Clinton four years later. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a successful president, despite only serving one term. He was the steward of our country when the USSR finally collapsed in 1991, and he was quick to react when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Unfortunately, record deficits inherited from his predecessor Ronald Reagan forced Bush to go back on his famous tax pledge and cost him the election in 1992.
18. Bill Clinton (1993-2001) (Previous: 18th) – Bill Clinton rose to prominence as governor of Arkansas and defeated George H.W. Bush in the election of 1992. Though the last few years of his presidency was marred by his near impeachment, he led the country during a time of great prosperity by completely undoing the failed economic policies of Reagan and Bush. He raised taxes on the wealthy and submitted budgets that dramatically reduced the deficit, resulting in a budget surplus. He attempted – but failed – to reform the healthcare system, though his wife was instrumental in passing legislation providing health insurance for children. However, the impeachment – though acquitted – and his signature on the Defense of Marriage Act, were negatives of his tenure as president, though history seems to have judged Clinton much better than most of his contemporaries.
17. William McKinley (1897-1901) (Previous: 17th) – McKinley led America through the Spanish-American War, raised tariffs to allow for U.S. industry to thrive, and stuck doggedly to the gold standard to hedge off the risk of further panics. He was reelected in 1900 on a populist yet progressive ticket, but was unfortunately assassinated six months into his second term by Leon Czolgosz. He was a generally popular and successful president, though he is often overshadowed by his larger-than-life successor Theodore Roosevelt.
16. John Adams (1791-1801) (Previous: 15th) – Adams had a lot to live up to, following George Washington as the second president of a new country. He was a capable captain of the new ship called America while president, managing to avoid getting entangled in the war between France and Britain. However, he famously clashed with the Jeffersonian Republicans, which led to his defeat in the election of 1800, and was ultimately defeated more by the politics of the time and not for any actual failures as president. A solid president whose legacy is partly defined by his appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Any surprises thus far? Do you think someone has been ranked too low or too high? Come back on Friday to see the top 15, which includes some of the best presidents in our history (obviously).
Until next time…