Presidents Day honors two players on America’s executive office A-team, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. No doubt, they were great men; in an ideal world, we’d also celebrate the birthdays of Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt. But if we honor the best of the best, shouldn’t we also recognize the worst of the worst?
It’s a singular accomplishment to rise so high, only to perform so poorly once you’ve arrived. I’m not talking about just the also-rans, the no-names, the middlers, the George H.W. Bushes or the Benjamin Harrisons. Nor am I referring to the politically divisive, the Jimmy Carters or the George W. Bushes. Nor the men with mixed records of achievement and infamy, your Richard Nixons, say.
The ones to celebrate are the presidents who, if they were playing cards, would win by shooting the moon; by not getting a single thing right, by failing so egregiously that they deserve nothing less than our respect and acclaim—as long as we get another federal holiday in return.
Between the end of Andrew Jackson’s second term and the start of Abraham Lincoln’s first, we elected an almost unbroken string of real stinkers: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan. But none was quite as bad as John Tyler. He was the first vice president to assume the executive office after the death of a president, in this case, William Henry Harrison. At the time, the constitutional line of succession was unclear, and it took months for the country’s politicians to even agree that Tyler could officially take office; even after the matter was settled, he was ridiculed in some circles as “His Accidency.”
In a fitting tribute to the man who put him in the White House, Tyler reneged on Harrison’s entire platform; in retaliation, his Whig colleagues kicked him out of the party. Needless to say, Tyler only served for one term as president. But as an ex-president, he was even worse: A Virginia native, in 1861 he declared his allegiance to the South and won election as a senator in the Confederate Congress—which, depending on your views regarding constitutional law, made him the only president to serve in a foreign government.
Quite likely America’s most dypsomaniacal president, Andrew Johnson was drunk at his own vice-presidential inauguration, in 1865. He was terribly ill, he later said, and had downed three tall glasses of “medicinal whiskey” that morning. Not that it mattered. “The Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech,” wrote Michigan Sen. Zachariah Chandler in a letter to his wife. “I was never so mortified in my life, had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight.”
“The Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.”
True to form, Johnson was blindingly drunk six weeks later when, after Lincoln’s assassination, White House officials came to his house for an emergency inauguration. Apparently he’d been on something of a bender; one newspaper account said he was found passed out, with “puffy eyes and his hair … caked with mud from the street.” These tendencies also made him the object of Congress’s best-ever put-down, uttered by Sen. Thaddeus Stevens during Johnson’s impeachment trial: “I don’t want to hurt the man’s feelings by telling him he is a rascal. I’d rather put it mildly, and say he hasn’t got off that inaugural drunk yet, and just let him retire to get sobered.”
Many great generals have gone on to be great political leaders, but Ulysses S. Grant—despite winning reelection—wasn’t one of them. Grant’s second term was so thoroughly rife with scandal that even his fellow Republicans started referring to “Grantism,” meaning government by corruption, as a way of distancing themselves from the Civil War hero.
Ironically, the biggest scandal to emerge during his presidency and the one that came to define his term in office—a scam in which millions of dollars were skimmed off federal railroad construction projects, with some of the money going to buy off dozens of representatives—actually got started in 1864, under Lincoln. Which makes Grant not only a bad president, but an unlucky one, too.
Though he would posthumously lend his name to one of the 1990s’ bestselling rappers, Warren G. Harding is generally considered the worst president ever, a real achievement for a man who served just over two years in the White House. Harding’s administration was notoriously, openly, egregiously corrupt. But Harding himself was more naïve than crooked; he had horrible friends, and he trusted them completely. Then he was shocked—shocked!—when they turned out to be frauds and embezzlers. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” he said, “but my damn friends, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!”
Kids could run from door to door dressed as little Warren G. Hardings, asking for kickbacks from their neighbors.
His secretary of the interior, Albert Fall, traded government petroleum concessions—including the now-infamous Teapot Dome reserve in Wyoming—for cash to cover personal debts. His former campaign manager, and later attorney general, Harry Daugherty resigned amid damning evidence of a kickback scheme involving bootleggers. At the height of Prohibition one of Daugherty’s aides, Jess Smith, sold permits to make whiskey for “medicinal” purposes to bootleggers and even brought whiskey to late-night White House poker games. The depth of the corruption only became evident after Harding’s premature—and, perhaps, fortuitous—death in 1923.
Forever to be remembered as the guy who came before Franklin D. Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover managed to be great at everything except the presidency. Before moving into the White House, he could do no wrong. He was a world-renowned mining consultant. He more or less invented international humanitarian aid during World War I; at the end of the war the New York Times named him one of “The Ten Most Important Living Americans.” In the 1920s, he built the Commerce Department and led relief efforts after the Great Mississippi flood of 1927. With this great resume, he entered the White House in 1929—eight months before the stock market crash signaled the start of the Great Depression. Like a star AAA pitcher who throws nothing but walks in his debut Major League game, in the face of an economic meltdown Hoover, a Republican, raised taxes, expanded tariffs, and refused to boost unemployment benefits, helping to turn a domestic downturn into an international crisis. Like his fellow bad presidents, Hoover was as unlucky as he was unsuitable for the office—he lived until 1964, long enough to watch the Democrats hold power in Washington for nearly 30 years, thanks in large part to his own failed presidency.
How best to honor these superbly awful chief executives? Here’s a thought: Why not make Jan. 19, the day before Inauguration Day, a federal holiday? In years when it overlaps with Martin Luther King Day, it could fall on the Friday before. In the same way that Halloween comes the day before All Saints’ Day, this new holiday—call it Inauguween—would remind us that even horrible presidents do eventually leave office.
It would be great for the kids. They could run from door to door dressed as little Warren G. Hardings, asking for kickbacks from their neighbors. Parents could help them design the scariest Ulysses S. Grant costumes for their school Inauguween pageants, or could teach the little ones how to stumble drunkenly—just like Andrew Johnson!—up to the front of class to give a report.
We’d all go back to work and the normal grind the next day. We’d watch the news and wonder if things could ever get worse. Then we’d remember how little Mason next door dressed up as John Tyler, and we’d realize: Yes, they can.