The 5 most notorious presidents in US history
From Richard M Nixon, who resigned following the Watergate scandal, to the impeached Andrew Johnson, historian Adam IP Smith considers five of America’s most disreputable presidents…
Richard M Nixon (president 1969–74)
The Watergate scandal will forever taint Nixon’s presidency. It was not the original deed (authorising a break-in into Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate building during the 1972 presidential race) that did for him, but the lies and the cover-up. You know the situation is serious when you have to appear on TV and declare “I am not a crook”, and after a congressional investigation, prompted by groundbreaking investigative journalism from the Washington Post, Nixon became the first, and so far the only, president to resign from office.
But Watergate was a symptom, not just the problem in itself. Nixon was an unusually hated politician long before Watergate, and the basic problem was his insecure, narcissistic, paranoid personality. Liberals saw Nixon capitalise on the traumas of the late 1960s – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the deep divisions over the war in Vietnam – and saw him winning by appealing to people’s fears. Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’ aimed to win support for the Republican Party in the South, where in the wake of the black freedom struggle, white voters were fearful of newly enfranchised African-Americans and felt alienated from the Democrats who had pushed Civil Rights legislation through.
As the gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson once put it, Nixon “represents that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise”.
James Buchanan (president 1857–61)
A pasty-faced man who liked to be known as the “Old Public Functionary”, Buchanan had spent a lifetime in public office before gaining the Democratic nomination in the 1856 election. The key issue in that election was the crisis over the expansion of slavery. It had been rumbling for decades but had blown up in 1854 when the Democratic-controlled Congress passed a bill that opened up the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska to the possibility of slavery being legalised there, despite a 34-year-old agreement (regarded by antislavery Northerners as a ‘sacred compact’) that guaranteed that slavery would be excluded.
The political fall-out from the Kansas-Nebraska Act was so dramatic that it helped to destroy one political party – the Whigs – and create another: the antislavery Republican Party. Buchanan was from a free state, Pennsylvania, but had close ties to southerners. He posed as the man who could heal the wounds and steady the ship of state. In fact, almost every decision he took made things worse. He colluded with the Supreme Court’s horrific Dred Scott decision in 1857, which ruled that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from any US territory since it would be tantamount to seising the legitimate ‘property’ of slaveholders. He then supported those who wanted to admit Kansas as a slave state, even though the election in the territory that supported slavery was palpably rigged.
Buchanan alienated fellow Northern Democrats, causing a split in the party that only encouraged southerners who wanted to leave the Union. And then, in the last months of his term, with seven slave states seceding and setting up a rival Confederacy, Buchanan did nothing to help: loudly complaining that secession was illegal but claiming that he had no power to do anything about it. He retired to his country estate to spend the rest of his life writing self-pitying letters to his diminishing band of correspondents.
Andrew Jackson (president 1829–37)
When Jackson was inaugurated, he held a party in the White House to which anyone was invited. People trashed the place, even snipping bits out of the curtains as souvenirs. This story confirmed all the worst fears of Jackson’s critics. His predecessor, John Quincy Adams, who Jackson had defeated in a horrifically bad-tempered election, was so horrified by Jackson’s triumph that he refused to attend the inauguration – the last outgoing president in history to have boycotted his successor’s big day. Men like Adams – who came from a Massachusetts family that had fought for Independence and feared for the survival of the republic (particularly his father, John Adams) – saw Jackson as a profane, unprincipled demagogue; a would-be tyrant in the Napoleonic mode; a man with no respect for the checks and balances of the Constitution or the rule of law.
The first president to have risen from lowly origins, Jackson became famous as the general who had defeated the British at the battle of New Orleans in 1815. Previously known for buying a slave plantation in Tennessee (in 1803) and for taking part in a high-profile duel (with Charles Dickinson in 1806), after the battle of New Orleans he went on to win more fame fighting the Seminole Indians.
In office, Jackson was an aggressive wielder of the president’s hitherto unused veto power. He stopped Congress from spending money on new roads or canals, and he prevented the re-charter of the Bank of the United States, which had attempted to regulate the money supply and served as a lender of last resort. And whatever political challenge he faced, his language was hyperbolic. “You are a den of vipers and thieves,” he wrote to the directors of the Bank of the US, “I intend to rout you out, and by the eternal God, I will rout you out”. When he left office, the country was plunged into the deepest recession anyone could remember.
Warren G Harding (president 1921–23)
Like Nixon, Harding has a historical reputation marred by the scandals that beset his administration. But Harding was a very different personality from Tricky Dicky: he was sunny, personable, determined to get along with everybody. His corruption was a result of surrounding himself with his old cronies and never, apparently, being able to stand up to anyone.
Harding received the Republican nomination in 1920 only because the convention was deadlocked and delegates turned to him – a relatively obscure junior senator from Ohio – as the ultimate dark horse. In the election, Harding famously misspoke, promising voters a return to something called “normalcy” – a word that has since entered political vocabulary. The neologism was a telling one, though, because Harding’s appeal was to a return to small-town values, a rejection of the grandiosity and utopianism (as it was now perceived by some) of Woodrow Wilson, who had ended his presidency by failing to bring the United States into the League of Nations.
In contrast to his predecessor, not even Harding’s biggest supporters would have called him especially intelligent or knowledgeable about the world. But what marked Harding as a failure – ensuring his place at or near the bottom of almost every modern scholars’ survey of ‘best’ and ‘worst’ presidents – is the abiding sense that he was simply out of his depth in the White House. He loved playing poker and womanising, but was less interested in running the country. His cabinet and official appointments included a large coterie of old pals from Marion, Ohio, including several of his relatives. Many of these people made personal fortunes from taking bribes and astonished congressmen and worldly Washington journalists alike by their ignorance of the responsibilities of the offices they held.
The most egregious scandal of Harding’s administration involved the corrupt sale of licences to drill for oil on public lands. But this, and other evidence of how little he had been in control of his administration, came to light only after Harding died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 57. He was deeply mourned as a calm presence; a ‘man of peace’ for the postwar period. Despite a few recent efforts, including by John Dean, a Nixon aide at the centre of the Watergate scandal, to exculpate him, no president has suffered such a collapse in their posthumous reputation as Harding.
Andrew Johnson (president 1865–69)
One of only two presidents to be impeached by the House of Representatives (the other was Bill Clinton, in 1998), Andrew Johnson’s personal insecurity and political belligerence made his presidency a disaster from start to finish.
Johnson was never elected president; he was elevated into that office after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday 1865, just as the Civil War was coming to a close. Johnson had been selected as Lincoln’s running mate for the presidential election the previous November not for his personal qualities but for entirely strategic reasons – he was a Southerner (originally from North Carolina, he moved to Tennessee when he was 17) but a fervent supporter of the Union. His presence on the ticket allowed Lincoln’s campaign to claim that they represented not just the Republican Party but the nation as a whole. No one ever imagined he would actually become president.
A poor boy made good, who had worked his way into politics after undertaking an apprenticeship as a tailor, Johnson had long nursed resentment against the slaveholding elites in his own state. So he was quite willing to support military emancipation as a means of undermining the power of the slaveholding class. But like other southern whites, he was appalled by the effort of Republicans in Congress to give rights to freed slaves.
Johnson came into office at just the moment when the post-Civil War settlement in the South was being drawn up and every decision he made sought to undermine whatever freedom African-Americans may have hoped to gain from the end of slavery. Johnson ordered that land redistributed to former slaves in the Carolinas should be taken away from them; he vetoed a bill to extend the life of a Federal Agency that sought to help displaced slaves; and he fought tooth and nail against every effort by Congress to give black people citizenship – including, in the end, constitutional protection for their equal right to vote.
In his campaign of negativity, Johnson cited as his inspiration his political hero and fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson (like Johnson, Jackson was originally from Carolina, but went on to make his career in Tennesse). But unlike Jackson, Johnson was faced by a large majority in Congress who were opposed to him (even though, ironically, they had voted for him in 1864 as Lincoln’s vice-president).
Any possibility of a rapprochement between Johnson and the Republicans was crushed during the 1866 midterm election campaign, when the president went on an unprecedented (and in the view of the time, unpresidential) stump speaking tour, sometimes appearing drunk, and denouncing congressmen running for re-election. Triumphantly re-elected, the Republican majority in the House tried to tie Johnson’s hands politically, including by preventing him from removing from office cabinet members who had been appointed by Lincoln and who were bent on undermining the president’s agenda.
Johnson was impeached for purely partisan political reasons: they objected to him not because of any Nixonian criminality, or even for any Harding-ite nepotism and bad judgment, but for his dogmatic opposition to their plans for postwar Reconstruction. In short, the Republicans in Congress wanted to remove him because he was trying to obstruct their agenda. The articles of impeachment (i.e. the “charges” Johnson faced) were all political, and clearly did not come up to the Constitution’s standard of “high crimes and misdemeanours”.
The way impeachment works is that the House of Representatives draws up the articles of impeachment and votes on them, and if the “articles” pass the House the president is “tried” by the Senate. In 1868 as in 1998 – the only two occasions when a president has been impeached and therefore faced a Senate “trial” – the president was acquitted. Therefore Johnson, like Bill Clinton 130 years later, served out his term as normal.
Had Johnson been removed from office by the Senate after his House impeachment, the balance of power in the American constitution would have shifted profoundly. To have removed him would have been to make the US more like a parliamentary democracy, in which the executive serves at the pleasure of the legislature.
It didn’t happen, but that Johnson nearly pushed Congress to that extreme is a testimony to his poor leadership.
Adam IP Smith is the Edward Orsborn Professor of US politics & political history at the University of Oxford and the director of the Rothermere American Institute. He specialises in the history of the United States in the 19th century and he is the author of The Stormy Present: Conservatism and the Problem of Slavery in Northern Politics, 1846–1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in November 2016