In Part 2, we continue the work started in Part 1, covering the presidents ranked from 21-30. Lots of “modern” presidents on this list, and even a couple that were reelected. A few of these guys even did some good things, but the overall portfolio of work just wasn’t nearly enough to move them into the top half of the rankings. Without further adieu, and in alphabetical order, on with the rankings:
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) – 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.
George W. Bush (2001-2009) – “W” won a close election in 2000 against Al Gore, with things settled in the Supreme Court in a somewhat controversial manner. Nevertheless, his presidency, and our country, changed on the morning for September 11, 2001. I will always give President Bush credit for the way he handled himself in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, and the goodwill he earned for his leadership led to his reelection in 2004. However, all was not rosy during his time in the White House, which is why he ends up on this list and not on a subsequent one. Among other things, his justification for the invasion of Iraq based on faulty intelligence and the PATRIOT Act was enough for me to place him on this list and not another.
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) – A humble peanut farmer from Georgia, Carter ascended to he White House as a counter to the policies of Nixon and Gerald Ford. On his second day in office, he pardoned all the evaders 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.
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897) – 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.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) – 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.
Gerald Ford (1974-1977) – Gerald Ford may have doomed his presidency by issuing a full pardon to Richard Nixon, but he still had some accomplishments while in office. 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.
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) – Ulysses 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.
Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) – 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, began troop withdrawals from Vietnam, 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.
William Howard Taft (1909-1913) – 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 Chief Justice.
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) – 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.
Some of the presidents on this portion of the list fall right in the middle of the presidential rankings, and it wasn’t for a lack of accomplishments. But as we move on to the next 10 presidents, we’ll see more defining achievements and less damning failures that start to truly separate the wheat from the chaff.
Until next time…