(Bloomberg Opinion) -- With his poll numbers looking wobbly, President Donald Trump wants the Lincoln Memorial as backdrop for a Made-for-Fox-News event today intended to portray him as the kind of leader he is not. It won’t work — not just because the juxtaposition of Trump with Abraham Lincoln is so spectacularly unflattering to the current president.
When historians rank American presidents, the Civil War features prominently in their deliberations. Nearly all historians consider Lincoln one of the paramount examples of presidential leadership. Lincoln presided over a nation broken in two; his chief competitor for the top ranking, George Washington, guided a messy quasi-nation that included loyalists who had opposed the rebellion Washington had led. Both presidents made great efforts to realize the American ideal of E Pluribus Unum.
The lowest-ranked presidents likewise cluster ominously around the edges of the Civil War. Whereas unity is a mark of Lincoln and Washington, divisiveness is a recurring trait among the least admired executives. It’s a key reason why Donald Trump has already joined their club.
In a 2017 C-Span survey of 91 historians who ranked the presidents (not including Trump) on measures such as crisis management and international relations, the bottom five includes three presidents whose administrations greased the skids into the Civil War — John Tyler, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan — along with the president most responsible for squandering the war’s gains, Andrew Johnson. Only one president from outside the Civil War era, the notoriously unindustrious Warren G. Harding, whose administration is best known for corruption, made the bottom five.
Rankings are bound to have a subjective element, and the favor of historians is not constant over time. The top and bottom rankings, however, seem pretty durable. A Siena College survey of 157 presidential scholars, released in 2019, produced a similar roll call of failure — with one notable change. In this poll, Tyler loses his spot among the cellar dwellers to Trump, who is ranked third from the bottom, with only Johnson and Buchanan rated as worse presidents. That was before the coronavirus pandemic opened a new window on Trump’s breathtaking crisis management.
Andrew Johnson was a uniquely vile president. He betrayed the promise of emancipation, snatching defeat from victory and brutal servitude, for millions, from hard-won freedom. His “swing around the circle,” a series of Trump-like rallies he held mostly in the Midwest in 1866, was so divisive that his “intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues” became the basis of one of the articles of impeachment against him.
So Johnson may be hard to topple from last place. But what earned James Buchanan the second-to-last spot ahead of Trump?
Buchanan had seemed eminently prepared for office. He had served in the Pennsylvania state legislature and the U.S. Congress. He was in President James Polk’s cabinet and had been ambassador to Russia and Great Britain. He was elected in 1856, in an era of bitter sectional politics, with a plurality of the vote.
Like Trump, however, Buchanan never sought to expand his base. An admirer of the “chivalrous race” of white Southern men, the Democrat was a persistent partisan for Southern causes. He quietly sought to influence the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling, which it handed down during his first days in office, by encouraging a justice from his home state to side with the pro-slavery faction. On the viciously contested issue of whether Kansas would be free or a slave state, he appeared uninterested in stemming political violence in the territory and supported a pro-slavery minority government based in Lecompton, Kansas, along with the pro-slavery constitution it tried to foist on Kansas’s anti-slavery majority.
Buchanan did little to halt the nation’s precipitous slide toward Civil War, and may have accelerated it. “In his years as President,” writes Buchanan biographer Jean H. Baker, “Buchanan did a great deal to popularize the view that the Republicans were a threat to the South, thereby encouraging its secession from the Union when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.”
Division and dithering: These are the chief reasons why Buchanan ranks near the bottom, and the reasons why Trump, post coronavirus, is poised to sink beneath him. Of course, some believe Trump, encumbered by corruption, has already sunk to the lowest depth of presidential history. Yet his catastrophic inaction amid the pandemic suggests he has more room to descend. I wrote Eric Foner, an expert on Reconstruction, to ask what he makes of the competition at the bottom of the presidential pile. It seems fitting to give the last word to one of America’s greatest historians.
“Buchanan’s involvement in the infamous Dred Scott decision and then support for the fraudulent Lecompton Constitution certainly push him toward the bottom,” Foner wrote back. “On the other hand he refused Southern demands to recognize the legality of secession and ironically ended up as head of a northern, pro-Union administration. His annual message to Congress made a strong argument that secession is unconstitutional. I rank Andrew Johnson below him as well as our current president. Buchanan did not recommend drinking Lysol.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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