Worst. Biography. Ever.
Perhaps that seems overly harsh, but Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, by Robert Strauss, is not only
Historians have been rating former presidents for some time. The top three are fairly consistent, with Washington and Lincoln typically jockeying for first place and FDR coming in third. The bottom three tends to vary from one list to another, but Buchanan is almost invariably ranked dead last, with sometimes strong competition from Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, and more recently, George W. Bush. Buchanan, known in the parlance of the time as a “doughface” for his Southern sympathies, was an otherwise unexceptional career politician who waited his turn for the White House but had the bad fortune to win election as the country was coming apart over slavery. Unfortunately, he seemed to lack both the vision and the conviction to act constructively to mitigate the looming crisis, instead putting the weight of his office on the wrong side of explosive issues such as the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, as well as the effort by pro-slavery partisans to foist the illegitimate Lecompton Constitution upon Kansas territory, where a bloody prequel to the Civil War was raging. A staunch Unionist but also a strict Constitutional constructionist, Buchanan seemed paralyzed by inaction as secession unfolded in the months between the election and inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, which then occurred in March rather than January. It was Buchanan’s failure to act during that long interregnum that consigns him to last place by most historians who compile such rankings.
Strauss’ book was released during the tumultuous 2016 election season, which made it seem all the more relevant. Buchanan, not a popular subject, has not had many biographers. While I know much about his tenure from other works on the antebellum period, I had never read his biography. But I have read more than two dozen biographies of American presidents, written for both scholarly and popular audiences. Some were masterful, some ponderous, some insightful, and still others unremarkable. I have read Flexner, Ellis, Meacham, McCullough, Donald, Remini, Dallek, Reeves, Caro and many more. The best products of this genre not only chronicle the life of its subject but adroitly explore the era when he walked the earth, revealing the complexity and nuance of people and events that a careful historian brings to a studied analysis. Unfortunately, all of that is conspicuous in its absence in Worst. President. Ever. This is especially regrettable because a quality, balanced treatment of Buchanan would be a welcome addition to the historiography.
Instead, the narrative is choppy and superficial, and offers almost no thoughtful analysis. Rife with clichés and clumsy metaphors, the author’s voice utterly lacks authority. The entire book is delivered in an idiomatic, conversational tone, as if it was related by a random person sitting on the barstool next to you. While the style, if we can call it that, is suitable to a tavern milieu, it has absolutely no place in a serious work of history. And the writing is bad. Really bad. More than once I found myself flipping to the back flap of the dustjacket to confirm the author’s résumé, which apparently includes reporting for the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated—and teaching a non-fiction writing class at the University of Pennsylvania! I rarely include multiple excerpts from a book in reviews, but I am going to make an exception here, for unless you read such excerpts you may judge me harshly for my harsh judgments! So here we go:
On the economic panic of 1857: “By midsummer no one could take a ride on the Reading, as Uncle Pennybags does in the Monopoly game, since it had shut down…” [p160]
Regarding Andrew Jackson’s accession to the presidency: “He was a general and loved being in charge. Further, he was miffed about how the previous election had come out, with Adams and Clay back-door dealing, which he presumed meant they thought of him not smart enough to be the big boss.” [p75]
On the nominating process for the election of 1852: “With Polk bowing out … Buchanan again figured he was deserving of the nomination. His scheme was the usual … say little controversial, and then proclaim: ‘Aw, shucks, well, OK…'” [p110]
Strauss frequently makes broad, simplistic statements about critical historical events that simply made me wince. As in:
On the great issue of slavery: “Most Northerners let the issue ride. They might’ve been against slavery personally, but like a tic a neighbor might have that they shrugged their shoulders about, they tolerated slavery for the places where it already existed . . . [p115] And: “Still, much like the Southeastern Conference against the Big Ten in football today, whatever helps the ‘team’ got strong support from all concerned … So slavery became the chicken, not just the egg.” [p133]
Clichés abound, and there are many more wild and weird analogies between Buchanan’s time and ours, as well, such as:
On Buchanan’s relationship with James K. Polk: “The office of secretary of state was different then than in the twentieth century and beyond. There was no jetting off to seventy-five countries a year and meeting with statesmen every week.” [p107]
On Jesse Benton Fremont, wife of John C. Fremont: “Like Kris Kardashian, whose fame started when she began to burnish the reputation of her Olympian husband Bruce Jenner … Jesse Benton, knowing the way of politics from her father, saw that kind of legend in her husband … She was unafraid of what might seem like a dicey past.” [p127] And on a campaign song that pays tribute to her: “It does not seem likely that calling, say, Michelle Obama or Laura Bush —or even Sarah Palin—’the flower of the land’ would’ve made it in the feminist twenty-first century, but the song does show what a celebrity Jesse Fremont had become…” [p147]
Sadly, there is much, much more of these painful passages, interspersed with occasional odd tangents about the author’s various field trips and what sparked his interest in history. Surprisingly, despite the book’s subtitle, there is precious little analysis of what actually constitutes bad ratings for presidents and why Buchanan is at the bottom, although there are hints throughout, as in a discussion of the Dred Scott case that asserts: “… James Buchanan would find his way to intercede in it—and on that intercession, get quickly as he could on the road to becoming the Worst. President. Ever.” [p149] There is finally a brief chapter that runs down the list of troubled presidencies and makes a poor attempt at appropriate evaluation, which can only be properly summarized by still another excerpt:
“Andrew Johnson was no prize as a president, but he did keep the country from buckling after the Civil War… Johnson was impeached because of his policies … and survived being shown the door by just one Senate vote.” [p167] And “…though he really blew it with Kansas-Nebraska, Pierce at least advocated that the Union was paramount … Pierce was no prize but he kept the United States intact …” Only then does Strauss pass judgment: “Buchanan, then, takes that prize. Though he had some positives, they were primarily social and short-lived. He was not an evil man personally and had a partying spirit when it came time for that, but even there, he could not bring himself to be even a mediocre administrator.” [p174]
I am sure that this review will find critics among those who appreciate Strauss’ chaotic, bantering style, but I am even more certain that few who would defend this work are serious students of American history. Was Buchanan really the worst president ever? Do not look to this book to find out.