'Worst President Ever': One Author Says This Title Goes To James Buchanan
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Polls suggest that many Americans are discouraged by the choices they have for president in 2016 and make dire predictions about what kind of president any of the candidates could be.
The writer Robert Strauss suggests that any new president would have to sink pretty low to meet the level set by the man the title of his book calls "Worst. President. Ever: James Buchanan, The POTUS Rating Game, And The Legacy Of The Least Of The Lesser Presidents." Robert Strauss joins us now from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Thanks so much for being with us.
ROBERT STRAUSS: Thank you very much, Scott.
SIMON: Fill in some biographical blanks for us. James Buchanan was a Pennsylvanian, a bachelor and a Democrat.
STRAUSS: That's all true. He had the greatest resume - at least, the greatest governmental resume - of anybody who's ever run for president. He was a state representative. He was a U.S. congressman of both houses. He was the ambassador to Great Britain, ambassador to Russia and secretary of state.
SIMON: Well, let's get into the matter of his administration, if we can, and how he how he earned that title from you. A lot of it seems to center around the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, which, I think, most historians considered, perhaps, even the most obscene decision in judicial history because it reaffirmed slavery across the entire United States.
And there's this singularly repellent phrase that blacks had, quote, "no rights which the white man must respect." But how do you wind up blaming President Buchanan for this decision or his role in it when he'd just been inaugurated?
STRAUSS: He decided early on that his legacy was going to be - or his mandate was going to be to settle the slavery question. And so he saw this case, the Dred Scott case, winding around the courts. Dred Scott was a slave to a military man who went to Minnesota, where it was free territory.
He came back to Missouri, where he was from. He eventually died. And Dred Scott sued in Supreme - well, in the courts. But Buchanan got his fellow Dickinson College graduate Robert Story (ph) to go along with what was going to be the majority decision. Another justice from New York was writing a concurring opinion. He got him to do that.
This is all behind the scenes before he was inaugurated. And two days after his inauguration, the decision came down as you have it. It sort of caused - more than sort of - caused a lot of chaos in the country. We had had a 20-year expansion in the United States. At that point, let's just say you're in - well, you're from Chicago, right? Let's say you had a tin cup factory in Chicago. You're doing pretty well. And maybe you're going to go out to Elgin and build another one.
But oh, wait a second. Some guy from Tennessee could come up and bring slaves there. Commerce stopped in the United States. People stop moving. Railroads failed. Other businesses failed. It became what was called the Panic of 1857, the most precipitous drop in the American economy in history - even worse than the Great Depression. So that sort of devastated the country within months of his administration starting.
SIMON: I'm trying to rally somehow to come to Buchanan's defense with you. And my reading is based upon your book. It's difficult. But let me suggest this to you. Don't all U.S. presidents suffer in comparison to Lincoln, whom he proceeded? I mean, Andrew Johnson was on the other side of Lincoln. And he's also considered one of the lesser presidents.
STRAUSS: Correct. Well, you know, I have to say that when I go out and give talks, I say that Buchanan is the second-most consequential American - Washington being the first. Washington started everything or led the start to everything. And Buchanan led us into demise.
Plus, he didn't support Stephen Douglas as his successor. And the Democratic Party split into three, allowing Lincoln to win. Perhaps if he had supported Douglas, his rival, maybe Douglas would've won the next election. And Lincoln would've been - I don't know - an afterthought. But he might not have ever become president.
SIMON: Just a very - wildly successful corporate attorney in Illinois.
STRAUSS: Perhaps so.
SIMON: And, of course, it's irresistible to point out Franklin Roosevelt, who, as you rightly point out, is considered one of our greatest presidents, still put Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. Lincoln, our greatest president by universal acclamation, crushed civil liberties in many areas to prosecute the war. Are you just focusing on what Buchanan did wrong?
STRAUSS: Look, nobody's perfect, of course. And, of course, one of the things I like to point out in the book is that Buchanan had some good traits, too. He wasn't just some evil jerk. He was the greatest party giver in mid-19th century America. He - even though he hated Douglas, there's nothing I could find in any of his papers where he bad-mouthed anybody.
He was a very civil guy. And so people liked him. So that's a plus, I would say. But his negatives was he had no knowledge of how to lead in any case. He waffled when we really needed him - the lead-up to the Civil War. And this was a really crucial time. And he really blew it.
SIMON: Robert Strauss - his book, "Worst. President. Ever." Thanks so much for being with us.
STRAUSS: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.