As President Obama prepares his State of the Union Address and the nation looks forward to a Presidents Day holiday, Americans should consider the warning examples of our worst chief executives.
While few of Washington and Lincoln's successors could hope to replicate their epic achievements, every president can — and must — focus on avoiding the appalling ineptitude of John Tyler, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and their feckless fellow travelers on the road to presidential perdition. The common elements that link our least successful leaders teach historical lessons at least as important as the shared traits of the Rushmore Four: Broken promises and gloomy temperaments lead inevitably to an alienated public.
All the chief executives unmistakably identified as failures displayed a self-destructive tendency to violate the core promises of their campaigns. Take Tyler, the unbending Virginia aristocrat who won election to the vice presidency in 1840 and assumed the highest office when his predecessor died just a month after inauguration. The new chief executive, dubbed "His Accidency" by critics, used 10 unpopular vetoes to block implementation of his own party's longstanding ledges. Most of his Cabinet resigned in protest, and eventually they all quit while the hostile Senate voted down four new Cabinet appointments — a record that stands to this day.
Between 1853 and 1861, Pierce and Buchanan completed back-to-back disastrous terms in which personal weakness and pro-Southern sympathies shattered confident promises of unifying leadership. Buchanan pledged to stop "agitation of the slavery question" and to "destroy sectional parties." By the end of his term, seven Southern states seceded from the union and the nation lunged toward the Civil War.
After that war and Lincoln's assassination, Andrew Johnson (Lincoln's vice president) defied members of the martyred president's Cabinet and congressional leaders, ignoring commitments to lead former slaves to dignity and full civil rights.
In the 20th century, Herbert Hoover's slogan promised "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage," but he presided over the beginning of the Great Depression. Similarly, Jimmy Carter's 1976 platform pledged to reduce unemployment to 3%, but Carter ran for re-election with more than twice that rate.
No wonder that Hoover and Carter, like other unsuccessful presidents, came across as gloomy, self-righteous sufferers. Hoover's secretary of State said that a meeting with him was "like sitting in a bath of ink." Carter staked his presidency on a notoriously sour televised address that became known as "The Malaise Speech," warning the appalled public of a "crisis of the American spirit."
None of our least successful presidents displayed the self-deprecatory humor of Lincoln or the sunny dispositions that powered the Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin) and Ronald Reagan. A visitor described the Pierce White House as a "cold and cheerless place," noting the isolation of the invalid first lady, in deep mourning for three dead sons.
When Buchanan welcomed successor Lincoln, he plaintively declared: "My dear, sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed."
The result of the depressing and erratic leadership of our six most conspicuous presidential failures is that all managed to estrange a once-admiring electorate within the space of a single term. Tyler,Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Buchanan all earned rejection by their own party, failed to win their own party's nominations, entering retirement as discredited figures. Hoover and Carter appeared on national tickets and campaigned vigorously but got wiped out in historic landslides, with each incumbent carrying a mere six states.
Democrats, who denounce George W. Bush as the worst president ever, along with Republicans who apply the same ugly title to Barack Obama, can't explain away the inconvenient fact that both of our most recent incumbents won re-election with 51% of the vote. Regardless of controversies blighting Bush's second term, or setbacks that might afflict Obama's, their legislative and electoral successes place them in a different category from the White House worst.
This baleful history should warn the current occupant and all successors against visibly disregarding commitments while encouraging voters to steer clear of presidential candidates with dour, inflexible temperaments. By selecting aspirants with clear, consistent agendas and cheerful, persuasive personalities, we'll face fewer shattered presidencies that leave reviled incumbents and a disillusioned electorate.
(This column appeared first in USA TODAY. )