8) Calvin Coolidge vs. 9) Zachary Taylor
Motto: Two men with abbreviated terms and tenuous grasps on a mandate.
Overview: Silent Cal and Ol’ Rough and Ready may have had some memorable monikers but their presidencies can get lost to history. One needs to emerge, so let’s get a little deeper into the head-to-head.
ZT (1849-1850)- Clocking in just under 16 months, the Taylor presidency was a brief yet tense period in American history. By 1849, Taylor led a nation that was constantly threatened by the slavery elephant in the room. This unpredictable Whig was not what everyone assumed he would be. He was a slaveowner who did not advocate the extension of slavery. He was a wealthy Whig who did not fight for the US Bank. He was not so much of an enigma than a tangible example of the fraying and different factions of the Whig party already headed for political oblivion. During his brief term, the issues of slavery dominated his governance. Almost 30 years after the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Senate titans such as Henry Clay riveted the nation as issues grew to a flashpoint. Despite his unpredictable behavior, Taylor watched helplessly as Clay stole the spotlight making Taylor seem weak in light of the California statehood question, extension of slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. When he sat down to a bowl of cherries on July 4th, 1850, the union looked as dire as it would ten years later when war finally came. It was on that day Taylor spent fundraising for the proposed Washington Monument when he fell ill due to raw cherries and iced milk. Despite conspiracy theories of poison or other dastardly deeds, Taylor likely grew ill due to an intestinal reason and died five days later on July 9th, 1850. He was the last president to own slaves, the last Whig to win an election (Fillmore, his VP, technically remained Whig despite his opposite actions), as well as the last president to meaningfully pursue slavery compromise. The decade that followed would miss his level-headed course.
CC (1923-1929)- Silent Cal begin his presidency inauspiciously. In an event that would be unthinkable today, Coolidge was resting at his parents home in Vermont when a messenger informed him of President Warren G. Harding’s death. Without telephone or electricity, Coolidge truly becomes the last president to learn of his power so unexpectedly. At 2:47 AM on August 3rd, 1923, Coolidge became the 30th President of the United States after the town notary, his father, administered the oath. The end of Harding’s term, barely 18 months, did not pass uneventfully. The scandals of his Harding’s cabinet were in full swing. But the shot across the bow had commenced. Coolidge became a conservative darling, slashing tax rates, encouraging business and gave credence to decades of immigration glut by restricting the influx of Europeans. After being soundly re-elected in his own right in 1924, Coolidge continued to put American Conservatives firmly in the Republican camp. Though hardly an isolationist, he once and for all killed Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations and came down firmly against entangling America in European woes. Stateside, Coolidge is hailed as years before his time as this increasingly rare Northeast Republican renounced the controversial Ku Klux Klan and fought hard for social advances. The economy hummed in his time, nearly a fourth of the federal debt was removed, and Americans of all classes thrived. Coolidge is the ideal conservative. Despite your political leanings, few could point to a more prosperous and successful time than the late 1920s pre-depression America. They were heady times and Coolidge deserves the due credit.
Silent Cal soundly defeats Ol’ Rough and Ready.
6) William H. Taft vs. 11) James Buchanan
Motto: One got stuck in a bathtub- one got stuck in a Civil War. Boomroasted.
Overview: Taft may have accomplished a great deal but he will never live down the whole I-got-stuck-in-a-bathtub thing. Hey, he can ease his mind with one thing… At least he wasn’t Buchanan.
JB (1857-1861)- Few historians would argue that the task of shedding Buchanan in a positive light is next to impossible. Frequently listed at the bottom of Presidential rankings, Buchanan redefined a paltry administration even at the end of a long line of inept leaders. He was supposed to wed the unraveling union and he was just as successful as he was finding a wife. (Get it? He didn’t find a wife, thus the joke about a wedding that did not happen. Right?). As well as being the first and most likely last bachelor president, “Nancy” is the only President from Pennsylvania. This put him as a northern Democrat and was seen as the last hope to reconcile the increasingly radical Southern Democrats. He had to do this while the ascendant abolitionists were gaining traction in the North. He accomplished little. Two independent studies in 2006 and 2009 both cited his allowance of Southern Secession as the biggest blunder in US history. A lawyer by trade, he simply and impishly stated that Southern states had no right to secede. Meanwhile, Southern states seceded en masse further demonstrating that Buchanan had perhaps the least amount of power a US President ever wielded. His northern birth coupled with southern sympathies made him truly without a base. There was not even a discussion at the disastrous 1860 Democratic Convention about re-nomination. He spent his final days in office practically begging President-Elect Lincoln to call a Constitutional Convention outlawing secession and hopefully forestalling enormous bloodshed. It was too little, too late. Buchanan is not to blame for the march to war, but surely he did next to nothing to stop it. Outliving his successor Abraham Lincoln by three years, Buchanan would spend the rest of his life defending his efforts. His failure must have be an unimaginable burden. Buchanan on his last day as president told Lincoln, “If you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel on returning to Wheatland you are a happy man.”
WHT (1909-1913)- Teddy Roosevelt exploded on the stage as America entered the 20th Century. The first decade was marked by the rise of Progressive politics, the might of American military and the inescapable fact that America was on a course toward being a world power. When Teddy set to retire he handpicked Taft to carry his flame. Taft was expected to be hand in hand with his mentor. It was not that simple. Despite the indisputable fact that Taft was actually progressive, dividing trusts and ushering free trade, Teddy was not pleased. It seemed to him that Taft was reverting the Republican brand to the right and more conservative faction. Taft did not even aspire the presidency either. His dream was the Supreme Court. Many historians believe this fact encouraged a less ambitious and more servant attitude that really rankled Roosevelt. Unlike Ted, the promises of power were not desirable and Taft contented himself to work with Congress, wait for public opinion and work within the confines of the American legal system. At the end of the day, he was very successful. He invoked the Sherman Anti-Trust Act more than the “Trustbuster” and mobilized 25,000 troops to defend America from uprisings in Mexico. It was not enough. By 1912, Teddy made it his mission to unseat Taft and he ended up splitting the Republican vote, handing the 1912 election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
Taft’s weight is too much for Nancy to bear.
7) Jimmy Carter vs. 10) Millard Fillmore
Motto: The Peanut Farmer mets the only person you know named Millard.
Overview: Both represented a shift from the men who came before them. Both were unable to accomplish much. Carter may seem to be the least successful President in recent memory but Fillmore was no GW either.
MF (1850-1853)- When Ol’ Rough and Ready died of rancid cherries in mid-1850, the nation was cratering toward disunion. When Taylor’s VP Millard Fillmore took office there was light at the end of the tunnel. By the Fall of 1850, several successive bills collectively referred to as the Compromise of 1850 seemed to once again stave off a Civil War. Despite the work of Taylor and Clay, it was Fillmore that inked this Compromise into law. For the next 2+ years, Fillmore would constantly struggle to maintain the illusion of peace. But disunion continued to fester. The controversial Fugitive Slave Law seemed to please neither region and his signature made him few friends. He had mild success on the world stage. He received much due credit for supporting efforts to open Asia for American trade. It was a game-changer especially in the historically closed world of Japanese commerce. However, these successes yielded little short term. Despite periods of strength in some Whig circles, his support of the Compromise of 1850, long promised to put to rest disunion, ironically foreshadowed the crumbling of Whig unity. He receives the dubious prize as the last Whig president. The Whigs turned back to military prowess pushing Fillmore in favor of Winfield Scott. Never again would Americans elect a man not affiliated with the Republican or Democratic Party. The Whigs were dead. America was reeling.
JC (1977-1981)- Politics in the 1970s were a study in unfathomable events. A decade that began with America embroiled in an endless Vietnam War ended with a peanut farmer with a humble sweater urging the lowering of thermostats. After the horrors of Watergate, Americans for the first time in 1976 encountered a presidential election looking to value humble public servants above all else. Jimmy Carter seemed to fit that mold. He was a Southern Democrat, yet preached policies that bordered on the progressive. He created two cabinet positions, Energy and Education, and ushered in a period of American restraint. The re-focusing on principle worked for a time but then reality had the last word. In 1979, Iran underwent an Islamic Revolution ultimately resulting in a humiliating and devastating hostage crisis that reinforced feelings of gloom from Watergate. Then, the Soviets, initially working with Carter on limitation of arms, invaded Afghanistan. Olympic boycotts and international mudslinging came next and by 1980, the nation saw little to be desired in their President. In 1980, Ted Kennedy tried to run against Carter weakening him further and allowed a right of center rising star in Ronald Reagan storm past the incumbent president. Despite leading in just about every public opinion poll up until the election, Carter’s vote totals reached shocking lows and he lost in a landslide. Even after years of rehabilitating his image, Carter remains a symbol of presidential ineptitude in the modern era. Fortunately for him, there are few presidents Carter can get past in this tournament, Fillmore happens to be one of them.
Carter eeks past Fillmore in a lackluster battle.
Byes: 1) George Washington, 2) Harry S. Truman, 3) John F. Kennedy, 4) Lyndon B. Johnson, 5) Grover Cleveland
8) Richard Nixon vs. 9) John Tyler
Motto: One was disowned by his party. One was “not a crook.” Who will flash the double V?
Overview: Nixon, an otherwise successful president, sinks on historians lists pitting him in an 8/9 battle against a less disgraced politician.
JT (1841-1845)- Few would know it today but the idea of a VP becoming President after death was not a foregone conclusion in 1841. When William Henry Harrison died in thirty days, it was not a given that his VP John Tyler would finish his term or be anything other than a caretaker. Tyler seized the reigns, refusing such titles as “Acting” or “Interim” President and set out to be the man of the people. What followed was some of the worst political gridlock the capital ever saw. Nominally a Whig, Tyler was no more than a Democrat disillusioned with the Jacksonian vein and by no means the big government troubadour like the icon Henry Clay. He was a Virginia plantation owner who valued small government yet pushed for American expansion and the annexation of Texas. This made him a friend to neither party. His belief in a strong executive ostracized him in Virginia and his push for Texas made him close to zero friends in the slave-weary North. The “firsts” for a president did not end here. He was the first President to have the House initiate articles of impeachment after one too many vetoes from increasingly bitter Whigs. Tragedy also hit him in an uncommon fashion. In 1844, while aboard the USS Princeton, a malfunctioning gun caused disaster. Congressman and public servants were harmed, some mortally, and the end of the Tyler presidency limped without much power. He left office in 1844, a man without a party and his prestige almost ruined. He would make a comeback. In 1862, he was called by the state of Virginia to be their representative in the Confederate House of Representatives. He remains the only person in US History to be both President and an elected leader of a different nation. His amazing legacy had one more unbelievable epilogue. Despite being born in 1790, Tyler has two grandsons that are still alive. Now that is something.
RN (1969-1974)- When Nixon was sworn in as President in 1969, America seemed more frayed than ever. Urban cities were rioting, the Vietnam War was escalating at a frightening pace and the “Silent Majority” ached for relief. They seemed to find that in Nixon. Already serving eight years as Vice President in the 1950s, Nixon took office as a seasoned veteran of political warfare. Indeed, his accomplishments were some that evaded his more glamorized predecessors. His “Vietnamization” was cited as the final wind-down of the endless war and his opening of relations with China ushered in new Cold War hope. On the domestic front he wielded unprecedented power of wage and price controls yet leading to a mixed record on the economy. As a Republican he would stand in contrast to the Reagan Brand that followed him but a nation that still ached for JFK responded adversely to the centrist policies of Nixon. His stand on the environment would rival “treehuggers” today as he founded the EPA and instituted clear air initiatives nationwide. He addressed urban decay at an elevated rate as well and stamped himself at the forefront of the War on Drugs movement. In 1972, the nation soundly upheld Nixon. Taking advantage of a weakened Democratic field, Nixon won 49 states and 60% of the popular vote, an unthinkable majority in this modern world of divided politics. However, it was the calm before the storm. It was that very election that saw the Watergate break-in. The results were swift, brutal and decisive. The second term of Richard Nixon was entirely consumed by Watergate investigations, public displays and a daily decline of prestige. By August 1974, it was clear that Nixon’s days were numbered. Rather than wait for a sure removal from office, Nixon became the first president in American history to resign. It was a humiliating end to an otherwise fruitful presidency.
The crook has one final victory. Nixon by a nose.
6) Martin Van Buren vs. 11) Andrew Johnson
Motto: The first to be impeached and it wasn’t Van Ruin
Overview: Van Buren and Johnson were presidents thirty years apart, but their worlds were radically different. They both followed gigantic figures in presidential history. Each had their struggles but only one can move on.
MVB (1837-1841)- When Andrew Jackson exited the world stage a huge void needed to be filled in American hearts. Van Buren tried his best. A veteran politician, Van Buren led the nation after decades of forming the first modern political machine in American history. As a member of the Albany Regency he almost singlehandedly wrote the playbook for how parties play a role in a republic. When it came to his actual presidency, Van Buren was a prisoner to events largely out of his control. The Panic of 1837 greeted him barely months into his term. Almost a century before the Depression, little was expected from the President at times of economic recession. Oddly, the conservative man did break new ground. He called for a Special Session in 1837 and tried frantically to forestall the economy’s steady decline. The decline coincided with the blame on Van Buren despite the fact that he was not as gun-ho as Jackson when it came to bank decentralization most historians now blame for the Panic. He was a tremendously moderate figure, hailing from New York but holding southern views on the tariff and free trade. He valued party unity at a time when large figures such as Jackson threatened to become the norm. For better or worse, the Jacksons, Jeffersons and Washingtons gave way to more pedestrian figures such as Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore. At the end of the day, Van Buren was turned away by Americans in 1840, with the blame of the Panic still firmly placed on him. What he left behind was a mixed bag of successes and failures and an antebellum drift into the unthinkable Civil War a generation later.
AJ (1865-1869)- Johnson almost received company in 1974 when impeachment was sure to come to Nixon. However, it would not be until 1997 that a US President would face the fate of Johnson. Like his 19th Century partner, Clinton ultimately was not convicted of his charges. Clinton would go on to revive his image. Not so much for Johnson. There are few positives one can pull from the shipwreck that is the Johnson administration. He was a selfmade tailor from Tennessee and a lifelong Democrat when he refused to secede in 1860 with his state. He was made governor by default in 1862 when the military regained the seceded state. Two years later, Lincoln found him an ideal running mate in the too-close-for-comfort 1864 election. Lincoln needed the old Democrat to simply balance the ticket and then go back to political oblivion. The ticket won and his March 1865 inaugural address is remembered for the simple fact that he was visibly intoxicated as historians look for few more blatant visions of drunken American figures. Six weeks later, he became president. Suddenly, the masterful Lincoln was replaced with Johnson the southern sympathizer. Southern states suddenly saw hope. They came back faster than planned with fewer hoops to jump. The states formed governments and policies run by Confederate leaders. Traitors walked free. The final straw for the nation was his opposition to the 14th amendment which guaranteed equal voting rights. He set America on a course far different than Lincoln, one that made Civil Rights a basic struggle well into the 20th Century. Lincoln was gone, Jim Crow was here to stay. Finally, he walked into a trap set by the Republican majority in the House, got himself impeached and though he was not convicted, limped home as one of the worst presidencies in history came to a merciful end.
Van Buren by a mile.
7) Chester A. Arthur vs. 10) Franklin Pierce
Motto: A Doughface vs. A Reformer
Overview: Pierce was supposed to steer the ship away from trouble and not into it. Arthur was supposed to steer the ship for his assassinated friend. The final first round matchup shows two forgotten men who oversaw incredible change.
FP (1853-1857)- The only president from New Hampshire and ideal Doughface, Franklin Pierce was the a perfect compromise candidate for the Democrats in 1852. He soundly defeated the flailing Whig Winfield Scott in an election that never got off the ground. His staggering 200 point electoral college victory promised to bring success. It didn’t. Starting with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the nation chipped away at the Compromise of 1850 that was barely a few years old. A bloody struggle over slavery ensued. He boldly sided with the Southern wing of the Democrats, all but crushing the Northern wing of the party over the explosive slavery issue. History would prove what the whispers of the time had feared. He did indeed outright sympathize if not support the Confederacy. He belonged to an older age where his thinking and understanding of American politics were different and less in tune with the rapidly changing landscape. Up until the War, he constantly painted abolitionists as those who practiced revolt and treason while he supported those who actually took up arms against the Union. He along with his successor James Buchanan are frequently at the bottom of historian rankings. Their inexplicable preference for the South leaves little hope that their reputation will ever recover. Pierce died of liver failure, alone and hopelessly struggling with alcohol, ending one of the saddest personal tales in presidential history.
CA (1881-1885)- When Garfield was assissinated in 1881, there was little hope that his VP Chester A. Arthur would carry the torch of Civil Service Reform. Indeed, Arthur had made a career as a member of the New York political machine. To the pleasant surprise of reformers, he stayed the course of Garfield. In successive strokes, Arthur ushered in a period that staked its reputation on an attempt to rid corruption and error from the public framework. His landmark signing of the Pendleton Act was a game-changer. Almost overnight a majority of positions were awarded on merit in stark contrast to party identification of yesteryear. He also oversaw an enormous surplus. In a bizarro world where having too little money and crippling debt is just as bad as having too much money, post-War America had a surplus of incredibly high volume. In a sharp rebuke to the conservative Republicans, Arthur supported huge government spending increases and oversaw the re-emergence of the US Navy. Never seen as more than a caretaker for Garfield, Arthur was never given the chance to win the presidency outright in 1884 and was sent to retirement with less than a full term under his belt. As time goes by, Arthur’s stock continues to rise. He showed resolve, purpose and an uncommonly low instance of corruption that rankled nearly every late 19th Century president. Though he will never make it to Mount Rushmore, time makes it increasingly difficult to castigate an unspectacular yet ultimately successful President Arthur.
Don’t bet against those sideburns. Arthur moves on.
Stay tuned for Round Two!