The 5 most notorious presidents in US history

Johnny Sack

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Johnny Sack

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From Richard M Nixon, who resigned following the Watergate scandal, to the impeached Andrew Johnson

Here are five of America’s most disreputable presidents…


Number One: Richard M Nixon, President from 1969 to 1974

Nixon became the first, and so far the only, president to resign from office.
The Watergate scandal will forever taint Nixon’s presidency. It was not the original deed which was authorizing a break-in into Democratic campaign headquarters in the Watergate building during the 1972 presidential race, that did for him, but the lies and the cover-up.

Nixon was an unusually hated politician long before Watergate, and the basic problem was his insecure, narcissistic, paranoid personality.

Liberals saw Nixon capitalise on the traumas of the late 1960s such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the deep divisions over the war in Vietnam and saw him winning by appealing to people’s fears.

Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’ aimed to win support for the Republican Party in the South, where in the wake of the black freedom struggle, white voters were fearful of newly enfranchised African-Americans and felt alienated from the Democrats who had pushed Civil Rights legislation through.

Number Two: James Buchanan, President from 1857 to 1861


James Buchanan was from a free state, Pennsylvania, but had close ties to southerners. He posed as the man who could heal the wounds and steady the ship of state. In fact, almost every decision he took made things worse.

He colluded with the Supreme Court’s horrific Dred Scott decision in 1857, which ruled that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from any US territory since it would be tantamount to seizing the legitimate ‘property’ of slaveholders. He then supported those who wanted to admit Kansas as a slave state, even though the election in the territory that supported slavery was palpably rigged.


Buchanan alienated fellow Northern Democrats, causing a split in the party that only encouraged southerners who wanted to leave the Union. And then, in the last months of his term, with seven slave states seceding and setting up a rival Confederacy, Buchanan did nothing to help: loudly complaining that secession was illegal but claiming that he had no power to do anything about it. He retired to his country estate to spend the rest of his life writing self-pitying letters to his diminishing band of correspondents.

Andrew Jackson (president 1829–37)

When Jackson was inaugurated, he held a party in the White House to which anyone was invited. People trashed the place, even snipping bits out of the curtains as souvenirs. This story confirmed all the worst fears of Jackson’s critics. His predecessor, John Quincy Adams, who Jackson had defeated in a horrifically bad-tempered election, was so horrified by Jackson’s triumph that he refused to attend the inauguration.

Making him the last outgoing president in history to have boycotted his successor’s big day. Men like Adams – who came from a Massachusetts family that had fought for Independence and feared for the survival of the republic (particularly his father, John Adams) – saw Jackson as a profane, unprincipled demagogue; a would-be tyrant in the Napoleonic mode; a man with no respect for the checks and balances of the Constitution or the rule of law.


The first president to have risen from lowly origins, Jackson became famous as the general who had defeated the British at the battle of New Orleans in 1815. Previously known for buying a slave plantation in Tennessee (in 1803) and for taking part in a high-profile duel (with Charles Dickinson in 1806), after the battle of New Orleans he went on to win more fame fighting the Seminole Indians.


In office, Jackson was an aggressive wielder of the president’s hitherto unused veto power. He stopped Congress from spending money on new roads or canals, and he prevented the re-charter of the Bank of the United States, which had attempted to regulate the money supply and served as a lender of last resort. And whatever political challenge he faced, his language was hyperbolic. “You are a den of vipers and thieves,” he wrote to the directors of the Bank of the US, “I intend to rout you out, and by the eternal God, I will rout you out”. When he left office, the country was plunged into the deepest recession anyone could remember.

Warren G Harding (president 1921–23)



Harding received the Republican nomination in 1920 only because the convention was deadlocked and delegates turned to him. In the election, Harding famously misspoke, promising voters a return to something called “normalcy” – a word that has since entered political vocabulary.



In contrast to his predecessor, not even Harding’s biggest supporters would have called him especially intelligent or knowledgeable about the world.

Harding was simply out of his depth in the White House. He loved playing poker and womanising, but was less interested in running the country.

His cabinet and official appointments included a large group of friends and relatives. Many of these people made personal fortunes from taking bribes and astonished congressmen and worldly Washington journalists alike by their ignorance of the responsibilities of the offices they held.

The most notable scandal of Harding’s administration involved the corrupt sale of licences to drill for oil on public lands. But this, and other evidence of how little he had been in control of his administration, came to light only after Harding died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 57.

He was deeply mourned as a calm presence; a ‘man of peace’ for the postwar period. Despite a few recent efforts, including by John Dean, a Nixon aide at the centre of the Watergate scandal, to exculpate him, no president has suffered such a collapse in their posthumous reputation as Harding


Andrew Johnson (president 1865–69)

Andrew Johnson was one of only two presidents to be impeached by the House of Representatives, the other was Bill Clinton, in 1998, Andrew Johnson’s personal insecurity and political belligerence made his presidency a disaster from start to finish.


Johnson was never elected president; he was elevated into that office after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday 1865, just as the Civil War was coming to a close.


Johnson came into office at just the moment when the post-Civil War settlement in the South was being drawn up and every decision he made sought to undermine whatever freedom African-Americans may have hoped to gain from the end of slavery.

Johnson ordered that land redistributed to former slaves in the Carolinas should be taken away from them; he vetoed a bill to extend the life of a Federal Agency that sought to help displaced slaves; and he fought tooth and nail against every effort by Congress to give black people citizenship and constitutional protection for their equal right to vote.



Any possibility of a rapprochement between Johnson and the Republicans was crushed during the 1866 midterm election campaign, when the president went on an unprecedented denouncing congressmen running for reelection.

Triumphantly re-elected, the Republican majority in the House tried to tie Johnson’s hands politically, including by preventing him from removing from office cabinet members who had been appointed by Lincoln and who were bent on undermining the president’s agenda.

The Republicans in Congress wanted to remove him because he was trying to obstruct their agenda but he was acquitted when he faced the senate trial

Therefore Johnson, like Bill Clinton 130 years later, served out his term as normal.

It didn’t happen, but that Johnson nearly pushed Congress to that extreme is a testimony to his poor leadership.
 

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