Here's how Merry begins his very interesting column:
If you wanted to identify, with confidence, the very worst president in American history, how would you go about it? One approach would be to consult the various academic polls on presidential rankings that have been conducted from time to time since Harvard’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. pioneered this particular survey scholarship in 1948. Bad idea.So who does Merry consider to be the worst? I'm afraid you'll have to go to the article itself to see, but while you're there read the whole thing. It's worth the time.
Most of those surveys identify Warren G. Harding of Ohio as the worst ever. This is ridiculous. Harding presided over very robust economic times. Not only that, but he inherited a devastating economic recession when he was elected in 1920 and quickly turned bad times into good times, including a 14 percent GDP growth rate in 1922. Labor and racial unrest declined markedly during his watch. He led the country into no troublesome wars.
There was, of course, the Teapot Dome scandal that implicated major figures in his administration, but there was never any evidence that the president himself participated in any venality. As Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, put it, “Harding wasn’t a bad man. He was just a slob.”
The academic surveys also consistently place near the bottom James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania. Now here’s a man who truly lacked character and watched helplessly as his country descended into the worst crisis of its history. He stepped into the presidency with a blatant lie to the American people. In his inaugural address, he promised he would accept whatever judgment the Supreme Court rendered in the looming Dred Scott case. What he didn’t tell the American people was that he already knew what that judgment was going to be (gleaned through highly inappropriate conversations with justices). This is political cynicism of the rankest sort.
But Buchanan’s failed presidency points to what may be a pertinent distinction in assessing presidential failure. Buchanan was crushed by events that proved too powerful for his own weak leadership. And so the country moved inexorably into one of the worst crises in its history. But Buchanan didn’t create the crisis; he merely was too wispy and vacillating to get control of it and thus lead the nation to some kind of resolution. It took his successor, Abraham Lincoln, to do that.
That illustrates the difference between failure of omission and failure of commission—the difference between presidents who couldn’t handle gathering crises and presidents who actually created the crises.