Whenever a Presidential election rolls around people assume that the end times are upon us and that the jackass directly opposed to their views (and their candidate) will run the country into a ditch. And so it is with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, two candidates who are widely unpopular and assumed to be among the worst campaigners we’ve ever seen. One of them is going to get their picture mounted in the post office and not in the Most Wanted section, and we’re all going to have to live with it, even if the winner makes us want to pull out all of our hair.
Despite that looming frustration, though, it’s good to look at this moment in a way that allows a bit of historical context to shine in. Most Presidents wind up being utterly forgettable, and the nation still stands when they blow out of town or get tossed on their asses. Not to give these two candidates too much credit, but we’ve seen far worse than what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are probably capable of doing. And that’s doubly true when you consider that neither is likely to get much help in an almost certainly divided legislature and that both will be heavily scrutinized by the media and voters. So, if your side doesn’t win on Tuesday, take some solace in knowing that it could be worse… which is, you know, not as shiny as “hope” and “change,” but it’s better than nothing.
In 1856, America was perilously close to civil war. Slave states and free states were already at war in all but name, with events like Bleeding Kansas and the death of abolitionist John Brown weighing heavily on the American mind. America needed a President who would stand tall, force hard compromises, and avert the course of war. Instead, they elected James Buchanan.
It’s debatable that the American Civil War could ever have been avoided. Buchanan, however, managed to spend his term making things worse. For example, he stated that seceding from the US was illegal… but that going to war to prevent secession was also illegal. He tried to weasel out of making any decisions by insisting it was up to the Supreme Court, which promptly issued the Dred Scott ruling. He managed to make Bloody Kansas worse by pushing through Kansas statehood as a slave state even though most of Kansas citizens were “free-soilers” who didn’t want slavery. But while he wouldn’t go to war over slavery, he’d happily try and kill a bunch of Mormons in Utah for defying the federal government.
If that weren’t enough, he was so ineffectual that the Democratic Party of the time fractured, nominating multiple candidates who split the vote and let Abraham Lincoln win the Presidency, which was enough to start a wave of secession across the South and trigger the Civil War. So, yeah, all in all, maybe Buchanan should have stuck with the Senate.
Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding had two interests in life: Running a small-town newspaper and cheating on his wife. His election seemed incredibly unlikely: He only won the Republican nomination for President on the tenth ballot due to a deadlocked convention and didn’t bother to leave Ohio for most of his campaign. So, when he won, he did what any guy who basically never left a small town does: Appointed all his buddies to federal jobs.
This worked out about as well as you’d expect. The Teapot Dome scandal, which was the biggest unveiling of government corruption until Watergate, saw Harding’s secretary of the interior sell off a Navy oil reserve for what in modern dollars is millions in outright bribes. The US Attorney General he appointed, Harry Daughtery, pioneered the practice of not accepting bribes but gratefully accepting “political donations” for his assistance. Oh, and Daughtery also let railroad companies make anybody they liked a “federal marshal” to break up a major railroad strike. His secretary of veterans affairs, Charles Forbes, wasn’t much better; he started a graft operation where substandard hospitals were built on land he overpaid for and even sold army medical supplies for cents on the dollar while the Veteran’s Bureau was overpaying for supplies elsewhere.
We’re not even getting into those mistresses. If you’ve idly wondered what an Anthony Weiner presidency might have looked like, well, Harding answers the question.
Andrew Johnson became Vice President to Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and got so ragingly drunk in front of the entire nation, he hid hoping that something big would happen to distract the nation from his screwing up. The good news was that something big did happen. The bad news was that it was Lincoln’s assassination.
If you’ve ever wondered why, immediately after fighting a war that was more or less over slavery, we as a country had a hard time figuring out this whole “Don’t treat non-white people like crap” thing, thank Andrew Johnson. Johnson wanted the Union back in shape, so he let the Southern states do whatever they wanted. What they wanted was essentially a return to pre-Civil War affairs, right down to electing the same guys and passing racist laws that limited the rights of Black people. Johnson was all for it, before getting angrily overridden by Congress, who passed legislation invalidating the Southern actions. Johnson then vetoed it.
That more or less defined his Presidential career, to the point where Congress passed a law that limited Johnson’s ability to fire his own Cabinet, and his ridiculous behavior ensured that the Republican party was unable to keep lovely additions to American history like Jim Crow from happening. It’s rare a President can pull off making thousands of American deaths pointless, but hey, Johnson wanted to be known for something.
Some people, despite their political achievements, high intelligence, and overall acumen, just aren’t suited to be President. Richard Nixon is the most popular example, but here are some of the things Herbert Hoover achieved before going to the White House:
- He kept Belgium from starving in World War I, and held the German Army at bay while doing it, one of the greatest humanitarian achievements of his time.
- He was a de facto top diplomat during and after World War I, negotiating loans and spending deals, brokering treaties, and saving millions.
- He fought off angry Senators trying to turn his relief efforts into political footballs.
- He built the single greatest archive of data about WWI.
- He was an early and ardent advocate against wasteful government spending.
- He helped invent the modern idea of volunteerism.
- He was one of two Presidents that gave back his salary because he was rich already.
- He was one of the few effective Cabinet members in the Harding administration.
- He pioneered product standardization in the United States.
- He invented the modern mortgage, giving millions of Americans a path to a home.
- He helped invent highway safety standards.
Granted, he was no saint: His mishandling of the Mississippi floods of 1927 would have tainted his reputation no matter what. Still, if the guy hadn’t run for President, he probably would be remembered as one of the most effective and important bureaucrats in history. But he did, and then the great stock crash of 1929 happened. Hoover proved essentially unable to do anything about it. Reportedly, when he lost in a landslide to Roosevelt, he was happy to be rid of the job.
So, as you look at the polls and election results, remember that no matter how bad it gets in the Oval Office, America moves on. Maybe write that under your TV on Tuesday, just as a reminder.