Number 5: Millard Fillmore
13th President of the United States
Time in office: July 9, 1850-March 4, 1853
"What you're dealing with when it comes to Fillmore, like a few of these others, is slavery, which is the biggest issue of the nineteenth century, and how to unite the country. He supported the Compromise of 1850
, which didn't stop the Civil War. And even though he was elected as a Whig
, he was also associated with the Know Nothings
, which was an anti-immigrant party.
"Fillmore was trying to stop slavery, but he couldn't do it — and nobody knew what the future held. We know now that it led to the horrible Civil War."
Number 4: James Polk
11th President of the United States
Time in office: March 4, 1845-March 4, 1849
"James Polk was a very aggressive president who accomplished all of his aims. This was the time of Manifest Destiny
, the expansion of the United States — and Polk launched the Mexican-American War
. And wherever you come down on immigration today, it can be traced back directly to the Mexican-American War.
"Again, he did succeed in his agenda. He wanted Texas to break away, and we got Texas; we got all that stuff. But does might make right? Or does that create other problems? Was it the right thing to basically lop off one-third of Mexico? A lot of people would say yes. Otherwise, we wouldn't have Santa Fe and a nice place to shop for art or the nice weather in Arizona. But Polk looked like the first president who was truly imperial, or who pushed imperialism.
"Polk also threatened war with Britain over the Oregon Territory
. This was an example of the super-nationalism of the mid-nineteenth century. And I imagine he was also trying to distract the country from the slave debate, which he couldn't do. He stood up for American interests and power around the world with little thought for the people living where he was invading. And twelve years after he left office, the Civil War started. Can you blame him for the Civil War? No, but in a lot of ways, he was fairly irresponsible when it came to conflict."
Number 3: Andrew Johnson
17th President of the United States
Time in office: April 15, 1865-March 4, 1869
"Andrew Johnson was following one of the greats, obviously; he came in when Lincoln was assassinated. He was a good politician and a governor and a senator, as well as another one of those who couldn't stop the Civil War. And in a sense, he couldn't keep the Republican Party unified. He wanted to reestablish civilian government after the Civil War, but historians look at what he did as a failure.
"Lincoln had said, 'We'll take over from the states, we'll take them over for a while, we'll have elections, but we'll have to be lenient with them. Malice toward none.' Johnson took a different view. He allowed the Republicans to fracture into radicals who really wanted to punish the South and give civil rights to African-Americans and the more mainstream moderates who just wanted to keep Democrats out of power and wanted to keep former Confederates out of power — but the rest of the South could join in. So it just basically kind of blew up in his face.
"Johnson got some support from the Republican Party in the north, but I think a lot of people believe he was just too lenient. He let the South back in without big punishment and especially without protecting Reconstruction — or at least without giving African-Americans their civil rights and protections for it. You had the old Freedmen's Bureau
, but the Republicans were already formulating their Black Codes
, the Jim Crow system
. So Andrew Johnson is in part to blame for one hundred years of Jim Crow. This was a Civil War against slavery, but then there was a hundred years until the 1960s before you had the end of legal segregation."
Number 2: George W. Bush
43rd President of the United States
Time in office: January 20, 2001-January 20, 2009
"George W. Bush came in under a cloud because of a disputed election. He was lucky that the Supreme Court was largely made up of Republican appointees, or at least appointees who were not willing to get into a fight with the lower courts. He followed a fairly eloquent president in Bill Clinton, and he was a fairly inarticulate governor from Texas. There was also his personal history — being an alcoholic and all that stuff. So he was, in many ways, not prepared at all for the presidency. But 9/11 saved him. People will rally around the president in a crisis. But he failed to create unity in the country.
"He responded to terrorism, and a lot of people believe that was a mostly proper response. But I think people are uncomfortable with how much the country changed, and it also brought into question the ethic of globalism, of openness, because we were going to be more closed. And when he decided to go into Iraq.... Afghanistan, with NATO — everyone understood that. But Iraq looked like a personal vendetta, or a way to get cheap oil or whatever it was. But it was a failure. He got Saddam Hussein, but we're still living with the fallout from that war. And Afghanistan went bad, too. Both of those wars went wrong.
"He was so unpopular that the Democrats made big mid-term gains in 2006, and any Democrat probably would have won in 2008, because by that time, the whole housing market had collapsed. When you do that in America — when you collapse either automobiles or housing, which are two big bellwethers of the economy — you're in big trouble. That led to a huge downturn, an economic disaster. All that's directly traceable to Bush."
Number 1: Richard Nixon
37th President of the United States
Time in office: January 20, 1969-August 9, 1974
"I went back and forth on this one, because Richard Nixon accomplished a hell of a lot. While he slowed desegregation, he actually spent more on poverty programs than Lyndon Johnson did during the War on Poverty. And there was also Earth Day
and the opening to China. Don't forget the first arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union, the SALT agreements
. And he did get America out of the Vietnam War
, although it took him four additional years to do it. They didn't need to wait until 1972. They had the plan in 1969. And that was a disaster.
"But domestically, he presided over, really, the first oil crisis
, and he may have been demented psychologically. He had tremendous insecurity, being a West Coaster who was never really accepted by the Eastern establishment. And he'd been tainted by corruption
going all the way back to when he was a vice-presidential candidate with Eisenhower. And, of course, there's Watergate.
"You have the president resigning, the first president ever to resign. He would have been impeached, he would have been brought up on criminal charges, and he would have gone to jail for covering up the break-in. This was criminal, felonious behavior, and I think he set the tone for this moment of history we're in forty years later. The cynicism that came from the resignation has led to the cynicism we have toward politicians in general and toward professions, toward doctors and lawyers, with Americans getting very bitter and voters getting turned off. So he was a very influential president, but I think you have to come down on him very negatively. Resigning from office? That's an abject failure."
Donald Trump during another Colorado appearance last year.
Photo by Brandon Marshall
"Trump isn't a Republican like Richard Nixon was. Nixon probably couldn't be elected as a Republican now; that was the liberal wing of the Republican Party. And Bush was more in line with the corporate Republicans, which had mainstream views about corporate trade, open borders and immigration. Let's face it: Bush wanted immigration because it's cheap labor. But that's much different from Trump, who has sort of retreated back to a much older style of the Republican Party that really sort of petered out in the 1940s: populist, nationalistic Republicans.
"But like Andrew Jackson, Trump isn't really prepared for office. Jackson was also a guy who was sort of a populist who shot from the hip, a lot like Donald. And Harding is someone else he can be compared to. Harding was a guy who sort of picked and chose and had fun on his own while he let others run his administration, because he was incapable of doing it himself.
"So Trump could also turn out to be a combination of Jackson and Harding."