That is such a GREAT question because the answer can go so many different ways and spur some fantastic debate. The Presidency is a difficult and terribly exhausting job every day and most Presidents have faced a lot of adversity throughout their terms simply because of the very nature of the position and its responsibilities. There are dozens of individual days that are hard to argue with if they are suggested by someone to be the most difficult single day faced by a President over the 225 years that the job has been in service.
I think that the day you suggested is undoubtedly near the top of the list, as are any of the days when a Vice President assumes the office upon the assassination or death from natural causes of the incumbent President, and November 22, 1963 was, of course, one of the darkest days in the nation’s history. The emotions and thoughts possessed by the people on Air Force One as LBJ took the oath office and they prepared to fly back to Washington, D.C. with JFK in a casket just a couple of hours after he arrived in Dallas on that same airplane very much alive are unimaginable. There are just no words for a tragedy of that magnitude, and, as you mentioned, the presence of a newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy, clearly in shock and standing in the crowded cabin of the plane with her husband’s blood and brain matter staining her clothing, adds a whole different dimension to the tragic day and was a hell of a way for someone to begin their Presidency. There was also the fact that nobody knew the scope of the assassination and whether there might be something even more sinister — an international conspiracy or a plot to decapitate the entire federal government — going on. Plus, LBJ was the only President to actually witness his predecessor’s assassination. As if a Presidential assassination isn’t shocking and traumatic enough, Johnson was only a couple of cars back in the motorcade. He saw what happened and he was taken to Parkland Hospital right behind JFK; LBJ caught a glimpse of the scene inside JFK’s limousine as the Secret Service past the vehicle in order to keep him protected inside the hospital; Johnson was in the building when Kennedy was officially pronounced dead. I’ve always thought that one of the strangest feelings ever experienced by a President had to have been when an aide entered the room where LBJ was being held inside Parkland Hospital and addressed him as “Mr. President” — the moment he realized that JFK was dead and that he was now President. Imagine that.
And yet, even with everything mentioned above, I think there are two other more difficult days faced by Presidents. One is April 12, 1945 — another day in which a President died in office and was succeeded by his Vice President. In this case, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died suddenly at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, and was succeeded by Harry S Truman.
FDR was clearly dying when he won an unprecedented fourth term as President in 1944, and his health was declining noticeably. When he took the oath of office for his fourth term in January 1945, FDR was sworn in on the South Portico of the White House instead of at the U.S. Capitol. It was said that the inaugural festivities were scaled back because of World War II and that certainly played a part, but FDR’s failing health was also a factor. At just 557 words, Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address was the second-shortest in American history — only George Washington’s second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1793), which was 135 words long, was shorter than FDR’s fourth. After the physically taxing trip and summit with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta and meetings with other Allied leaders in February 1945 — a journey which would have been punishing for even a healthy person — FDR gave a report on the agreements to a Joint Session of Congress. At Yalta, officials from the other Allied delegations were alarmed by FDR’s appearance and when FDR gave his speech to Congress he did so from a seated position, apologizing for his “unusual posture” and noted that it was “easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.” The reference to the leg braces he had worn since contracting polio in 1921 was the first time Roosevelt had ever publicly acknowledged his physical disability, and members of Congress now saw what those at the Yalta Conference had seen — FDR was gravely ill.
One person who did not realize how badly the President was ailing was the Vice President, Harry Truman. In 1944, President Roosevelt had dumped his Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket, and seemingly put the decision of his running mate largely in the hands of the Democratic National Convention. In reality, Roosevelt was virtually positive that he would not survive his fourth term and he wasn’t simply choosing a Vice President — he was choosing a successor. Vice President Wallace didn’t cut it as a successor (not to FDR and definitely not to the leaders of the Democratic Party), and Truman steered the Convention towards Truman, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and James F. Byrnes, a former Congressman, former Senator, former Supreme Court Justice, a longtime advisor-without-portfolio to FDR and the ultra-powerful director of the War Mobilization Board.
Roosevelt eventually decided that Truman was the guy he wanted and worked behind-the-scenes to get him nominated at the Convention despite a floor fight by passionate supporters of Wallace who wanted to keep him on the ticket and by Truman’s own reluctance to leave the Senate, a job he loved more than anything he had ever done in his life, for the Vice Presidency, which was powerless and boring and lacked even a hint of influence within Presidential Administrations at that point in history. Once elected and sworn in as Vice President, Truman was no different than any of the previous Vice Presidents — he had nothing to do, wasn’t included in on decisions or discussions of policy, and had almost no personal or professional relationship with President Roosevelt. The only thing of note that Truman did during his Vice Presidency was cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to help his predecessor in the Vice Presidency, Henry Wallace, get confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. Truman spent most of his days on Capitol Hill, and was at having drinks with a small group of Congressmen and Senator in the office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn on April 12, 1945 when he got a call summoning him to the White House ASAP.
Truman wasn’t sure what was going on, but Allied troops were quickly closing in on Berlin that month from the west and the east, so it could have been just about anything. When he arrived at the White House, it was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who told him, quite bluntly, “Harry, the President is dead.” Despite FDR’s poor health, Truman was stunned. “Is there anything I can do for you?”, the new President asked Eleanor Roosevelt, and the new widow responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
That wasn’t an exaggeration. World War II was coming to a close in Europe and still raging in the Pacific. Within two-and-a-half weeks of Truman’s succession to the Presidency, Mussolini was captured and killed by his own people in Italy, Berlin fell to the Soviets, Hitler killed himself in his bunker, Germany surrendered, and the war ended in Europe. And, at some point shortly after Truman was sworn into office, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson briefed him on the work being done to build an atomic bomb. Truman — the only President to order a nuclear strike — was completely in the dark about the Manhattan Project and the goal of building a nuclear weapon until after he became President. With all of that to come, everything going in on the world, and the fact that he had suddenly succeeded the longest-serving President in American history — a man whose image was hanging in the houses of millions Americans next to an image of Jesus — in the midst of the bloodiest war in the history of the world is why Truman’s April 12, 1945 was a more difficult day than LBJ’s November 22, 1963. The day after he was sworn into office, Truman said to reporters, “I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
The other day that I would consider one of the single most difficult days experienced by a President doesn’t require much of an explanation because most of us remember it well. We lived through it and it’s tragically memorable in the same way that older generations remember November 22, 1963 or another day that was very difficult for a President, December 7, 1941 (the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). No matter how I voted, or how I felt about George W. Bush when it came to other issues and his Presidency overall, I will never forget his poise during the days after September 11, 2001, which was without a doubt one of the toughest days any President has ever experienced. He was a bit unsteady on the day of the attacks, at least in his statements early in the day, but we were all unsteady. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, and the President was in the frustrating position of not being allowed by the Secret Service to return to Washington, D.C. until later in the evening. He was removed from the situation, forced to remain in the air aboard Air Force One as it flew across the country, protected by fighter jets, to a secure location in Nebraska. President Bush began to find his footing with his address to the nation that night from the Oval Office once he finally ordered to be taken home to Washington, and he was fantastic throughout the rest of that week, especially at the National Prayer Service and when he visited with the family members of victims and with rescue workers at Ground Zero.
Knowing how difficult 9/11 was for regular Americans like me, far removed from the horror in Manhattan, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, I can’t imagine how hard that day was to the actual victims of the attacks, or those people connected to the victims. And it’s impossible to understand how hard September 11, 2001 was for the President of the United States, from the moment Andy Card whispered the news to him in that classroom in Sarasota, Florida until he finally went to sleep that night after a day of attacks on the country unlike any that any other President has ever faced. Like I said at the beginning of this answer (approximately 90,000 words ago), this is a great question because it has so many possible answers and opens up a very interesting debate. But in my opinion, no President had a more difficult single day than George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.
41st President of the United States (1989-1993)
Full Name: George Herbert Walker Bush
Born: June 12, 1924, 173 Adams Street, Milton, Massachusetts
Political Party: Republican
State Represented: Texas
Term: January 20, 1989-January 20, 1993
Age at Inauguration: 64 years, 223 days
Congresses: 101st and 102nd
Vice President: James Danforth “Dan” Quayle
Age at Death:
Buried: (President and Mrs. Bush will be buried at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas)
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 13 of 43 [↑2]
I don’t know if it is any consolation to him, but over 20 years after losing his bid for a second term in the White House there is only one other one-term President that I have ranked higher than George H.W. Bush, and I’ve also boosted Bush 41 two spots higher than I had him ranked in 2012. What drove Bush out of office in 1992 was a perfect storm — fatigue after 12 years of Republicans in the White House, the charismatic opposition of perhaps the best pure politician of the second half of the 20th Century (Bill Clinton), a third-party challenge from the wealthy, eccentric, and interesting Ross Perot which damaged Bush far more than Clinton, and an economic recession which wasn’t entirely Bush’s fault. Bush 41’s Presidency seems to be remembered more fondly as the years pass, especially once there was a Bush 43 to compare him to. Bush was a moderate and a realist, someone who never threw bombs to earn political capital, never spent the political capital that he had earned just because he had it, and was an able manager. When it came to foreign relations, we’ve had few Presidents who understood the intricacies of diplomacy and could build a real, solid coalition. When the Cold War ended with Bush at the helm, he was smart enough to realize that the United States would gain nothing but enmity if we took a victory lap and rubbed the nose of the Soviets in their downfall. In Panama and then Iraq, Bush restored American confidence in the U.S. military which remained shaken in the wake of Vietnam. The Persian Gulf War was a clear display of American power, but also American diplomacy at its best — building a massive coalition of diverse Allies, setting a goal, and not allowing an inch of mission creep. And all of those successful aspects of the Gulf War happened because George Bush was in charge. In 1992, Bush’s campaign staff was frustrated by their candidate’s inability to claim credit for his victories — not because there weren’t any, but because George Herbert Walker Bush didn’t brag about himself. He even had to be coaxed into discussing his heroic exploits flying dangerous combat missions in World War II or detailing his lengthy career serving his country in many different and important roles. It wasn’t that Bush didn’t want to be reelected as President, it’s just trumpeting his own achievements and self-praise wasn’t in DNA. After his loss to Clinton, 41 was devastated, but fortunately Bush has lived long enough to receive the appreciation for his leadership that he certainly deserves. He also had the rare honor of seeing his son elected to two terms as President, may still get a chance to see a second son in the Oval Office, and has forged a unique and wonderful friendship/surrogate father-son relationship with the very man who defeated him in 1992, Bill Clinton. Today, at 90 years old, George H.W. Bush is still going strong, rocking badass socks, doing his thing on Twitter, continuing to skydive (!), and holds the undisputed championship as the most beloved ex-President alive today.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: Not Ranked
1990: Siena Institute: 18 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 24 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 20 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 16 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 21 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 18 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 22 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 22 of 40
43rd President of the United States (2001-2009)
Full Name: George Walker Bush
Born: July 6, 1946, Grace-New Haven Hospital, New Haven, Connecticut
Political Party: Republican
State Represented: Texas
Term: January 20, 2001-January 20, 2009
Age at Inauguration: 54 years, 198 days
Administration: 54th and 55th
Congresses: 107th, 108th, 109th, and 110th
Vice President: Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney (2001-2009)
Age at Death:
Buried: (Bush has announced plans to be buried at Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas)
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 36 of 43 [↔]
It is very difficult to rank recent Presidents. In most surveys, recent Presidents are usually ranked way too high or way too low, and their positioning shifts quite a bit in the decade after they leave office. Today, George W. Bush’s Administration is not well-regarded by most Americans, yet he is undoubtedly more popular than he was during the 2008 campaign or even in the months after he retired to Dallas. The unpopular War in Iraq, the seemingly endless Afghanistan War, and the decimated economy that Bush 43 passed on to his successor continues to reflect badly on Bush and hurt his legacy. That may change as history unfolds and I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that Bush rises in the rankings over the next few years, but right now, the eight years of the Bush Administration are still raw and still painful.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: Not Ranked
1990: Siena Institute: Not Ranked
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: Not Ranked
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: Not Ranked
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 19 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 36 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 39 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 31 of 40
George H.W. Bush, on Jimmy Carter’s comments about George W. Bush, Esquire Magazine, September 20, 2010.
In May 2007, Carter said of Bush 43, “I think as far as the adverse impact on the nation and around the world, this Administration has been the worst in history.”
When George H.W. Bush emerged from Ronald Reagan’s shadow in 1988 to seek the Presidency in his own right after nearly eight years as Reagan’s Vice President, many of his opponents and the media’s political pundits saw him as an out-of-touch, stuffy, patrician, WASP who, in the famous words of Texas Governor Ann Richards, “was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Probably the most frustrating incident of the 1988 campaign was when Newsweek ran a cover story called “Fighting the Wimp Factor” which questioned whether Bush was tough enough to be President.
All of these labels were patently unfair when directed towards Bush, who would eventually defeat Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in November 1988 and become the 41st President. After all, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy on the very day that he turned 18 years old during World War II, was the youngest pilot in the entire Navy upon earning his wings, and flew 58 combat missions in the treacherous Pacific. Out of the fourteen pilots in Bush’s squadron, he was one of just four to come home at the end of war, and that was despite surviving three plane crashes during his service, one of which saw him barely evading capture after being shot down by the Japanese. Bush’s toughness should have never been questioned.
Yes, George H.W. Bush was a patrician and a WASP who was born in Massachusetts, the son of a U.S. Senator, and a student of prestigious schools such as Greenwich Country Day, Phillips Academy, and Yale University. Still, there was an earthy, fun-loving, mischievous side to the 41st President — one that didn’t vanish when he became the most powerful man in the world. We know that Bush went skydiving several times as a former President (another measure of his toughness) — he last jumped out of an airplane at the age of 85 in 2009 — but he also might be the only President in history to break out the bunny ears during a gathering of former Presidents and former First Ladies:
In Bob Greene’s Fraternity: A Journey In Search of Five Presidents (BOOK•KINDLE), Greene seeks out five former Presidents (Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush 41) and gets a chance to spend time with all except the ailing Reagan. In Greene’s wonderful book, the most surprising revelation is that Bush — the wealthy son of a Senator who had a famous family name when entered politics and didn’t have to overcome the poverty and obstacles that Nixon, Ford, and Carter faced — was the most down-to-Earth, easy-going of the four Presidents interviewed. The two photos above give us a glimpse of that personality.
The bunny ears photo is obviously a clear example of Bush 41 not taking himself too seriously, the skydiving shows an adventurous spirit, but the photo at the beginning of the post is simply evidence that Presidents can have fun — even while they are in office and having every move watched by the public.
On August 19, 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush had been President for almost exactly eight months, and, along with his family, had traveled to his beloved home on Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, Maine for a two-week-long vacation. In order to promote boating safety, Coast Guard members videotaped an inspection of President Bush’s 28-foot speedboat, Fidelity, and Bush recorded a short public service announcement about the importance of carrying life jackets while boating. Once the Coast Guard’s cameras turned off, the 65-year-old President received an old-fashioned family challenge.
Among those out on the water with Bush was his oldest child, 43-year-old George W. Bush, and George W.’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara. The future President — still several years from entering the political arena on his own — dared his father to take a dive into the chilly Atlantic Ocean. Egged on by his son, his granddaughters, and others who were out on the water with them, Bush 41 had no intention backing down. Stripping down to his trousers, Bush prepared to take the bet. Although he had just taped the message about life jackets, the President said he didn’t need one when a Coast Guard member suggested Bush wear one if he were going to the take the dive. After all, Bush was once rescued by a submarine after treading water in the Pacific Ocean for over three hours during World War II, and he was quite confident in his swimming skills.
Before taking the dare, Bush decided to make some money off of it. George W. didn’t think that the President would make the plunge, especially with other boats full of reporters swarming around Fidelity. Bush 41 put Jenna and Barbara in charge of collecting bets, and joked to reporters, “You can’t report it unless you put something in the pot.” After his granddaughters made their rounds and collected the bets, the President of the United States, bare-chested and barefoot, but wearing black trousers, followed through on George W.’s dare. Diving into the 60-degree Atlantic Ocean waters off the coast of Maine, the President swam for about two minutes before climbing back into Fidelity.
Like the bunny ears photo, it was one of those wonderful, unguarded, fun moments where a President allowed himself to be humanized. It’s rare that we see that side of our Presidents because now — only a bit more than 20 years later — everything is so choreographed and lacking in spontaneity that we often miss the human side of our Presidents and political leaders.
By the way, for winning the bet and taking the dare of the man who would later become the 43rd President, Bush 41’s twin granddaughters handed the 41st President a grand total of $11.