Through the long telescope of history, then, the ground between Reagan and Johnson appears vast, the distance between two opposite visions from two opposite moments in time. And it is the distance, as well, between two opposite types of men. It is hard to think of two Presidents in modern history, after all, who approached the office more differently than Reagan and Johnson. Johnson was among the most hyperactive executives the White House had ever seen, always seeking to put his fingerprints on every last scrap of administration business no matter how large or small…
…That would never be Reagan — an actor learns early the benefits of a good night’s sleep. From his earliest days in politics, Reagan was supremely confident in his own abilities as an executive. He had come to prominence in a career in which he constantly had to give up control — to producers and directors and studio bosses, to makeup designers and camera operators and press agents, to critics and millions of anonymous strangers who would form consequential opinions of him as they watched on distant screens. When he began his political career in the mid-1960s, he took to the disaggregated life of a political candidate quickly. Most first-time candidates struggle to adapt to the existence in which they must surrender control of their lives to other people. Reagan had been doing it for years. He understood an important distinction that Johnson never grasped: being in control and being successful aren’t always the same thing…
Each was a gifted performer and raconteur who could captivate an audience. But they excelled in different settings. Johnson was best in person. He was overwhelming, always, and his conversations hummed with transactional momentum. He told involved and engaging Texas tall tales, but he usually told them in order to drive home a pertinent point. He made use of his large girth and six-foot-three-inch frame. All the clichéd metaphors of politics — glad-handing, buttonholing, back stroking, arm twisting — were things Johnson actually, physically did in order to get his way. His greatest asset was his intuitive sensitivity to human emotion, his unmatched ability to spot people’s highest ambitions and their darkest fears. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious racial demagogues, found himself mesmerized by an impassioned Oval Office conference with Johnson in the midst of a tense 1965 standoff over racial protests in Wallace’s home state. “Hell,” said Wallace afterward, “if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights.”
A conversation with Reagan, on the other hand, was usually pleasant and entirely superficial. In his early days as a politician, supporters would often walk away from first encounters with candidate Reagan disappointed. He’d told funny jokes, they’d laughed heartily, they’d had a ball. But they couldn’t remember much if any substance to what he’d said. The problem wasn’t that Reagan was an empty suit; rather, he struggled to connect with people when they came too close. Even his own children encountered a fog in their father’s eyes when they greeted him in a room. He was friendly, but he gave the impression that he was meeting them for the first time.
He was better with an audience watching him. Better still if they were watching him on a television screen from the comfort of their own homes. In these moments, he was great. He launched his 1966 campaign for governor with a thirty-minute television advertisement in which he pensively strolled around a comfortable living room. It was all so wonderfully familiar and authentic. There were pictures on the wall and a fire in the fireplace; Reagan’s sharp, pithy summation of California’s and the nation’s problems seemed to come to him spontaneously, a kindly father figure opining on issues of the day. None of it was real — the sentences were scripted and the living room was a studio set. But Californians didn’t mind; they were starting to expect their politicians to be great performers on TV.
Television was taking over politics in the midsixties. Anyone who’d lived through the Kennedy years could see that. Johnson could see that, and he worked tirelessly to adapt, but never with much success. As President, he obsessed over his televised press conferences, bringing in a shifting cast of experts for coaching on his diction, his posture, his eyewear. But his problem was fundamental: performing for a TV camera, he could never do what he did in person, he couldn’t see his audience and adapt his personality accordingly. And that introduced a terrifying possibility: that the people watching would see him as himself.
Johnson and Reagan, then, were both stars, but stars of different eras. It is difficult to fit them inside a single picture — when the mind focuses on one of them, the other becomes a blur. Even in the lore of practical politics, where both names have assumed vaunted status in recent years, they inhabit separate realms. Reagan is the President that politicians from both parties publicly say they admire — principled, noble, and strong. But Johnson is the President they secretly long to be — ruthless, effective, a man who got big things done.
I have gained approval from the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site to post certain photographs held in their collections here. Keep watching this page to see what the BHPS has to offer.
If you are ever in Indianapolis, the house is located at 1230 N. Delware Street. It is the only home that Benjamin Harrison ever owned, and his place of residence during his Senate term, his presidency, retirement, and death. Nearly 80% of items in the home belonged to the Harrison family, and the home looks just as it did in 1888 when Harrison ran for the presidency. Unlike recent presidents, Harrison’s museum is independently owned and operated. BHPS relies upon independent grants, donations, and tour groups to keep the lights on. (Harrison had electricity installed in the White House, get it?) So do stop by, or donate directly. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors over 65, $9 for AAA members. Special events and deals happen throughout the year.
Ol’ Ben needs the money, so I did not want to share some of what the BHPS has to offer without first making a pitch.
The ask box is now open, so please drop me a line and let me know what you are interested in learning more about. I will do my level best to find an answer, or an artifact, or a source.
This is awesome. The Presidential Libraries system of the National Archives does a fantastic job of covering the modern Presidents on Tumblr (with Our Presidents and the individual Presidential Library sites of the last thirteen Presidents) and social media, but few of the older and lesser-known Presidents receive the same recognition or coverage. The generalharrison Tumblr has the 23rd President taken care of, so this should be a great addition to an already-wonderful site.
The 37th President of the United States was hysterical. Crumpled in a leather chair in the Lincoln Sitting Room, his favorite of the 132 rooms at his disposal in the White House, Richard Milhous Nixon called for his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Nixon was drinking, Nixon was exhausted, Nixon was physically and mentally unwell and, hours earlier, Nixon had finally realized that he had no other choice but to become the first President in United States history to resign his office.
A Presidential resignation was so unthinkable that nobody had ever agreed on how a President even resigns his office. Is his resignation effective the moment he makes his decision? Does he have to sign anything? If so, who does he hand his resignation into? What happens to his things? His belongings, his property, his papers? Is the Secret Service responsible for his protection? How does he even get home after leaving the White House? In fact, after making the decision to step down, Nixon questioned whether a President could resign at all. None of these questions had ever been contemplated until it became apparent that the Watergate scandal and subsequent cover-up was fatal to the Nixon Administration.
When Kissinger answered the President’s summons on the evening of August 7th, 1974, he found that Nixon was nearly drunk, sitting in a darkened room, and lost in thought. Throughout the nearly 200 years of America’s life only 35 other human beings had held the office that Nixon was holding and Nixon was in the unique position of being the only one to decide on resignation. Nixon was the only person in the history of human existence that had to do what he was forced into doing.
Nixon was a ferociously introspective person — a man who hated people but loved politics. Not only did he love politics, but he was extraordinarily skilled at it. Some would say that Richard Nixon was a terrible politician, but the results prove otherwise. When he was 33 years old Nixon was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. At 38 he was one of California’s United States Senators. Before he turned 40, he was elected Vice President of the United States alongside Dwight Eisenhower. A bad politician doesn’t accomplish that much that quickly. Nixon was narrowly defeated for the Presidency in 1960 by John F. Kennedy and lost a race for Governor of California in 1962 to incumbent Pat Brown, but a bad politician would not have won his party’s nomination for either of those offices.
The most overlooked barometer of Nixon’s political skill is the fact that he ran for President in three different elections (1960, 1968, and 1972), won two of them, and lost the popular vote in 1960 to John F. Kennedy by just .2% nationwide. During Richard Nixon’s career, more Americans cast votes in favor of sending him to the White House than Franklin Delano Roosevelt who won an unprecedented four terms. Over three elections, Nixon received 113,059,260 votes for President — nearly 10 million more than FDR (103,419,425 votes over four elections). A bad politician couldn’t trick people into casting 113 million votes to make him their leader and allow him to become the most powerful man in the world.
Yet, for all of Richard Nixon’s immense political skills, intelligence, ability, and achievements, he allowed his uncontrollable paranoia to destroy him. Nixon didn’t need help to win re-election in 1972, but he authorized dirty tricks against the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic nominee, George McGovern. Nixon and his top aides covered up the break-in at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., and by the summer of 1974, it was revealed that a secret White House taping system held evidence of the cover-up. Still, Nixon continued to fight, believing that he could win back the American people and once again come back from disaster as he had done many times before. This time was different, however. There was no comeback from this scandal. If Nixon did not resign, he would be impeached and found guilty in a Senate trial. If Nixon did not resign, he would probably go to prison. When the impossibility of survival was finally understood by the President, the man who had told Americans “I am not a quitter” realized that he had to quit.
In the last days of July 1974, most of President Nixon’s aides came to the conclusion that Nixon’s position was untenable and that resignation was imminent. When Republican Congressional leaders indicated that they would no longer support Nixon and would vote for articles of impeachment, all hope was lost and Vice President Gerald Ford — in office for less than 8 months — began preparations to assume the Presidency. Nixon held out the longest, but he was so out of touch that he was losing the ability to exercise the powers of his office. For weeks, the day-to-day operations of the White House — and, really, the Presidency itself — were handled by General Alexander Haig, a four-star Army general and the White House Chief of Staff. Haig was a longtime holdout in the futile attempt to save Nixon’s Presidency, but the damning evidence that was revealed almost daily in the final weeks of Nixon’s administration left Haig no choice but to attempt to orchestrate a somewhat dignified exit for Nixon and smooth transition for Ford.
At times in those last few weeks, Nixon brooded in the Lincoln Sitting Room or his secret hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building across the street from the White House. Even in the Washington summer, Nixon would sit in one of the two rooms with a fire burning in the fireplace scribbling memos to himself on his familiar yellow legal pads. The President would drink scotch and get drunk quickly; he was famously unable to handle his low-tolerance for alcohol very well. Often, an aide or valet would find Nixon loudly blaring his favorite music — the score from the 1950’s documentary “Victory at Sea”. Other times, Nixon would listen to the tapes from his Oval Office recording system that were bringing his Presidency down around him, rewinding, fast-forwarding, listening again-and-again to his own voice saying the things now coming back to haunt him.
Aides throughout the White House and staff from other departmental agencies worried about the President’s ability to function and continue to lead the country while in his current mental state. Discussions were quietly held about whether it was necessary to attempt to invoke the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, which calls for the Vice President to assume the powers of the Presidency if the President is somehow incapacitated and unable to discharge the heavy everyday responsibilities of his office. Nixon was barely sleeping, drinking heavily, and making bizarre, rambling late-night phone calls to subordinates throughout the Executive Branch of the United States government. Nearly everyone who knew his condition questioned the President’s capacity to function.
There were also serious questions about whether or not Nixon, in a desperate attempt to hold on to power, might use the military to protect himself and the White House. Tensions were already high in the streets of Washington, D.C. with protesters loudly demonstrating and calling for Nixon’s resignation. High-ranking officials in the Department of Defense and the White House privately worried about the possibility that Nixon would ring the streets around the White House with tanks and armored personnel carriers, ostensibly to protect the Executive Mansion from acts of civil disobedience, but also to set up a fortress-like barrier that might allow him to remain in the White House in the case of a Congressional or Supreme Court-ordered removal from office.
Most startling of all is the fact that in the week before his resignation, Nixon’s inability to efficiently or appropriately wield executive power had dwindled so far that Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger urged General George S. Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to not take military orders directly from the President. In an attempt to save the country from any extra-constitutional power grab by a desperate President, the military chain-of-command took the extra-constitutional step of removing the President from the loop. Schlesinger also investigated what his options would be if troops had to forcibly remove the President from office. The Defense Secretary’s plan was to bring the 82nd Airborne to Washington from Fort Bragg, North Carolina if that was necessary.
While Nixon’s aides and fellow government officials worried about his mental health and ability to lead, Nixon’s family worried about his physical well-being. The President was exhausted, erratic, and not sleeping well at all. He downed sleeping pills, drank scotch, and continued sitting alone in one of his two favorite offices. Nixon attempted to put on a brave face for his family, but they too were weary of the process and his wife Pat’s health was already precarious. Nixon sometimes found solace in the company of his daughters Tricia and Julie and their respective husbands, Edward Cox and David Eisenhower (grandson of the late President Dwight Eisenhower).
Yet the toll was terrible on the family and while Nixon’s daughters were supportive and urged him to continue fighting, both Cox and Eisenhower felt that their father-in-law needed to resign for the good of the country and the good of their family, and worried that the President might not leave the White House alive. On August 6, 1974, Edward Cox called Michigan Senator Robert Griffin, a friend of Nixon’s who was urging resignation. Notifying the Senator that Nixon seemed irrational, Griffin responded that the President had seemed fine during their last meeting. Cox went further and explained, “The President was up walking the halls last night, talking to pictures of former Presidents — giving speeches and talking to the pictures on the wall.” Senator Griffin was flabbergasted and even more taken aback when Cox followed that bombshell with a worried plea for help, “The President might take his own life.”
White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig also worried about suicide. A few days earlier, the despondent President and his Chief of Staff were alone when Nixon started talking about how disgraced military officers sometimes fall on their sword. To Haig, the Army General, Nixon said, “You fellows, in your business, you have a way of handling problems like this. Somebody leaves a pistol in the drawer.” Haig was stunned. Then sadly — bitterly — Nixon said, “I don’t have a pistol.”
Haig was trying to steer the President towards as dignified of an exit as possible in such a dire situation. Already dealing with the first Presidential resignation, what he definitely wanted to prevent as Chief of Staff was the first-ever Presidential suicide. Haig worked with the President’s Navy doctors to limit Nixon’s access to pills and tranquilizers. When Haig mentioned his worries about a Nixon suicide to White House counsel Fred Buzhardt, Buzhardt said he didn’t think Nixon was the type to commit suicide. Buzhardt believed Nixon was actually a deeply religious man privately, but the White House counsel also thought that Richard Nixon would continue fighting, as he always had, until the ship went down. Alexander Haig just wanted to keep the President alive.
In his office in the Old Executive Office Building on the evening of Tuesday, August 6th, Nixon met with Haig and Press Secretary Ron Ziegler to inform them that he was definitely resigning before the end of the week and that he would announce the decision in a speech to the nation on Thursday evening from the Oval Office. Nixon, Haig, and Ziegler discussed ideas for the resignation speech and during a moment of contemplative silence, Nixon looked up at his two loyalists and said, “Well, I screwed it up good, real good, didn’t I?”.
The morning of August 7th began with Haig notifying Vice President Ford that Nixon’s resignation was imminent and that Ford would be assuming the Presidency within 48 hours. Though Nixon had told Haig and Ziegler that his decision was irrevocable, the last obstacle to resignation was still Nixon’s indecisiveness, which was a result of the unwavering support from his daughters, Tricia and Julie. Throughout the day of August 7th, Nixon seemed calm, but said more than once that he had not made up his mind about resignation yet, which worried his exhausted Chief of Staff. Haig had barely slept over the last four days and he hoped that the President’s meeting with Senate leaders that afternoon would seal the resignation decision. It did. During the meeting, Nixon learned that he had virtually no support in either the House of Representatives or the Senate and that staying in office would damage him personally and be dangerous for the country. After the meeting, Nixon told his loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods that he had no other choice but to resign, and then he directed her to inform his family. Nixon’s family learned of his final decision from his secretary, and she also told them that the President didn’t wish to discuss the situation when they met for dinner later. Before Nixon sat down to eat with his family that night, he simply said, “We’re going back to California.”
It was after dinner that night when Nixon summoned Henry Kissinger to the Residence of the White House and sat with his Secretary of State in the Lincoln Sitting Room. Though the two leaders had worked tirelessly together on foreign policy during Nixon’s administration, they didn’t necessarily like each other. Nixon was often jealous of Kissinger’s popularity and dismissive of his personality. Kissinger thought the President was bitterly mean at times, and unnecessarily paranoid about Kissinger’s loyalty. They worked well together, but more often than not, they downplayed the other’s role in crafting the administration’s foreign policy when speaking to others. Nixon didn’t trust Kissinger and Kissinger was often angered by Nixon’s irrational behavior, especially in the past few days as the Secretary of State believed the President’s problems had paralyzed the country’s foreign affairs.
On this night, however, Nixon and Kissinger simply talked. They discussed their accomplishments, their failures, their philosophies and disagreements, and Nixon urged the diplomat to stay on as Secretary of State and provide Gerald Ford with the same service he had provided Nixon. Sitting there in the smallest room of the White House, Nixon asked Kissinger about how he would be remembered. Although he had made mistakes, he felt that he had accomplished great things for his country. Nixon was worried that his legacy would be Watergate and resignation, but he desperately wanted to be thought of as a President who achieved peace. Kissinger insisted that Nixon would get the credit he deserved.
President Nixon started crying. At first, it was a teary-eyed hope that his resignation wouldn’t overshadow his long career, but soon, it broke down into sobbing as the President lamented the failures and the disgrace he had brought to his country. Nixon — a man who never wore his Quaker religion on his sleeve — turned to Kissinger and asked him if he would pray with him. Despite being Jewish, Kissinger felt he had no choice but to kneel with the President as Nixon prayed for peace — both for his country and for himself.
After finishing his prayer, Nixon remained in a kneeling position while silently weeping, tears streaming down the large jowls often caricatured by political cartoonists. Kissinger looked over and saw the President lean down, burying his face in the Lincoln Sitting Room’s carpet and slamming his fist against the ground crying, “What have I done? What has happened?”. Nixon and Kissinger both disliked physical affection and Nixon in particular hated being touched, but Kissinger didn’t know any other way to console his weary, broken boss. Softly patting Nixon’s back at first, Kissinger embraced Nixon in a hug and held the President of the United States until he calmed down and the tears stopped flowing. Kissinger helped Nixon up to his feet and the men shared another drink, talking openly about what role Nixon could have in the future as a former President.
When Kissinger returned to his office a little later, he couldn’t even begin to explain what had happened to his top aides, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger. Kissinger was saddened and shocked, and Eagleburger noted that he had never seen the Secretary of State so moved by something. A few minutes later, Nixon called Kissinger’s office and Eagleburger listened in on the call on another extension. The President was clearly drunk and again thanked Kissinger for visiting him, imploring him to help Ford in the same way he had helped Nixon.
Before hanging up, Nixon pleaded with Kissinger, “Henry, please don’t ever tell anyone that I cried and that I was not strong.”
It is telling that even while losing control and finding himself at the end of his rope, President Nixon was concerned about looking weak. Throughout his long career, Nixon saw himself as a fighter and tried to portray himself as such. But Nixon also proudly saw himself as a man who had to earn everything he achieved, without any help from anyone else, and despite obstacles constantly being thrown in his path. Nixon felt that the media was out to get him because he wasn’t charismatic or flashy like his old rival, John F. Kennedy. Nixon felt that there was something sinister behind every issue he faced, and he went too far in his attempt to destroy those that he felt were trying to destroy him.
Before leaving the White House on August 9th, 1974, Nixon made an impromptu speech to White House employees in the East Room of the mansion. It is one of the most revealing speeches of any President at any time in history, and it is Nixon without his guard up; Nixon with nothing left to lose. He talked about his family, his achievements, and his appreciation for the people who worked in his administration. He rambled at times, and he was clearly saddened by the situation. And, towards the end of his speech, Richard Nixon — with just minutes left in his Presidency — seemed to have finally learned his lesson:
“Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
With that, Richard Milhous Nixon and his family walked out on to the South Lawn of the White House, accompanied by the man who would soon assume the Presidency, Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty. As he boarded the Presidential helicopter, Marine One, Nixon turned around to face the cameras and the White House and the country, smiled wanly, defiantly thrust his trademark peace sign salute into the air over his head and waved goodbye to the Presidency and hello to history.
This is the first I’m hearing about it, but that will be very, very interesting. Bush 41 has never written a true autobiography, so it’ll be nice to have such a unique perspective from one President about another.
However, it won’t be the first time that a President has written about another President. We even nearly had another instance of a President whose father was also President writing a biography about his father — John Quincy Adams had worked off-and-on at trying to get together his father’s papers and either edit them into the autobiography that John Adams wanted to write but never finished, or write his own book about his father. Unfortunately, he never got that completed. John Quincy Adams did write a joint biography of his two immediate predecessors — The Lives of James Madison and James Monroe (BOOK | KINDLE). JQA also had book-length eulogies (which is largely what the joint biography was drawn from) on those two Presidents: An Eulogy on the Life and Character of James Monroe, published after Monroe died in 1831, and An Eulogy on the Life and Character of James Madison, published after Madison’s death in 1836.
Woodrow Wilson wrote a biography of George Washington with the snazzy title of George Washington (BOOK | KINDLE) in 1896, long before he began his own political career. And in 1958, Wilson was the subject of a biography from 84-year-old former President Herbert Hoover, The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson. What makes Hoover’s book about Wilson especially fascinating was that he served on behalf of President Wilson during the war effort of World War I and wrote about the toll that the Presidency, particularly the battle to win ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and American entry into the League of Nations, exacted on Wilson.
To me, the book by George W. Bush about his father is by far the most intriguing of any book by a President about a President. Bush 43 also didn’t write a traditional post-Presidential autobiography; his 2010 book, Decision Points (BOOK | KINDLE), was more of a memoir on specific events of his Presidency. But I found it to be a lot more candid than I expected. Any Presidential autobiography of memoir is going to contain some revisionist history because it’s often their last chance to personally shape their legacy, and Decision Points certainly contains a lot of that, but it was also far more personal than I imaged it would be. I’m excited about the prospect of the book you mentioned.
Theodore Roosevelt stepped aside in 1908 because immediately after winning the 1904 election, he announced that he wouldn’t run for President in ‘08. It was one of those situations where he probably wanted to grab the words out of the air and take them back as he was saying them. TR loved being President and he regretted his 1904 declaration to not run in 1908 for the rest of his life. But Roosevelt also strongly believed that a person’s word is their honor and he couldn’t bring himself to break the promise he made in 1904, even if the electorate would have not only forgiven him for it, but would have preferred that he run again.
TR definitely would have won in 1908, and if he had been re-elected that year, he would have probably implemented a progressive agenda and neuter the basis for Woodrow Wilson’s successful 1912 campaign for the Presidency. Plus, Roosevelt wouldn’t have had to torpedo poor William Howard Taft and split the Republican Party, which likely would have helped him win re-election again in 1912 because the electoral landscape would have been very different. TR probably could have been elected again-and-again if he had run in 1908 and held on to the job. Roosevelt was still popular and even though he kept his promise in 1908, many Republicans urged him to reconsider — including Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, Taft. Unfortunately for TR, keeping his promise in 1908 complicated his political future, especially because of the break with establishment Republicans and President Taft.
As it was, TR had a remarkable showing in 1912 considering his party split into separate factions and he had to run as a third-party candidate for a party that was basically just thrown together at the last minute when Taft was renominated by the GOP. TR didn’t run in 1916 because he still had to heal some wounds within the Republican Party and wanted to show solidarity by staying out of that race and supporting the GOP nominee, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes lost that 1916 race to Wilson with one of the narrowest Electoral College margins in American history (Wilson 277, Hughes 254), so even with the lingering intraparty bad blood, Roosevelt probably could have won the 1916 election. He was not going to sit out the 1920 election and he was the clear frontrunner for 1920 basically from Election Day 1916. Roosevelt would have won the 1920 election — and won big considering the fact that the comparatively unknown (and exceedingly unqualified) Warren G. Harding ended up winning over 400 Electoral votes.
Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, and that shook up every projection of the 1920 Presidential election. We mention Roosevelt’s popularity as one of the reasons he could have been elected President on several occasions, but another important factor was his age. When TR assumed the Presidency upon the assassination of President McKinley, he was just 42 years, 322 days old; he was the youngest President in history. He’s still the youngest President in history. In fact, Roosevelt was younger when he LEFT office after 7 1/2 years as President (50 years, 128 days old) than most Presidents have been upon their inauguration! TR was 60 years, 71 days old when he died, meaning TEN Presidents were older on the day of their inauguration than Roosevelt was on the day that he died.
I imagine that you’re probably right and that Roosevelt’s health — like LBJ;s — would have benefited from TR staying active and engaged through the important work that he was doing everyday. There are a couple of differences, though. Roosevelt remained a lot more active than LBJ did after leaving office. TR was very involved in politics nationally and in New York; he continued his amazingly prolific output as a writer; he dedicated significant amounts of time and energy on his expeditions as a naturalist and hunter; and let’s not forget that he actually did run for President again (and was so active during that campaign that he was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt and then gave an hour-long speech before heading to the hospital). LBJ let himself go in a way, but TR couldn’t stop going full-steam ahead on multiple projects.
But in Theodore Roosevelt’s case, that active and adventurous lifestyle probably contributed to his death. In 1914, TR spent nearly eight months on a scientific expedition in Brazil exploring a destination so remote that it was called the River of Doubt since few explorers had ever successfully reached it (Brazil later renamed it “Rio Roosevelt” in TR’s honor). During the Brazilian expedition, Roosevelt suffered a nasty cut on his leg that became so infected that there were worries it might have to be amputated in the field. Even more worrisome was the fact that Roosevelt was stricken with malaria so severe that he was hallucinating and had a dangerously high fever which reached 106 degrees. Roosevelt was convinced that he was dying and urged the other members of his expedition, which included his son, Kermit, to carry on without him because he worried that he would hold the party back and expose all of them to further danger. The rest of the expedition refused and eventually got Roosevelt out of the Amazon and back home to New York.
TR had recurring bouts of malaria for the rest of his life and never fully recovered from that or the serious infection which nearly cost him his leg. Roosevelt was famously energetic and physically active — his exercise regiments in the White House often included boxing, wrestling, and jiujitsu (TR basically the first American mixed martial artist). But he was weakened by the illnesses from Brazil and was hospitalized for weeks at a time when he had relapses, even though he was not quite 60 years old. Roosevelt still had his eye on a run for the White House in 1920 despite his health problems, but he really began to decline rapidly after July 14, 1918. All four of his sons saw combat in World War I and made their father immensely proud; his three oldest sons, Theodore Jr., Kermit, and Archibald had been wounded in action. But on July 14th, the former President’s youngest son, 20-year-old Quentin Roosevelt, a fighter pilot in the early American Army Air Force was shot down by a German fighter in a dogfight over France.
Theodore Roosevelt had spent his life seeking military glory and praising the heroic action of “the man in the arena”, but when his son was killed in action, the horror of war truly came home for him. Roosevelt was devastated by Quentin’s death and his already-declining health seemed to fail even more quickly. The chronic health problems stemming from the expedition in Brazil, constant physical pain from a life filled with dynamic exercise of his body and mind, and a broken heart from the death of his youngest son sapped him of his strength and stripped him of two things that Theodore Roosevelt always had in abundance — endless energy and iron will. TR was only 60 years old when he died, but he was the oldest 60-year-old man who had ever lived.
I agree — I think LBJ would have won in ‘68 if he had run. First of all, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, of all people, almost pulled off the victory over Richard Nixon in 1968. Humphrey lost the popular vote by a margin of just over 500,000 votes — in an election where George Wallace won nearly 10 million votes. Despite his Civil Rights accomplishments, I think Johnson would have neutralized Wallace in some of those Southern states. In fact, it’s very possible that a heavyweight like LBJ in the race would have kept George Wallace from launching a bid as serious as he actually did in 1968. Wallace won 46 Electoral votes (all of them being states of the Deep South) and I don’t think that would have happened with LBJ in the race.
Wallace was a big factor in the race, but another big factor was the battle for the Democratic nomination and the turbulence surrounding the primaries, RFK’s assassination, and the battles between Chicago police and anti-war protesters outside of the Democratic National Convention. If LBJ had been the candidate, there would have been no primary fight, and the DNC would have been much more disciplined. There definitely still would have been anti-war protests, but instead of seeming to add to the chaos of the Democrats’ nomination process, it would have come across differently.
And the biggest difference would have been the difference between Lyndon Baines Johnson on the campaign trail and Hubert H. Humphrey on the campaign trail. On television, LBJ often came across wooden and uninspiring, but he was something altogether different while campaigning. More importantly, LBJ wouldn’t have rolled over and just let Nixon get away with any Nixonian dirty tricks. LBJ could play just as dirty, and he would have if it meant the difference between four more years and a forced retirement. LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and the head of the Democratic Party; he controlled the party apparatus would have known who to use the power of his office and his power of the Democratic Party to propel him to victory if it was kept close.
It definitely would have been closer than the 1964 election; LBJ wouldn’t have cruised to a landslide over Nixon in 1968 like he did over Barry Goldwater four years earlier, but I do think LBJ would have beat Nixon. In the election that we did get — a three-way race between Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace — the Electoral College results were Nixon 301, Humphrey 191, Wallace 46 (270 votes needed to win). Nixon won the popular vote in 1968 over Humphrey by only a few hundred thousand more votes than Kennedy beat him in 1960 (one of the narrowest victories in American history) and George Wallace claimed 9.9 million votes. As I said, in my opinion, if LBJ had run in ‘68, Wallace either wouldn’t have run or he wouldn’t have been able to get ballot access in all 50 states. Either way, he wouldn’t have won 9.9 million votes and I don’t think he would have won any of the five states that he did actually win in ‘68 (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). LBJ would have built a powerful voter registration and get out the vote organization in those Southern states with large African-American populations whose right to vote was signed into law and protected three years earlier by LBJ. I think that those new voters, in addition to the Democrats who remained Democratic voters in the South despite LBJ’s Civil Rights policy, would have put those states in the Democratic column. Wallace also won one of North Carolina’s 13 Electoral votes in ‘68.
If it was just LBJ vs. Nixon, I think LBJ would have won all of the states that Humphrey won (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia) as well as the states that Wallace won (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). I also think that LBJ would have won 11 of the 32 states that Nixon won majorities in over Humphrey (Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). In many of the 32 states that Nixon won in the actual 1968 election, his margin of victory was slim and Wallace’s removal from the equation likely would have swung more votes into the Democratic column than the Republican, resulting in a swing of those 11 states. The popular vote margin would still be pretty close, but LBJ would win majorities in most of the major states (those with the most Electoral College votes). In a straight LBJ vs. Nixon matchup in 1968, I think the Electoral College result would be: LBJ 381, Nixon 157.
And, yes, this question motivated me to actually go back and re-figure the 1968 Presidential election’s Electoral College map state-by-state. Don’t say I never did anything for you guys.
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.
Alright, the 2014 Presidential Rankings are complete. Thanks for checking them out and following along. I’ll be sending out free PDF copies of my book to anybody who guessed my Top 15 correctly.
I look forward to all of the people who are outraged and want to either debate all 43 rankings and/or just call me an idiot even though I’ve said on many occasions that ranking Presidents is completely subjective and any version of Presidential Rankings is totally arbitrary.
As I’m weeding through all of those messages into my inbox over the next few weeks, here is a list of the complete rankings for 2014 (with links to each individual entry):
43. James Buchanan (43rd in 2012 [↔])
42. William Henry Harrison (42nd in 2012 [↔])
41. Andrew Johnson (41st in 2012 [↔])
40. Franklin Pierce (40th in 2012 [↔])
39. James Garfield (38th in 2012 [↓1])
38. Millard Fillmore (37th in 2012 [↓1])
37. Warren G. Harding (39th in 2012 [↑2])
36. George W. Bush (36th in 2012 [↔])
35. Jimmy Carter (34th in 2012 [↓1])
34. Herbert Hoover (33rd in 2012 [↓1])
33. Zachary Taylor (32nd in 2012 [↓1])
32. Benjamin Harrison (35th in 2012 [↑3])
31. Rutherford B. Hayes (27th in 2012 [↓4])
30. Barack Obama (28th in 2012 [↓2])
29. Martin Van Buren (29th in 2012 [↔])
28. Ulysses S. Grant (30th in 2012 [↑2])
27. William Howard Taft (31st in 2012 [↑4])
26. John Quincy Adams (26th in 2012 [↔])
25. Calvin Coolidge (25th in 2012 [↔])
24. Richard Nixon (24th in 2012 [↔])
23. Chester A. Arthur (23rd in 2012 [↔])
22. Grover Cleveland (22nd in 2012 [↔])
21. John Tyler (19th in 2012 [↓2])
20. Woodrow Wilson (20th in 2012 [↔])
19. Andrew Jackson (17th in 2012 [↓2])
18. Gerald Ford (21st in 2012 [↑3])
17. Ronald Reagan (15th in 2012 [↓2])
16. John F. Kennedy (14th in 2012 [↓2])
15. James Madison (12th in 2012 [↓3])
14. Thomas Jefferson (11th in 2012 [↓3])
13. John Adams (16th in 2012 [↑3])
12. William McKinley (18th in 2012 [↑6])
11. George H.W. Bush (13th in 2012 [↑2])
10. Harry S Truman (8th in 2012 [↓2])
9. Bill Clinton (10th in 2012 [↑1])
8. Dwight D. Eisenhower (9th in 2012 [↑1])
7. James K. Polk (7th in 2012 [↔])
6. Theodore Roosevelt (5th in 2012 [↓1])
5. Lyndon B. Johnson (6th in 2012 [↑1])
4. James Monroe (4th in 2012 [↔])
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (3rd in 2012 [↔])
2. George Washington (2nd in 2012 [↔])
1. Abraham Lincoln (1st in 2012 [↔])
1st President of the United States (1789-1797)
Full Name: George Washington
Born: February 22, 1732, Pope’s Creek, Westmoreland County, Virginia
Political Party: Federalist
State Represented: Virginia
Term: April 30, 1789-March 4, 1797
Age at Inauguration: 57 years, 67 days
Administration: 1st and 2nd
Congresses: 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th
Vice President: John Adams (1789-1797)
Died: December 14, 1799, Mount Vernon, Virginia
Age at Death: 67 years, 295 days
Buried: Mount Vernon, Virginia
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 2 of 43 [↔]
I can be talked into switching George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I don’t understand how anyone can rank Washington lower than #3, and, the more I think about it, I think he definitely deserves to be at #2. I’ve talked before about the “Precedent Presidents” who set so many of the precedents that were a foundation of the Presidency. EVERYTHING that Washington did was being done for the first time. Nobody shaped the office of the Presidency, from its functions to the formalities and informalities that surround it, in every conceivable way, more than George Washington. That required more than great leadership, but also incredible vision. Even seemingly unimportant things like the way the President is addressed, or how he enters a room, required Washington’s touch. The Presidency is what it is because of George Washington. He could have turned it into a completely different position, but he made it into the office that we recognize. And perhaps the most important thing that Washington did as President was retiring to Mount Vernon after two terms and transitioning the job to John Adams. That really set the Presidency apart from other executive offices or ruling positions in history. Washington’s greatness is rarely doubted, but we should recognize his role as an incredible visionary, as well.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 2 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 2 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 3 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 4 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 2 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 3 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 2 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 1 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 2 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 4 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 3 of 40