Thursday, May 05, 2016

Worst Presidents and Prime Ministers

I avoid podcasts because, while I can read quickly through the longueurs of a long text, I can't speed-listen, and I tend to get bored and distracted through the dull bits. For those reasons, I have not got through it all, but I have been listening to this 90 minute discussion of Worst American Presidents Ever, recently held at the Organization of American Historians.

I was attracted partly because it features former star HistBlogger Claire Potter and the admirable Annette Gordon-Reed (who once commented on this blog, so major props there) -- plus a couple of guys. And it is pretty entertaining.

The short answer seems to be, duh, Nixon.  But the longer answers are succinct and interesting too. They emphasize the difference between inconsequential and worst.  They suggest choosing, say, Reagan (a Claire Potter suggestion) is a category error, because you and I despise his whole program but it was his program and he got it through and held a lot of support. Jacob Weisberg suggested a Best President needed Big Events; A Consequential Impact on Them; and the Right Kind of Character, so a Worst President presumably failed somewhere in these areas too.

I once refused to participate in a historians' poll of Best Canadian Prime Ministers on the grounds that it was impossible.  No sure why picking a Worst appeals to me more, but...

Leaving out a long of short-term and inconsequential prime minister, who is up (or down) there?
  • Alexander Mackenzie actually had a good program and some accomplishments, but building a party that could hold power was not among them, and it probably should have been, so has been seen as a notable failure. Though, going against Macdonald and a depression were a big handicaps.
  • Robert Borden? I've been coming to think that Canada's huge over commitment to the First World War was terrible for the country and did not help the world much. But it's what Borden wanted, and he was pretty successful.
  • R.B. Bennett? I haven't been much persuaded by the recent rehabilitations of Bennett, and he did have the character shortcomings a Worst PM would need. But he was up against the Depression, and the Privy Council when it really was off the rails. Would someone else have done better?
  • John Diefenbaker?  Not very capable of running a government, but from this distance were his actions very consequential?
  • Louis St-Laurent?  Much the same issues as Dief, maybe.
  • Stephen Harper?  Looking pretty unsuccessful even on his own terms, right now, and hard to see where the rehabilitation will start to come from. The uninspirational character issue is going to nag.  But it's too soon to say. Consequential -- or not so much?
  • Paul Martin and John Turner -- maybe Arthur Meighen, too -- probably underperformed relative to expectations more than most.  No one expected much of Mackenzie Bowell, I guess.

Hat-tip: Historiann, who notes the coincidental presumptive nomination of a "ground-baloney faced Cheez-Whiz haired racist sexist birther ragetroll."

Update, May 9:  John Morgan takes exception regarding Alexander Mackenzie:
For someone who never wanted the responsibility, I think he did a pretty good job. It wasn't as if there was any kind of unified Liberal Party in the decades and years leading up to Confederation. They were a real factious bunch that were united only in their opposition to the Conservatives. After no one else wanted to take on the responsibility, Mackenzie finally agreed. Given his self-educated stonemason background, this was quite an accomplishment. His sterling character and accomplishments helped to set Canada as a country of equality, tolerance and respect for the rule of law. Canadians are known worldwide for their honesty and integrity. I'd argue it was Mackenzie's character and his policies that helped set this in motion. Considering what he was up against, he had a remarkable record of reform.

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