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Monday, March 1, 1999

Star-Spangled Men: America’s Ten Worst Presidents by Nathan Miller

What Qualities Should We Value in a President?

Scribner • 1998 • 272 pages • $23.00

Gene Healy is a student at the University of Chicago Law School.

Historians who evaluate American presidents suffer from a bias against inaction. In the conventional view, great presidents are the nation builders and the war leaders; the failures are the ones who “never did anything.”

Nathan Miller, author of Star-Spangled Men: America’s Ten Worst Presidents, shares the conventional bias. For example, he indicts Silent Cal Coolidge with Mencken’s faint praise: “He had no ideas, and was not a nuisance.”

Those of us who favor limited government see it differently. This would have been a happier century by far if the worst that could be said of any president was, “He had no ideas, and was not a nuisance.” One (unintended) virtue of Miller’s book, then, is that it reminds us of some of the forgotten men who have held America’s most powerful office, yet somehow managed to leave well enough alone.

Miller picks his losers by asking, “How badly did they damage the nation they were supposed to serve?” What’s strange, then, is that the presidents he selects were mostly peacetime leaders who did little perceptible damage to the Republic and its institutions.

Take Coolidge, whom Miller writes off as “a reluctant refugee from the nineteenth century.” Miller fairly sneers at Coolidge’s emphasis on fiscal probity and laissez faire. Unable to find much to criticize in the uninterrupted prosperity of Coolidge’s tenure, Miller tries a cheap shot: Coolidge’s “penny-pinching refusal to cancel [the war] debts contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler.” Well, maybe. But as long as we’re doling out responsibility for Nazi atrocities, why don’t we give some to Woodrow Wilson? Wilson’s dragging the United States into World War I allowed the Allies to impose a punitive peace on Germany in the first place. Why, then, does Miller consider Wilson a “near great” president?

Unlike Wilson, Coolidge was never awake for long enough to do much damage; as Miller recounts, he slept 11 hours a day. During his waking hours, Silent Cal’s sound instincts allowed him to hew to the presidential equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath. As Coolidge put it, “Nine-tenths of a president’s callers at the White House want something they ought not to have. If you keep dead still they will run out in three or four minutes.”

Miller’s chapter on William Howard Taft inspires reflection on the varieties of presidential obesity. Mencken saw Grover Cleveland’s great bulk as indicating a kind of implacable strength. But Taft’s girth reflected placidity and inaction, complementing his sedate view of the presidency: “the president cannot make clouds to rain, he cannot make the corn to grow, he cannot make business to be good.” Miller rates Taft as the ninth worst, but his tenure in the White House was marked by peace and prosperity.

Warren G. Harding receives the most undeservedly rough treatment of any president examined. From a classical liberal perspective, Harding was arguably the greatest president of the twentieth century. He initiated the largest spending cut in history—a 40 percent reduction from Wilson’s last peacetime budget. And Harding’s good nature and liberal instincts led him to overrule his political advisers and pardon Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Debs had been jailed during Wilson’s jihad against opponents of World War I, but Harding turned him and other dissenters loose; “I want [Debs] to eat his Christmas dinner with his wife,” he said. The scandals surrounding Harding’s administration push him near the top of Miller’s hit list. But, as Miller notes, he never took “so much as a nickel” from any of his corrupt cronies.

Despite the author’s depressingly conventional perspective on presidential greatness, Star-Spangled Men is tremendously enjoyable. Miller can turn a memorable phrase: (for example, he writes that Kissinger “looked like a Bronx Butcher and operated with the cynicism of a Renaissance Cardinal”) and has an eye for the kind of detail that makes reading history fun.

Read with the proper attitude, Star-Spangled Men inspires reflection on what we should value in a president.

  • Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute. His research interests include executive power and the role of the presidency, as well as federalism and overcriminalization.