By Joe Sterling
In the midst of a presidential election featuring two of the least liked major-party nominees in history, former newspaperman Robert Strauss has delivered some historical perspective with his new book, “Worst. President. Ever.”
Strauss will talk about the book and the president he identifies as the worst, James Buchanan (elected in 1856), in a free appearance at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the Carter Presidential Library, 441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta. In advance of his visit, Strauss answered some questions from the AJT.
AJT: Any major lessons we citizens can learn from the life and the presidency of James Buchanan?
Strauss: It’s what not to do. What you can be is not James Buchanan. If you are a leader, you’ve got to lead. His inaction causes chaos and leads to the Civil War. At every major turn — Dred Scott case, the Panic of 1857, Kansas, secessions, John Brown, Stephen Douglas — he makes the wrong move. You can look at what isn’t successful and cut it out. We can learn from negative history.
AJT: How does the 1856 presidential race compare with this year’s campaign?
Strauss: It was a crazy election, crazier than this one. Three parties. Democrats, Republicans, and the American or Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings’ big platform is anti-immigration. Sound familiar? They don’t want to build a wall, but they hate Catholics. Out of the ashes of the Whig Party is the Republican Party. They nominate a celebrity, a guy named John Fremont. He led all the expeditions with Kit Carson to map the West. He marries Jessie Benton, daughter of the longest-standing senator. She knows he’s done something heroic and re-edits his journals. He’s “the pathfinder” instead of “the apprentice.” The Democrats turn to James Buchanan, a guy who is around a long time. People like him personally. Longest government résumé.
AJT: Does Buchanan share any traits and talents with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?
Strauss: He’s not vile like Trump. He says nothing bad about anybody through his life, at least publicly. I ascribe his great failure to his experience. It was not presidential. Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. Donald Trump ran businesses. Buchanan didn’t run anything and waffled all the time. You cannot waffle all the time and be president.
AJT: What is your standard for ranking presidents?
Strauss: You’ve got to look at them during their term, what was consequential, and then look at the residue of what they did. After Washington, Buchanan was the most consequential American. Without Buchanan there would be no Lincoln.
AJT: Which popular president is overrated?
Strauss: Ronald Reagan. One thing you can attribute to his term is the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I don’t know how much of it was really him. He had some scandals, and his advisers weren’t the greatest. His personality and his forthrightness are what made him.
AJT: Who is underrated?
Strauss: LBJ. He’s definitely a consequential president. He stands up to his enemies. As much as he hated Kennedy, he gets Kennedy’s legislation passed. Johnson’s huge mistake? Vietnam. Ends his presidency. Many major things he did stand: Medicare, civil rights legislation.
AJT: How about Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama? How will they rank 20 years from now?
Strauss: President Obama favorably. Obama will be in the top echelon, in the James Monroe category. From one to 43, Obama will be in the eight-to-12 range. President Bush less unfavorably.
AJT: Who is going to win this November?
Strauss: Clinton. Will be a repeat of the last eight years. The country will be significantly changed in the next four years mostly because liberals will be appointed to the Supreme Court. But this presidency will be just another presidency. The president after this president will be some dynamic person, like Obama, like Reagan. Not like the Bushes.