Send this article to a friend:


Who Is the WOAT (worst of all time) President?
Tom Raabe

A survey for your Presidents Day amusement.

I don’t know about you, but I’m all worn out with this GOAT thing. Every category has a greatest of all time. And while it makes for pregnant discussion, it does get a little exhausting arguing whether Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the GOAT of pro basketball. Whether Tom Brady earns such a monicker, or if the designation should go to Joe Montana or, now, after his Super Bowl LVIII triumph, Patrick Mahomes. And then, a couple of weeks ago, two GOAT football coaches left their jobs on the same day, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick — one voluntarily, the other not — and everything in the media was GOAT, GOAT, GOAT — all GOAT all the time.

As I said … exhausting. 

I think it’s time to give a different category a little exposure — the WOAT (worst of all time).

This is a more restrictive discussion, because we must choose a category in which participants are limited. You could not really acclaim any single major league baseball player as the worst of all time because the pool of qualified candidates numbers in the thousands. You might get away with designating the worst NFL quarterback of all time, but even then, the contenders are legion, some of whom are unknown even to the cognoscenti. For every Ryan Leaf, there might be a truly el-stinko backup QB for the 1947 Chicago Cardinals whose name everybody has forgotten.

No, the category has to be pretty narrow. The Supreme Court might be fertile ground, as the number of justices is limited, but apart from legal scholars, who can name any justices from, say, the 1870s? Vice presidents? Possibly, but it’s difficult to tell which is good or bad, much less the worst, as they don’t do anything to begin with. And besides, it’s impossible to totally obliterate recency bias in that contest (Kamala would win in a landslide). Senators? You’d have a 500-way tie for first place.

On this Presidents Day weekend, as we honor our chief executives of past and present, the only category that makes sense is president of the United States. There are, after all, only 45 of them.

We can eliminate certain presidents who so briefly held office as to be more forgettable than awful. Zachary Taylor was in office for a mere year and a half, which was a lifetime compared to the tenures of William Henry Harrison (he delivered the longest inaugural address in history, only to serve the shortest period of time in office, 31 days) and James Garfield (199 days).

So, the rule is that they must have served one full term to be WOAT-eligible. That eliminates a number of attractive candidates, like Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, and John Tyler. It also technically cuts out Andrew Johnson, but he accomplished so much bad in his less-than-one full term that we’re allowing his inclusion.

While it would be plausible simply to list the presidents serving in near proximity to the Civil War and leave it at that, a more expansive and nuanced view of the office is required.

And while he will probably blow away the field once he’s eligible, it seems unfair to include in the list the current president. He has nine months to pad his resumé — and his lead in WOAT-ness — but, as a work in progress, or regress, he gets a pass.

With that in mind, we turn to the nominees:

  • Franklin Pierce: One of a number of pre–Civil War compromisers, Pierce was passionate about adding new slave states to the Union and also signed into law the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which allowed residents of new states to decide whether to allow slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Act. Although from New Hampshire, he was a Jackson Democrat who even proposed at one point annexing Cuba as another slave state. Even while enlisting a pretty good author to write his campaign bio — his buddy Nathaniel Hawthorne — he failed to be renominated by his party for the 1856 race.

  • Jimmy Carter: It says something about one’s presidency when one is called the best ex-president of history. From killer rabbits to Billy Beer, from his “crisis in confidence” speech — known as the malaise speech — to the Iran embassy crisis and the aborted desert rescue, the presidency of the man from Plains was marked with risibility and retreat.

  • Andrew Johnson: On the plus side, while president, the Tennessean did resist fellow Southerners who tried to undo the results of the Civil War. Also, after leaving office, Johnson broke the political mold by showing humility and returning to public life in a lesser capacity (like John Quincy Adams) by serving in the U.S. Senate. But he was a political oaf and made numerous tone-deaf mistakes, showing indifference to the plight of newly emancipated blacks to the point of opposing the 14th Amendment. Plus, he was impeached — which is, contrary to some current spin, still a bad thing — and survived removal by all of one vote. Seems to have been not very popular with his peers.

  • Lyndon B. Johnson: Another of the Johnson boys, Lyndon did as much damage internationally as he did domestically. Ike gave us steadiness; JFK gave us Camelot; LBJ ratcheted up Vietnam to its height. As Bill Murray said in Stripes, when it comes to war, we’re 10 and one, and LBJ is pretty much responsible for the one. He also followed up the New Deal with the Great Society, which nobody thinks is so great anymore.

  • James Buchanan: History has not been kind to James Buchanan, as close to a consensus No. 1 pick as you can get. Think of him as a gopher ball served up to Abraham Lincoln; he is the Ray McLean to Lincoln’s Vince Lombardi, the Mike Shula to Lincoln’s Nick Saban. Even before becoming president in 1856, he was a tergiversator with no equal, supporting measures that perpetuated North–South division, like the Kansas–Nebraska Act, and, in his inaugural address, encouraging the Dred Scott decision. Once in office, his hands went perpetually numb from his sitting on them.

  • Barack Obama: No such list would be complete without the president who vowed to “fundamentally change America” even though most of America pretty much liked America the way it was. As an African American, he also had the opportunity to heal — or at least radically improve — race relations in America but opted to play the same old racial grievance game.





Tom Raabe is a writer and editor living in Tempe, Arizona.

Send this article to a friend: