Just call him Calamity James.
Ideally, American presidents would follow their own version of the golden rule of campsite etiquette: Leave the country better off than when you found it. Then there's James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States. To his successor, one Abraham Lincoln, he passed on a divided nation on the brink of a bloody civil war.
Buchanan's defenders might argue that the US was hurtling toward disaster no matter who was in charge. Historians, however, generally agree that the bachelor from Pennsylvania was the most inept president ever. But they haven't devoted much time to explaining exactly why he deserves an even lower reputation than his fellow bottom dwellers in the rankings like the scandal-ridden Warren Harding, the fire-starting Franklin Pierce, and the vindictive Andrew Johnson.
This is where New Jersey journalist Robert Strauss comes in. In his new book Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, Strauss digs deep into the life and times of a man whose record of influential incompetence will be tough for any chief executive to ever beat.
"We can learn from failure just as much as we can learn from success," says Strauss, who spoke to the Monitor about the roots of Buchanan's failures, the bachelor president's surprising love life, and one of the most ill-timed letters in the history of American politics.
Q: Can’t you let this poor, terrible, very awful president rest in peace?
No. For the book, my elevator pitch was this: Half of America thinks Barack Obama is the worst president ever, and half think George W. Bush is the worst president. But neither started the Civil War.
Given the circumstances, Buchanan made every bad choice he could.
Q: We’ve heard about how Hillary Clinton is supposedly the most qualified presidential candidate ever, but it sounds like Buchanan has her beat. What had he done before being elected president in 1856?
He served in six different posts. He was ambassador to Britain and to Russia, he was secretary of state, he was in the state house in Pennsylvania, and he was in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. Both Presidents Polk and Taylor apparently offered to nominate him to the Supreme Court, and he tried to run for president several times.
Q: That's quite a record of government service. How did he end up being so lousy?
He was never the head of anything, unless you count being secretary of state, but the office was somewhat different then. His great skill was being a conciliator, making things move along in a slow, deliberative fashion. He was someone who’d be good as a diplomat or a state legislator. But then he gets to be president, and he has no history of being decisive about anything.
He’s also a waffler. As secretary of state, he goes back and forth on Texas and Oregon: "What are we going to do? Let’s do this." President Polk says yes, and then he wants to do something else.
Q: How does being indecisive hurt him in the White House?
He continues to waffle during his presidency, especially on Kansas, a territory on the way to becoming a state. There is a crisis when two entities start capitals, one pro-slavery, one anti-slavery. He can't decide how to solve this, which causes a mini-civil war in Kansas. He really blew that.
Even worse is the Dred Scott decision.
Q: That's the Supreme Court decision that inflames tensions between the North and South by seeming to declare that slavery could be legal anywhere in the nation. How does Buchanan look at the case?
He thinks he has a mandate to solve the slavery problem by influencing the decision. He’s directly responsible for this being a larger case instead of being solved in a smaller fashion. His judgement is just so poor.
Q: What does he do – or not do – when states in the South start to leave the union under his watch?
His interpretation of the Constitution is this: Do nothing. The Constitution says they can’t secede, but I as the president can’t do anything about it.
Q: Do you think he was a bad person?
One of his great qualities that everybody counted on was that he never bad-mouthed his rivals. He was a nice guy, and that was one of his problems.
You may know someone who’s great but shouldn’t be president. It's like my friend Gary, whom I love. But I wouldn't want him to play second base for the Phillies.
Q: Buchanan is perhaps best known as our only bachelor president. But it wasn't for lack of trying to find female companionship. You write about a romance in his youth that ends tragically when the young woman dies, possibly of suicide. What do we know about that?
She's distraught over an incident when she thought he was two-timing her. He’s busy and doesn’t know what to do, so he tries to lay low. It doesn’t sound like anything different from college kids today.
Q: He's devastated when she dies, right?
He’s pretty distraught. But her parents don’t like him and don’t let him come to the funeral.
Q: There are rumors that Buchanan was gay, and President Andrew Jackson reportedly referred to him and his housemate – a senator – as "Miss Fancy" and "Aunt Fancy." What do you think?
There’s no real evidence. There’s that one quote from Andrew Jackson, but Jackson hated him. Also, people tried to set up Buchanan all the time.
Q: You uncovered some remarkable cluelessness by Buchanan in a letter he wrote. What did you find?
I found a letter that he wrote directly to Lincoln that shows his obliviousness.
He writes that he left a few books in the White House, and he wants them back.
The Civil War has started. And the day he wrote it, one of Lincoln's best friends, a senator from Oregon, dies in battle 30 miles from the White House, becoming the only sitting congressman to ever die in battle.
You think: "Today? You really need them today?" I think you ought to wait for your books. But he was living his life and not worrying about other people’s lives.
Q: What can we take from Buchanan's terrible term?
We can learn from failure just as much as we can learn from success. You can study and not be James Buchanan.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.