Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Best Defense ‘worst president’ of the 20th century contest: The readers’ choices are Reagan and Wilson

I was surprised to see Ronald Wilson Reagan and Woodrow Wilson almost tie as the worst presidents of the 20th century. Reagan led most of the week, but Wilson pulled by him yesterday afternoon — only to be edged out in the final tally when I shut down voting at 9 A.M. eastern time this ...

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I was surprised to see Ronald Wilson Reagan and Woodrow Wilson almost tie as the worst presidents of the 20th century. Reagan led most of the week, but Wilson pulled by him yesterday afternoon -- only to be edged out in the final tally when I shut down voting at 9 A.M. eastern time this morning.

I was surprised to see Ronald Wilson Reagan and Woodrow Wilson almost tie as the worst presidents of the 20th century. Reagan led most of the week, but Wilson pulled by him yesterday afternoon — only to be edged out in the final tally when I shut down voting at 9 A.M. eastern time this morning.

I understand Wilson’s showing — both the pacifist left and the non-interventionist right loathe him, as well as many people who simply see him as a racist. But I suspect Reagan’s high score says a lot about the readers of this blog. Based on comments posted on this blog and notes to my blog e-mailbox, you guys really think Reagan was a bad president. I suspect his surprise near-“win” is due in part to a growing distaste with tax-cutting ideologues who seem blithely unaware of the damage they do. Sample comment from Boone, N.C.: “with his half-baked political philosophy, Reagan set this country on its present course to ruin.”

The surprise to me is how even the voting was. After Reagan and Wilson, it basically is close to a scatter-shot tie between the rest — Harding, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon clumped together, followed by Carter and Hoover, who also tied. And old Coolidge brought up the rear with one vote.

I was impressed that one Marine intelligence analyst in Afghanistan took the time to send in an anti-Harding vote. Another military e-mail voted against Richard Nixon, not for the usual reasons of corruption and such, but because, he wrote, “He’s helped the Chinese more than he’s helped Americans. We’re still paying for his foreign policy coup since most of our manufacturing is now over there.”

And you all certainly don’t agree with me about JFK. In fact, there was not a single whole vote for him as worst president of the century, although one person gave him a half vote, and several offered him 2nd place, maybe just to be nice to me. Reading over the discussion and notes, I’ve been persuaded that he was not the worst president of the 20th century, but probably the most over-rated. (Though of course many of you would give that title to Reagan.)

I’m also surprised that Lyndon Johnson didn’t get more votes. And apparently people have forgiven Bill Clinton his inability keep all his body parts inside his clothing — not a single person named him, despite the apparent bias against Southern Democrats (Wilson, Carter, Johnson) in the polling. And yes, Wilson was a Southern Democrat. He received one of the most succinct votes: “On any consequentialist reading, whether you are realist or liberal in international relations, the worst American president in the international realm of all time. On civil rights, more retrograde than any American politician since Andrew Johnson.”

Here is the final tally:

1. Ronald Reagan 17.5
2. Woodrow Wilson 17
3. Warren Harding 9
4. Richard Nixon 9
5. Lyndon Johnson 8
6. Herbert Hoover 7
7. Jimmy Carter 7
8. Calvin Coolidge 1
9. JFK .5

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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