I am just old enough to remember when we used to actually celebrate two presidents' birthdays in February - Lincoln's and Washington's. Though neither man was perfect, there could be no real argument that each was deserving of a holiday in his honor. There quite simply would not have been a United States of America without Washington, and there would not be a 50-state union today had not Lincoln refused to yield and held it together through the sheer force of his determination to see that this experiment of "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" did not fail.
Somewhere along the way, though, the decision-makers determined that two presidential holidays in one short month were just too many and so they compromised on a date and combined the two into one. To add insult to injury, they called the holiday Presidents' Day and made it an amalgamation of honor for all presidents.
And yet there are some presidents - several, in fact - who do not deserve this honor, who do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with Washington and Lincoln, much less to share a holiday with them. An interesting article in Salon.com today, written by Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, explores the records of some of the very worst of these and speculates about who deserves the title of "Worst President Ever."
You need to read the entire article, but I can summarize it here by stating that the final argument comes down to James Buchanan and George W. Bush.
Buchanan, the president who immediately preceded Lincoln, was particularly inept at the job and seemed determined not to do anything that might actually steer the country away from the course that was leading it to civil war. In the end, he may not have been able to change the course of history and save the country from that wasteful and terrible war, but it seems that he scarcely tried.
Bush, of course, as we remember only too well, is the president who waged two long and bloody wars simultaneously, one of them totally unnecessary. He wrecked the economy with his disastrous tax cuts for the wealthy and his refusal to ensure adequate oversight of the financial institutions of the country. He did his damnedest to destroy the social safety net and let a major American city drown on his watch. His policies finally led us into the deepest recession since the Great Depression and, at the height of that disaster, he term of office ended, leaving his unfortunate successor to try to pick up the pieces and save the country.
LaFantasie seems to find little to separate these two presidents in their badness, but his conclusion is that simply because a hundred and fifty years have passed and we can see the final result of Buchanan's ineptitude and what it did to the country that we have to give the trophy of true horribleness to him. However, he does offer the caveat that when enough time has passed so that we can see the ultimate results of George W. Bush's willful subjugation of the government to the private profit-motive sector, history may decide to award the trophy to him. Personally, I'm ready to hand it to him right now.