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Trump Comparisons to Johnson, Harding, Grant and Buchanan

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Davis
July 11, 2017

We hear many comparisons between Donald Trump and Reagan and Nixon. Reagan is held out as the ideal conservative and Nixon is held out as the impeached president. This neglects many other presidents who present trenchant comparisons. Lyndon Johnson dominated the scene much as President Trump does now. Warren G. Harding was incompetent, as he admitted to himself in his diary. Ulysses S. Grant fell under the sway of rich New York businessmen, and James Buchanan was the subject of a recent book titled the Worst President Ever.

Reagan promoted a conservative Republican agenda which was more coherent than that of President Trump. While he was often in over his head in the White House and suffered from the early stages of Alzheimer’s, he could take direction. Moreover, he was a professional actor. When his staff wrote a speech for him, he delivered it like a pro. He listened to Mike Deaver and First Lady Nancy.

Nixon wasn’t as horrible as we remember him. If the Watergate burglary had not been discovered, his administration would have been remembered domestically for creating EPA and the Clean Air and Water Acts, encouraging school desegregation and promoting women in sports under Title IX. Internationally he opened relations with China and began detente with the Soviet Union. He ended the War in Vietnam (although not too quickly).

Lyndon Johnson dominated the presidency. He was bigger than life. Recall the photos of him pulling his beagles by their ears. He knew how to get things done in Washington, especially in Congress. He wanted to solve problems like civil rights and health care. Hubris led him astray on the War in Vietnam. Like President Trump, he would humiliate members of his cabinet, especially holdovers from the Kennedy Administration.

Harding was nominated by Republican convention delegates in the Smoke-Filled Room. He was the editor of a small-town newspaper. Harding was corrupt, personally and governmentally. Prohibition regulations provided that liquor could be stored in Treasury Department warehouses and the president would order bottles be sent to the White House for poker parties. Harding’s secretary of the interior illegally transferred petroleum reserves to the Sinclair oil company.NixonCabinet-copy

Grant was oblivious to corruption by his cabinet. He found Washington boring, and grew fond of New York businessmen as friends. His time in office was plagued by scandals like the Whiskey Ring, the Delano Affair and Black Friday.

In his recent book, Robert Strauss makes the case that Buchanan was the worst, inevitably inviting comparisons with Trump. The author blames Buchanan for not abolishing slavery and not preventing the Civil War. That is a tall order. Had the election of 1860 played out a little differently, Stephen Douglas might have been elected and war might have been avoided. Military deaths were 600,000. Among White men, one in ten died, and among slaves, one in four died. Total population was 30 million at the time. The South was devastated for nearly a century and former slaves were not given land or money. Virtually every other country in Europe and South America abolished slavery without a war.

Silvio Berlusconi, a populist who served as prime minister of Italy four times from 1994 to 2013 for a total of nine years, may make a better comparison. He built a fortune, worth seven billion dollars, running a television network. Berlusconi flouted convention, insulting other politicians, allying with the right wing and using his position to help his businesses.


Author: Davis frequently taught a course on the presidency at the University of Toledo. Email him at [email protected].

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