This utterly predictable list challenges no orthodoxies; the American History class you slept through in high school taught you that Buchanan, Harding, and Hoover were three of our most incompetent Chief Executives. But textbook history, so fond of the soundbite and the generalization, gets awfully fuzzy. Sure, Andrew Johnson was a jackass, and was in the singularly unenviable position of succeeding our greatest president and one of our best writers, but my high school teacher said he sucked because he almost got impeached, as if creating this causal relationship was enough. Reality is, of course, more complicated: he was served articles of impeachment for violation of the wholly un-Constitutional Tenure of Office Act (that Andy got hammered on corn whiskey and railed at crowds helped his case not a whit).
* getting us involved in a rather sordid quasi-war with Mexican guerrillas;
* personally assuring that black Republicans were purged from the federal payroll. When challenged about segregation, he wrote, “It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I think if you were hereon the ground you would see, as I seem to see, that it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves.”
* maneuvering, with considerable subtlety, to bring the U.S. into World War I while looking aggrieved. Violating our loudly professed neutrality, we essentially entered the war to assert our right to travel on belligerent ships (i.e. England) and trade with belligerent nations (i.e. England);
* signing the Espionage Act of 1917, which grievously curtailed the reach of the First Amendment during wartime and was a handy precursor to a certain something passed by our current president;
* pointedly refusing to pardon onetime presidential rival Eugene V. Debs, arrested for violating the Espionage Act (and Wilson was not one to ever forget a perceived blow to his divine right);
* the invisible hand behind the priggish, quixotic idealism that’s defined American foreign policy since 1945;
* the Fourteen Points.
The pluses are real too: Federal Trade Commission, Federal Reserve, eight-hour work day, supporting women’s suffrage (after vehemently opposing it). History, unlike politics, resists untoward arbitration.