A few days ago, I considered the men who were most qualified, as far as resumes went, to be President. Now it’s time to rank the least qualified.
It’s important to note that this is simply an analysis of their pre-presidential biographies. It’s not meant to serve as a proxy for how they actually served as President. Two of the worst Presidents ever were in the top ten. One of the best ever is in the bottom five.
Because the extremes are more interesting, I’m counting down from the man in the middle.
22. John Tyler
His combination of executive experience, albeit in a weak office, and legislative accomplishments ensure that his qualifications for the presidency were essentially average.
23. Gerald Ford
Due to a quirk of history, Gerald Ford is the only man to ever hold national office without ever winning a statewide election. He rose to the presidency after being appointed Vice-President. Prior to that, he had only won congressional races. However, he had been in the House of Representatives for some time, and was in his fifth term as Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. So his resume was adequate.
24. Andrew Jackson
War hero. Military Governor. Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court. He also had two brief stints in Congress. He was elected to the House in 1796 as Tennessee’s first Congressman, serving for under an year, before he was selected for the Senate, where he served for half an year. He later served for 2 1/2 years in the 1820s, as a national figure and presidential contender. He was one of the first national candidates to have a political machine in place.
25. Rutherford B Hayes
I initially ranked him in the top half, because of his military experience, executive experience and congressional tenure. He was a brevetted major general during the Civil War, City Councilor of Cleveland, Congressman for two half-terms, and two-term Governor of Ohio, although largely hamstrung by the Democratic legislature in his first term.
26. Ulysses S Grant
His record is hard to rank, considering the extremes between his low position before the Civil War, and his distinguished service as one of the most significant Generals in American history.
27. Woodrow Wilson
He was only Governor of New Jersey for two years before he became President. Prior to that, he was President of Princeton for a decade. That counts for something.
28. James Garfield
Before he entered politics, he had a prominent military career as a Brigadier General. In the days of the part-time Congress, he continued his military career as Chief of Staff to Major General William S Rosecrans, and also argued before the Supreme Court as a lawyer. He was a noteworthy orator willing to take stands on controversial issues, speaking in favor of the draft, and voting against paying soldiers.
By 1880, Garfield was a Senator-Elect, Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee and one of the top figures in the Ohio Republican party, when he accidentally won the Republican party’s presidential nomination. He was at the convention advocating for Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman, who would serve in his stead in the Senate. Garfield was dead by October. Sherman would go on to serve three terms in the Senate, before he was selected as Secretary of State. So the future President got the worse end of that deal.
29. Millard Fillmore
Served four terms in Congress, when he finished second in a fight for Speaker. And then he was Comptroller of NY for an year.
30. Jimmy Carter
Served one term as Governor of a state with a fraction of the population of New York or California. Prior to that, he spent four years in the State Senate. Also served for ten years in the Navy, mostly in the nuclear submarine program.
31. Calvin Coolidge
Massachusetts was one of the most populated states (with 18 electoral votes) during his brief tenure as Governor. His earlier duties as Lieutenant Governor were few, although he had held various local positions.
32. Harry Truman
When he was chosen to replace Henry Wallace as FDR’s third Vice-President in 1944, he was a second-term Senator, most notable for the Truman commission exposing waste, fraud and corruption in wartime spending. He was also a political hack, and part of the machine of political boss Tom Pendegast. There were a few mocking references to Truman as “The Senator from Pendegast.” He was the last President to not graduate college.
33. Grover Cleveland
Possibly the fastest rise in American political history, as he went from Sheriff of Buffalo to President in the span of three years, two months and three days. He was Governor of the most populated state in the Union, although that lasted for just two years, as it made him the obvious Democratic nominee in 1884.
He was the only Democrat elected President in the fifty years after Lincoln’s election kicked off a period of Republican dominance. The Democratic party’s nominees did not tend to have impressive backgrounds, as the spate included a Civil War General fired by Abraham Lincoln for incompetence, the founder of the New York Tribune, another second year Governor of New York, a former two-term Nebraska congressman who had lost a close race for the Senate (they nominated this guy three times) and the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals.
As the only President to serve non-consecutive terms, he was pretty damn qualified for the office when he won as a former Prez.
34. John F Kennedy
He spent six years as a generic congressman, and eight years as a generic senator, often absent due to illness. His book Profiles in Courage won a Pulitzer, although much of the credit goes to his speechwriter Theodore Sorenson.
35. Benjamin Harrison
The grandson of a William Henry Harrison, he was a top lawyer and a one-term Senator. He had also sought the Indiana governorship twice, and lost both times. He was unsuccessful in his first bid for Senate, and was also kicked out after his first term ended, when the Democrats regained control of the Indiana legislature. So, by the time he was a presidential nominee, he had lost four of his attempts at political office.
36. Warren G Harding
An unremarkable first-term Senator who became the Republican nominee in 1920 as a compromise choice in the tenth ballot of a deadlocked convention. Prior to that, he had several failed gubernatorial bids, and a stint as Lieutenant Governor. He had also been publisher of The Marion Daily Star.
37. Zachary Taylor
He was an accomplished General in a minor war. Taylor had a long tenure in the military with service in many notable crises, earning fame during the Mexican-American War. His service was not as impressive as that of Washington, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Grant or Eisenhower.
38. Bill Clinton
Because Arkansas Governors served two year terms, and Bill Clinton was in the office for a fairly lengthy time, he does have the distinction of winning more statewide elections than any President. He was also the only small state Governor to ever become President, remarkable considering the advantage candidates from larger states have in national elections.
39. Franklin Pierce
A generic Senator who had been out of office for a decade when he became President. During the interim, he served as US Attorney for two years and a Colonel in the Mexican-American war.
40. George W Bush
He served six years as a Big-State Governor, and that’s usually beneficial. But Texas has a weak executive, with much of the power in the hands of the Lieutenant Governor and the state legislature. Before he was Governor of Texas, his major accomplishment was owning the Texas Rangers, a figurehead post he got because his dad was President.
41. Barack Obama
He was not elected to the White House because of his resume. An unaccomplished state senator who then spent four years as a part-time Senator, devoting much of his energy to a 2006 book tour and a successful but lengthy presidential campaign. As a Senior Lecturer on Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School, his academic credentials are impressive.
42. Abraham Lincoln
In 1860, his qualifications were one term in Congress, an unremarkable stint in the Illinois House of Representatives, and a strong but ultimately unsuccessful Senate campaign. He became President mostly because he agreed with the party orthodoxy more than William H. Seward.
43. Chester Arthur
He was asked to be Vice-President because Levi Morton, a first-term Congressman from New York, turned it down. Morton subsequently went on to become Minister to France and Governor of New York, so by the time he was Benjamin Harrison’s running mate in 1888, he was qualified for the job.
Arthur may possibly be the least qualified man to ever become Vice-President, as a political hack who supported Ulysses S Grant in the 1880 Republican primary, which made him useful as a unity choice, in addition to his friendship with Roscoe Conkling, head of the New York machine. His top post has been Collector of the Port of New York, a patronage post he held before he got fired by Rutherford B Hayes. One reason he was made Veep was that James Garfield hoped he would be able to choose one less Grant man for the cabinet. And the cabinet posts were what mattered.
Garfield was later assassinated by someone who wanted Chester Arthur to be President. President Arthur, mockingly referred to as “His Ascendancy” because of the way he rose to the position, served honorably in the office.